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Trevor Cole in the British Virgin Islands.
Trevor Cole in the British Virgin Islands.

How I learned to avoid the taxman in the British Virgin Islands Add to ...

James and Mike both recommended that I get tax advice from my accountant before going further. (My accountant had already told me that if I wanted to form one of these companies, he'd recommend I start working with another accountant.) And they would need my passport and other details, such as a utility bill to prove my residency, to meet the government's "Know Your Client" requirements. A few minutes later, when James had left, Mike took me through the application and fee schedule. "Once we are the legal owners of the trust and the trust's assets, that's where the confidentiality is working at its best," he assured me. "If somebody comes knocking on the door saying, 'Are you looking after Mr. Trevor Cole? We want to find out this, that and the other,' we'll just go"-he shrugged-"Sorry."

A lot of people, he added, like to list their tax adviser as the point of contact on certain documents. "It's just more murkiness for people to get through." And if I was willing to provide more information on the nature of my assets and the purpose of my company, there was always the option of paying their firm to act as the director of my company. "It removes you further from the scene of the crime, if you like."

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Over the next two days, I met with three other firms. In the blue-stuccoed Akara Building, above a small photography studio and an office for the BVI Tourist Board and Film Commission, I found the Panamanian trust company Mossack Fonseca. There was no elevator to take me to the third floor, just a narrow, dimly lit staircase with steps covered in chipped tiles, and the office at the top of the stairs was more humble than Tortola Trust's. There I met with two women-Daphne, from the island of Dominica, and an older woman named Rosemary, who was the managing director.

Throughout our meeting, Rosemary eyed me with some suspicion, but tried to accommodate my concerns about keeping my identity secret. "I understand what you're asking," she said. "You want confidentiality. You want to be anonymous. You don't want anybody to know that you are behind the company. And that can be done. Lots of big corporations and lots of individuals do it." But when I brought up the topic of layering, she became adamant. "You should not even be talking to us about layering."

Why was that?

"Because it is a no-no," said Rosemary. "It's illegal. Layering is illegal." What I could do was tell them I wanted to set up a few companies. I could tell them the structure I wanted. I could even ask for their help setting up a structure for, say, inheritance purposes. "But not layering purposes," she insisted.

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After lunch-and a chat with a nice New Zealander named Steve, who was in Tortola shopping for a yacht-I entered the offices of the AMS Group, with branches in Hong Kong, London and Nevis. Here in the BVI, they're located in Sea Meadow House, a two-tone building a short distance from the centre of Road Town. My contact was Nicholas, an affable Brit, reminiscent of a young John Hurt, who showed me into a spacious and well-furnished boardroom.

This time I refused to divulge the source of the money I was getting, or what I wanted to do with it. Nicholas took it in stride, wanting only assurances, for now, that the money was from something "legitimate." He explained that half the firm's business comes from Asia, and they never see the end client. They work mostly with "introducers"-legal or accountancy firms that do all the due diligence work in their own locality and that might order up 10 companies by e-mail and get them that day because there was no onus on AMS to gather any information on the client. But that information had to reside somewhere.

"It's not like the good old days," said Nicholas, a little wistfully. Once, a BVI company was like a packet of biscuits. "It would be sold on and sold on and sold on. And no one knew who on Earth ended up holding the packet of biscuits."

When I brought up the notion of a nominee director, Nicholas admitted that some firms in the BVI offered that service-a few hundred dollars a year might get me a resident of Nevis who would act as a director with a rubber stamp to sign documents. But then he told me something surprising: If there was ever any trouble, my director would run away and my name would show up in court after all. "If you are a nominee director and you're getting paid $300 a year, you are not going to risk your neck for the person you are protecting," he said. "You send in your resignation letter, and then all gets revealed."

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