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TED prize-winner Charmian Gooch is a speaker at the conference in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak)
TED prize-winner Charmian Gooch is a speaker at the conference in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak)

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One of the most common tools found in every corrupt dictator and fraudster’s toolbox is perfectly legal and simple to use: The anonymous company. Canada is far from exempt: a $30-million U.S. Medicare fraud in Florida in 2012 was facilitated in part by anonymous Canadian companies.

Globe and Mail Update Mar. 20 2014, 12:05 PM EDT

Charmian Gooch’s TED Talk: To stop corruption in business we need to know who’s controlling the companies

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There are hundreds of other examples, but the ones that stand out for me include the British Virgin Islands companies used to conceal true ownership in the sale of cobalt and copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a deception that resulted in citizens losing out on at least $1.3-billion. California and British Virgin Islands companies were also used by the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president to buy a $30-million home in Malibu and a Gulfstream jet – this is a man who was on an official salary of $7,000 a month.

At the organization I co-founded, Global Witness, we focus on resource-rich countries trapped in conflict and poverty. We started on the Thai-Cambodia border gathering evidence to prove that illegal logging was funding the Khmer Rouge. We brought the world’s attention to ‘blood diamonds’ – and now we seek to expose the global networks that fuel corruption and conflict.

While conducting our investigations, we’ve noticed some patterns, especially the use of anonymous companies which are used to enable people to bank dirty money secretly. The World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development say that almost every economic crime and most major corruption cases rely on the use of anonymous companies.

And where are these anonymous companies usually found? Tropical tax havens, you say? Remote African capitals? Think again. The most popular place chosen by the corrupt to incorporate anonymously is the United States, followed by the UK’s overseas territory, the British Virgin Islands. Remarkably, in some U.S. states, you need less identification to set up a company than to get a library card. American anonymous companies have been used by Serbian drug traffickers, arms traffickers in Africa, and Iranian sanctions-busters.

Let me emphasise that the vast majority of businesses are open, honest and haven’t gone out of their way to hide who’s behind them. Putting the names of the people behind companies in the public domain will help such companies know who they’re doing business with, providing the open information that is needed for markets to function well.

It is far too easy to register an anonymous company – either by using a ‘secrecy jurisdiction’, making another company your shareholder, or by using nominees (people who front companies as a service, in place of the true owners or directors). This is all perfectly legal and accepted practice. But their use is a distortion of the original purpose of incorporation, which was created to encourage entrepreneurship, enabling people to invest in a company and, if the company goes bust, to stand to lose only the money that they put in.

A few days ago I was awarded the $1-million TED prize, which is designed to spark global change around a “wish.” The wish I made on behalf of my colleagues at Global Witness and millions of people around the world was to abolish anonymous companies, create public registries of ownership and together launch a new era of openness in business.

This relatively simple change would be hugely helpful for law enforcement, tax collection and the fight against poverty. Estimates of illicit financial flows out of developing countries in 2010 were around $860-billion – ten times what they received in aid. Imagine if that money were available for health, education, jobs and infrastructure.

A public registry would include the names of owners, nationality, date of birth, country of residence and means of contact (which would not be a home address). Those who can demonstrate a genuine security threat would be exempted but this should be the exception, not the rule. Large, well-known companies that use anonymous companies, for example to avoid paying high prices when buying land, might just have to accept a level playing field as the new reality.

We are far from alone in calling for change. Business leaders Mo Ibrahim, Jeff Skoll and many members of the TED community have given us their support. The European Parliament voted last week in favour of setting up public registries of company ownership, and the UK has also committed to do so.

In the United States, bi-partisan bills are before the House and Senate that would change the law, although progress is frustratingly slow. G8 leaders including Prime Minister Stephen Harper have endorsed the need for greater transparency around companies, but he and the G8 need to go further and end anonymous companies altogether.

Making these changes would make no difference to legitimate businesses but make it much harder to conceal the proceeds of crime. Most importantly, it would ensure that millions of the world’s poorest people no longer suffer, and instead actually benefit from, their countries’ natural resources.

Charmian Gooch is co-founder and director of Global Witness, and is winner of the 2014 TED Prize.

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