The Great Rip-off: Unique campaign roots out transnational corruption

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A screenshot of The Great Rip-off’s interactive map. (Image credit: The Great Rip-off)

Last year, Global Witness launched a new project to help root out transnational corruption: the Great Rip-off website. A longtime advocate for the disclosure of beneficial ownership data — information on who really owns and controls companies — the investigative organization already has a rich history of exposing links between natural resource exploitation, poverty, corruption and human rights abuses. And last year, co-founder Charmian Gooch won the $1 million 2014 TED prize for launching a campaign to end anonymous companies and create a “new era of openness in business.”

In almost every major case investigated by Global Witness, a common element they have found is that the corrupt and other criminals use so-called “anonymous companies” to set up bank accounts and move their money without being detected. Anonymous companies are business entities that are easy to set up, whose real ownership isn’t disclosed and is incredibly difficult to track down and confirm.

According to Global Witness, these companies often work like Russian dolls: A new entity can be found hidden inside each and every other entity, with each layer used to hide or obscure the company’s true owners. Law enforcement agencies often find it difficult or impossible to discover the real owners behind these companies. Not surprisingly, dishonest government officials, money launderers, tax evaders and other bad actors are taking advantage of these opaque structures to open up bank accounts and conduct transactions that help them launder and enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

It is also no surprise that setting up anonymous companies in developed economies can be done with eyes shut. Some states in the U.S. require such little data to be disclosed that registering your business can be completed within an hour. These simplified processes, as well as other legal loopholes, have been constantly abused by the political and economical elite all over the world.

The son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, for instance, siphoned off more than $300 million USD using anonymous companies to buy sports cars and a luxury house in California. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was given jail time in 2006 for laundering tens of millions of Ukrainian taxpayers’ money. Another, even more famous Ukrainian politician, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych — who was ousted by the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 — also may have used a UK-based shell company to profit from the sale of his extravagant palace (which was previously state-owned) without being detected.

Ever since the beginning of its advocacy on beneficial ownership transparency, Global Witness has been developing reports, infographics, short films and interactive maps to highlight such stories, and to raise awareness around the importance of knowing who actually owns and controls the millions of companies that exist throughout the world.

Through their most recent Great Rip-off project, the organization is now attempting to use straightforward visualizations to explain to a wider public how the use of anonymous companies and the abuses they enable operate across countries, and what tricks the owners of these companies use to set up these schemes. The interactive map shows both anonymous companies and their victims, and the website also serves as a database for case stories. Anybody is welcome to contribute to the site, and Global Witness verifies each story before publishing. The site was built with the collaborative network analysis tool, and the underlying data is available in open formats to boost further analysis.

Thanks to the hard work of organizations like Global Witness, corporate transparency is increasingly at the forefront of the global transparency agenda, as more and more people, governments and international entities, realize its relevance to a host of social change efforts. Hopefully, the Great Rip-off campaign will mobilize even more people to take action — and to call on their political and business elite to do the same.