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  • I've come here today

  • to talk to you about a problem.

  • It's a very simple yet devastating problem,

  • one that spans the globe

  • and is affecting all of us.

  • The problem is

  • anonymous companies.

  • It sounds like a really dry and technical thing,

  • doesn't it?

  • But anonymous companies are making it difficult

  • and sometimes impossible

  • to find out

  • the actual human beings responsible

  • sometimes for really terrible crimes.

  • So, why am I here talking to all of you?

  • Well, I guess I am a lifelong troublemaker

  • and when my parents taught my twin brother and I

  • to question authority,

  • I don't think they knew where it might lead.

  • (Laughter)

  • And, they probably really regretted it

  • during my stroppy teenage years when, predictably,

  • I questioned their authority a lot.

  • And a lot of my school teachers

  • didn't appreciate it much either.

  • You see, since the age of about five

  • I've always asked the question, but why?

  • But why does the Earth go around the sun?

  • But why is blood red?

  • But why do I have to go to school?

  • But why do I have to respect the teachers

  • and authority?

  • And little did I realize

  • that this question would become the basis

  • of everything I would do.

  • And so it was

  • in my twenties, a long time ago,

  • that one rainy Sunday afternoon in North London

  • I was sitting with Simon Taylor

  • and Patrick Alley

  • and we were busy stuffing envelopes

  • for a mail out in the office of the campaign group

  • where we worked at the time.

  • And as usual, we were talking about the world's problems.

  • And in particular, we were talking about

  • the civil war in Cambodia.

  • And we had talked about that many, many times before.

  • But then suddenly we stopped

  • and looked at each other

  • and said, but why don't we try and change this?

  • And from that slightly crazy question,

  • over two decades

  • and many campaigns later,

  • including alerting the world

  • to the problem of blood diamonds funding war,

  • from that crazy question,

  • Global Witness is now an 80-strong team

  • of campaigners, investigators, journalists and lawyers.

  • And we're all driven by the same belief,

  • that change really is possible.

  • So, what exactly does Global Witness do?

  • We investigate, we report,

  • to uncover the people really responsible

  • for funding conflict --

  • for stealing millions from citizens around the world,

  • also known as state looting,

  • and for destroying the environment.

  • And then we campaign hard to change the system itself.

  • And we're doing this because so many of the countries

  • rich in natural resources

  • like oil or diamonds or timber

  • are home to some of the poorest

  • and most dispossessed people on the planet.

  • And much of this injustice

  • is made possible

  • by currently accepted business practices.

  • And one of these is anonymous companies.

  • Now we've come up against anonymous companies

  • in lots of our investigations,

  • like in the Democratic Republic of Congo,

  • where we exposed how secretive deals

  • involving anonymous companies

  • had deprived the citizens

  • of one of the poorest countries on the planet

  • of well over a billion dollars.

  • That's twice the country's health and education budget combined.

  • Or in Liberia,

  • where an international predatory logging company

  • used front companies as it attempted to grab

  • a really huge chunk of Liberia's unique forests.

  • Or political corruption in Sarawak, Malaysia,

  • which has led to the destruction of much of its forests.

  • Well, that uses anonymous companies too.

  • We secretly filmed some of the family

  • of the former chief minister and a lawyer

  • as they told our undercover investigator

  • exactly how these dubious deals are done

  • using such companies.

  • And the awful thing is,

  • there are so many other examples out there

  • from all walks of life.

  • This truly is a scandal of epic proportions

  • hidden in plain sight.

  • Whether it's the ruthless Mexican drugs cartel,

  • the Zetas,

  • who use anonymous companies to launder profits

  • while their drugs-related violence

  • is tearing communities apart across the Americas.

  • Or the anonymous company,

  • which bought up Americans' tax debts,

  • piled on the legal fees

  • and then gave homeowners a choice:

  • Pay up or lose your home.

  • Imagine being threatened with losing your home

  • sometimes over a debt of just a few hundred dollars,

  • and not being able to find out

  • who you were really up against.

  • Now anonymous companies

  • are great for sanctions busting too.

  • As the Iranian government found out

  • when, through a series of front companies,

  • it owned a building in the very heart of Manhattan,

  • on Fifth Avenue,

  • despite American sanctions.

  • And Juicy Couture, home of of the velvet track suit,

  • and other companies were the unwitting,

  • unknowing tenants there.

  • There are just so many examples,

  • the horesemeat scandal in Europe,

  • the Italian mafia, they've used these companies

  • for decades.

  • The $100 million American Medicare fraud,

  • the supply of weapons to wars around the world

  • including those

  • in Eastern Europe in the early '90s.

  • Anonymous companies

  • have even come to light

  • in the recent revolution in the Ukraine.

  • But, for every case that we and others expose

  • there are so many more that will remain hidden away

  • because of the current system.

  • And it's just a simple truth

  • that some of the people responsible for outrageous crimes,

  • for stealing from you and me

  • and millions of others,

  • they are remaining faceless

  • and they are escaping accountability

  • and they're doing this with ease,

  • and they're doing it using legal structures.

  • And really, that is unfair.

  • Well, you might well ask,

  • what exactly is an anonymous company,

  • and can I really set one up, and use it,

  • without anyone knowing who I am?

  • Well, the answer is, yes you can.

  • But if you're anything like me,

  • you'll want to see some of that for yourself,

  • so let me show you.

  • Well first you need to work out

  • where you want to set it up.

  • Now, at this point you might be imagining

  • one of those lovely tropical island tax havens

  • but here's the thing,

  • shockingly,

  • my own hometown, London,

  • and indeed the U.K.,

  • is one of the best places in the world

  • to set up an anonymous company.

  • And the other, even better,

  • I'm afraid that's America.

  • Do you know, in some states across America

  • you need less identification

  • to open up a company

  • than you do to get a library card,

  • like Delaware,

  • which is one of the easiest places

  • in the world to set up an anonymous company.

  • Okay, so let's say it's America,

  • and let's say it's Delaware,

  • and now you can simply go online

  • and find yourself a company service provider.

  • These are the companies that can set your one up for you,

  • and remember, it's all legal, routine business practice.

  • So, here's one,

  • but there are plenty of others to choose from.

  • And having made your choice,

  • you then pick what type of company you want

  • and then fill in a contact, name and address.

  • But don't worry,

  • it doesn't have to be your name.

  • It can be your lawyer's

  • or your service provider's,

  • and it's not for the public record anyway.

  • And then you add the owner of the company.

  • Now this is the key part,

  • and again it doesn't have to be you,

  • because you can get creative,

  • because there is a whole universe out there of nominees

  • to choose from.

  • And nominees are the people that you

  • can legally pay to be your company's owner.

  • And if you don't want to involve anyone else,

  • it doesn't even have to be an actual human being.

  • It could be another company.

  • And then finally,

  • give your company a name

  • add a few more details and make your payment.

  • And then the service provider

  • will take a few hours or more to process it.

  • But there you are,

  • in 10 minutes of online shopping

  • you can create yourself an anonymous company.

  • And not only is it easy,

  • really, really easy and cheap,

  • it's totally legal too.

  • But the fun doesn't have to end there,

  • maybe you want to be even more anonymous.

  • Well, that's no problem either.

  • You can simply keep adding layers,

  • companies owned by companies.

  • You can have hundreds of layers

  • with hundreds of companies spread across

  • lots of different countries,

  • like a giant web,

  • each layer adds anonymity.

  • Each layer makes it more difficult

  • for law enforcement and others

  • to find out who the real owner is.

  • But whose interests is this all serving?

  • It might be in the interests of the company

  • or a particular individual,

  • but what about all of us, the public?

  • There hasn't even been a global conversation yet

  • about whether it's okay

  • to misuse companies in this way.

  • And what does it all mean for us?

  • Well, an example that really haunts me

  • is one I came across recently.

  • And it's that of a horrific fire

  • in a nightclub in Buenos Aires

  • about a decade ago.

  • It was the night before New Year's Eve.

  • Three thousand very happy revelers,

  • many of them teenagers,

  • were crammed into a space meant for 1,000.

  • And then tragedy struck,

  • a fire broke out

  • plastic decorations were melting from the ceiling

  • and toxic smoke filled the club.

  • So people tried to escape

  • only to find that some of the fire doors

  • had been chained shut.

  • Over 200 people died.

  • Seven hundred were injured trying to get out.

  • And as the victims' families and the city and the country

  • reeled in shock,

  • investigators tried to find out who was responsible.