Anonymous company ownership doesn't exactly trip off the tongue does it. Nor is it a phrase that many people have heard of. But it should be. Anonymous company ownership is behind much of what is bad in the world.
It's behind the fraudsters who cheat vulnerable people like the young, the old and the sick out of the resources they need to get by in life. It's behind the tax dodgers who don't pay their fair share towards society. It's behind the dishonest public officials who use their positions for personal gain, and the corrupt multinationals that bribe their way into a lucrative contract. It's behind the people traffickers who condemn people to lives of modern-day slavery. It's even behind the terrorists, drug cartels and mobsters who run criminal enterprises.
All these criminals need to move their dirty profits. They can't move the money in their own name, so they open a company -- a company in which their control and ownership is hidden -- and get the company to move the money instead. A company can open a bank account, it can buy a yacht or a mansion, and it can wire money around the world. And, importantly, it's immensely difficult -- sometimes totally impossible -- to link the company back to the person who really owns it.
In short, wherever there's a crime involving a lot of money, there's a good chance that you'll find an anonymous company lurking somewhere in the background, helping keep the ownership of the loot hidden. Indeed, the OECD, the club of rich countries, has said that "Almost every economic crime involves the misuse of corporate vehicles".
The organization I work for, Global Witness, has been campaigning to end anonymous company ownership. In March this year, our co-founder Charmian Gooch was awarded the $1million TED prize for her work on this campaign.
There have been some successes, particularly the fact that the UK has become the first country in the world to commit to ending this practice. The EU is currently discussing whether or not to require all European companies to have to reveal who's behind them - something that the European Parliament is in favour of. In the U.S., the Obama Administration has committed to push for legislation that would require meaningful disclosure of hidden company owners at the time the company is formed. But the problem won't be fixed until all countries do the same.
Global Witness has just created an online, interactive map of real life examples of anonymous companies and the harm they've caused in order to highlight the global extent of the problem.
The bigger the blue circle, the more real-life stories about anonymous companies in that place. The huge circle in the Caribbean? That's the British Virgin Islands, famed for the secrecy it sells. All those circles over North America? The problem of anonymous company ownership isn't limited to palm-fringed islands; in fact, the United States is the biggest creator of anonymous companies used by the corrupt. You can see from the map that they're pretty popular with other criminals too.
Click on a blue circle to see how anonymous companies from that place have wreaked their havoc. And then read about those cases -- each a story of vulnerable people being ripped off, poor countries and taxpayers being ripped off, democracy and businesses and investors being ripped off.
So far, there are 56 stories on the map, all of them reasons why anonymous company ownership is the biggest problem you've never heard of. If you know of other stories, do contribute them.
Anonymous companies are the global getaway cars for crime, corruption and tax evasion. But they can be stopped by requiring the names of the people who ultimately own and control them to be put in the public domain.