Empty Shells

I attended an out of town presentation not too long ago on investment and tax avoidance scams targeting well-to-do retirees. An especially interesting portion of the CFE presenter’s presentation (a recent retiree himself), focused on the use of paper or shell corporations and companies as tools by the perpetrators of such schemes.

Our presenter emphasized that regulators and other law enforcement personnel attempt to identify instances of fraud against retirees and others in order to prosecute the perpetrator and return the fraudulently obtained goods to the victims. However, such frauds tend to be an under-reported crime as victims may be embarrassed that they easily fell prey to the fraudster or may remain connected to the offender because of the engendered trust cultivated. Reluctance to report the crime can stem from a belief that the fraudster will ultimately do the right thing and return any fees or funds. In order to stop such fraud, regulators and law enforcement must be able to detect and identify crime, caution potential investors, and prevent future frauds by taking appropriate legal actions against the perpetrators.

He went on to say that one of the foremost reasons for the existence of the underground economy is to escape taxation, which in some countries can be as high as 51 percent of a person’s nominal income. Swiss bankers have a saying, “There would be no tax havens without tax hells.” As the rate of taxation increases, so does the cost of honesty. The higher the tax burden, the more incentive people have to attempt evading those taxations. Because it is illegal, tax evasion always involves financial secrecy.

Every few years the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) releases its top 12 most blatant tax scams affecting American taxpayers. Over the years the Service has repeatedly warned retirees not to fall for schemes peddled by scammers for the avoidance of taxes featuring the use of dummy corporations (or shells) associated with off-shore accounts in tax havens and emphasizing that there is no secret trick that can eliminate any senior’s tax obligations. Every tax payer should be wary of anyone peddling any of these scams.

The IRS aggressively pursues taxpayers and promoters involved in promoting abusive offshore transactions to wealthy seniors. Such promoters pitch seniors in the use of methods to avoid or evade U.S. income tax by hiding income through shells with accounts in offshore banks, brokerage accounts, or through other entities. Such actively promoted scams feature the use of offshore debit cards, credit cards, wire transfers, foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, and private annuities or life insurance plans. The IRS has also identified the use of shells in abusive offshore schemes including those that involve use of electronic funds transfer and payment systems, offshore business merchant accounts and private banking relationships.

But, as our speaker pointed out, shell companies aren’t just for big and medium-sized tax evaders anymore. They have become the financial and deception vehicle of choice for some of the most corrupt, dangerous and ruthless individuals and entities on the planet. Arms dealers, drug cartels, corrupt politicians, scammers, terrorists and cybercriminals are just a few of the most creative and frequent users of shells.

It’s also important to emphasize that not all shell companies are used for nefarious purposes; assurance professionals and investigators need to be aware that there are legitimate uses for these entities, such as using one as a holding company or creating a shell company (in name) to preserve future business rights or opportunities. Not every shell is involved in a criminal conspiracy, so it’s important to understand why someone might use a shell for criminal purposes.

The primary purpose of the use of a shell in a fraud scheme is like that of the fraud itself: to conceal fraudulent activity. This may include the nature, origin, or destination of misappropriated funds and/or concealment of the true owners and decision-makers of a criminal act or conspiracy.

In many instances, one shell company isn’t enough; fraudsters create networks. Dozens of shells, nominee directors, addresses and fake shareholders might be required to fully conceal a scheme or criminal plot. Big-time criminal conspirators will utilize shell incorporators to do the heavy lifting and help create a corporate web of disguise that can perplex and confuse even the best of investigators.

Shells can come in all different shapes and sizes, and the jurisdiction in which they reside can help further the concealment. Some fraudsters create shell companies for single uses and then discard them. Or they may use them repeatedly and have them change hands multiple times. They also may form what our speaker dubbed shelf companies and not use them for a period of time. A shelf company has a better chance of appearing legitimate and fooling a novice investigator or basic due diligence mechanisms because it appears to have existed longer than it really has. An older shelf could have a creation date predating any specific areas of investigative concern, which would allow it to engage in business activities when it otherwise couldn’t without arousing suspicion.

Given the intent, with a small sum of money, time and patience, fraudsters can set up a very elaborate web of shell companies in little time. But establishing the company name is only the first step in creating a shell network of deception. The company needs nominee directors and shareholders, often illegitimate, to further the concealment.

Scammers use nominee directors, and in some instances, other shell companies, to disguise true owners of entities while giving the appearance of legitimacy. Some nominees simply sell their names to fraudsters who use them on company documents. Others actually provide limited services for the shell companies such as processing corporate records, signing for company documents and forwarding mail. These nominee directors are the linchpins to linking and disguising international criminal organizations and operatives. Their use is so widespread that IRS conducted searches among entities frequently disclose nominee directors crossing paths. Some are even listed as directors for the same shell entities.

So what does our speaker recommend that individual CFEs do if we think that one of our clients may be unwittingly doing business with a nefarious shell?

— A shell company can be set up practically anywhere, but successful incorporators have learned to use particular countries and regions. Advantages can include lack of government enforcement or specific laws protecting corporate secrecy. A good source of a high-risk country list is the U.S. State Department’s annual list of major money-laundering countries.
— Use SWIFT codes – a SWIFT code is a unique identifier that’s associated with particular financial and non-financial institutions around the world. If you can identify the SWIFT code for the financial entities the suspected shell is dealing with, you might consider monitoring for any funds originating from or being disbursed to these banks or check to see if any of your client’s customers/vendors have bank accounts associated with these specific institutions.
–Review all available internal data that contains contact, banking, address and ownership information, such as vendor/customer data, wire transfer data, ship to/ship from locations for sales and purchases, purchase orders and invoice support documentation.

Look for :

• Information that doesn’t make sense given the nature of the business relationship with the entity.
• Entity information mismatch: address, phone, fax, ship to, bank, cell contact, etc. in different geographic locations.
• No discernible online presence when compared to the goods/services and the amount of money changing hands.
• The entity “representative” is associated with numerous other companies.
• Payment is made to or received from an unrelated third party. Review incoming/outgoing wire transfer documents.

Our speaker summarized that involvement with shell companies and those associated with them can be very bad news for any of our client companies. Fraudsters within your client organization might make use of them as vehicles of corruption or asset diversion. External perpetrators can passively use them as money-laundering vehicles against your client organization.

All assurance professionals should attempt to stay current with the latest types of abuse associated with the shell company model, trends in international corruption, fraud and asset diversion, and money laundering. ACFE training is, as usual, an excellent resource to do this. To the extent possible, try to screen information on your client’s customers, vendors and employees on an on-going basis. Cross-reference known bad actors and shell companies in the news against the entities with which your clients are doing business. Contact authorities if you and/or your client determine that it has become the victim of a shell company related scheme.

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