The hidden beneficiaries of almost 800,000 offshore companies, many used to launder the proceeds of financial crime, evade taxes or disguise the true ownership of property and assets have been revealed via a string of document leaks by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in recent years.
Such leaks highlight the global and industrial scale at which legal entities known as shell companies, registered in offshore havens or in countries with limited controls, are exploited by criminals to make financial transactions that are hidden from the gaze of the international banking network.
It’s therefore vital that financial institutions, large and small, carry out the necessary cross-checking of beneficial ownership information to understand the ultimate ownership of the legal entities they’re entering into business relationships with and the full potential risk exposure and legality of doing so.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently updated its guidance on beneficial ownership – covered in Recommendation 24 – placing an even greater onus on regulated financial institutions and professional services firms to hold accurate and up-to-date information on the true owners of companies.
Identifying beneficial owners or persons of significant control can be a huge challenge for compliance teams, particularly if they lack expert research-curated data sources. Adopting a true risk-based approach is essential to success if firms wish to avoid the significant fines that can come from non-compliance with AML regulations.
A UBO – or Ultimate Beneficial Owner – has come to be defined as the natural person or persons who directly or indirectly owns or controls the corporate entity and benefits from its activities.
AML compliance should focus on those shareholders whose control is significant and who ultimately can influence and benefit from the activities of the enterprise. Frequently, control is exercised remotely, without any involvement in the day-to-day activity of the business.
US, EU and the UK regulators go further, defining an ultimate beneficial owner as someone who owns 25% or more of the share capital with voting rights, although trusts and partnerships work slightly differently. However, beneficial ownership thresholds may differ in other jurisdictions and the cross-checking of ownership information should always be appropriate to the AML regulations of the country in question.
Since 2012, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) stipulates that firms should hold “adequate, accurate and timely beneficial ownership information.” However, in practice this is difficult and firms need a multi-pronged approach, drawing on various sources of information:
This requires regulated banks, other financial institutions and professional services organisations to take a risk-based approach and conduct a thorough risk assessment of the customer, ensuring the firm has a detailed understanding of the business, its activities, its funding, and what money laundering and terrorist financing risk might exist. The Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AMLD) which came into force in the UK in 2020, requires that checks be made using a third-party ‘trusted and independent source’.
Sanctions lists are compilations of sanctions applied to individuals, countries and groups by governments or international bodies such as the European Union. They are an important element of Ultimate Beneficial Ownership screening, as firms can face heavy fines if they do business with an organisation ultimately owned by a sanctioned individual.
Politically exposed persons (PEPs) who control State Owned Entities should also be identified in UBO verification screening as ownership structures are analysed.
A standard search engine will not give you the depth of insight you need to analyse and map the complex company structures synonymous with off-shore and shell companies.
Extensively investigated, high-quality global business data delivered through an integrated RegTech platform is essential to minimise risk. Some RegTech platforms and solutions even allow you to visually map ownership structures.
If cross-checking beneficial ownership information reveals potential high risk exposure, further enhanced due diligence checks are required using an adverse media database.
In extreme cases, an in-depth enhanced due diligence report compiled by expert team of global researchers may be the most time and cost-effective solution.
Trust and partnership structures make it tricky to determine individual shareholding values. However, if a trust forms part of the ownership structure of a business, then it should be treated like any other individual shareholder and each of the trustees and beneficiaries identified and risk assessed accordingly applying the 10-25% thresholds as appropriate. In the case of property trusts, legal ownership and beneficial ownership may be separate people. Applying the RBA means understanding the purpose of the trust, when and where it was formed and identifying grantor, trustees, beneficiaries and other parties.
Other entity ownership structures that require consideration in the UBO calculation including government entities with a financial stake in the business, foundations, funds and partnerships. All require special attention to understand where the ultimate control lies.