How to Set Up a Shell Company

“If you’re looking for secrecy, the United States is a far better bet than the classic tropical-island tax haven,” says Jason Sharman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Cambridge. To study the effectiveness of international rules against anonymous, untraceable shell companies, Sharman and two other researchers impersonated 21 different fictitious consultants and sent 7,400 emails to 3,700 so-called corporate service providers (often law or accounting firms) in 182 countries, asking for help setting one up. Nearly half the respondents failed to comply with regulations requiring the collection of identity documents. The conclusion: It is more than three times as hard to put an untraceable shell company in an offshore tax haven than in a developed country. For anonymity, set up your company in Nevada, Delaware or Wyoming; it can be done in 10 to 40 minutes, and for as little as $200.

Going offshore will most likely require you to upload an authorized copy of your passport’s picture page, along with some utility bills and maybe a banking reference. If you incorporate in places still dealing with the aftermath of recent scandals, like the South Pacific islands or Panama, banks in other countries might not let your shell company have an account. “Banks have their own hierarchy of domiciles that they regard as more or less trustworthy,” Sharman says. Wherever you end up, your company will need a name. “Usually, you want the name that’s furthest distant from your own,” he says. Go bland: The idea is to be forgettable.

There are effectively no upper limits on the amount of assets a shell company can hold. “For really rich people, rather than a single shell company, you have interlocking networks where company A owns company B, which owns company C, which owns an art collection or a big mansion,” Sharman says. A shell company isn’t evidence of illegality; limited liability, which the arrangement confers, can be useful to law-abiding people too. “A large majority are used for pretty legal, pretty boring purposes,” he says. Still, such companies are a basic feature of all manner of criminal schemes, including illegal arms trading, money laundering and tax evasion. Anonymity is a kind of legal immunity. “Companies can’t be chucked in jail,” Sharman says.

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