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Earlier this month, dark money expert Graham Barrow shared posts on X (formerly Twitter) highlighting more than seventy companies which had been registered on Companies House since July this year, using properties on a residential Southend street as their business addresses.
The companies have no online footprint, no physical business premises and an investigation by Byline Times can now reveal them to be part of a network of fake businesses using the lack of UK regulation to engage in global identity theft.
Henry Drive is a small street in Leigh-on-Sea with sixty-nine properties on it. Since July this year, seventeen of those properties have been listed on Companies House as the business address for seventy-six different businesses.
Claiming to be involved in “Retail sale of clothing in specialised stores”, the companies’ directors have correspondence addresses in France, Italy, Georgia, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island and the US. None of the actual property owners on Henry Drive have any connection to these new businesses or their alleged directors.
A search of Companies House equivalents in France, Italy and Georgia, revealed that the correspondence addresses for these businesses have been similarly ‘stolen’. While some of the named directors are the owners of the listed European properties, none have businesses under the names used on Companies House and none have business interests in the UK.
Following a very simple formula, the fake businesses are often named after their director. Many of the director’s names are taken straight from social media and other sources, whilst the addresses are often mangled; e.g listing a Guadeloupe address as being in France or having postcodes and house numbers missing. All of which suggests they have been taken (and misread) from premade lists of scraped data.
A deeper search of the Henry Drive directors on Companies House revealed a network of 155 fake businesses listed at properties in eight separate UK towns. Many of these are interconnected, with directors owning businesses at multiple locations in towns hundreds of miles apart.
Investigating these revealed yet more stolen identities, including that of Kenneth Jahmar Biggs – a US citizen who was in jail on drugs charges when he was listed on Companies House as the director of two businesses in Staffordshire. Other directors were revealed to be named after well-known sportsmen and people who had recently died.
Last year, a BBC investigation highlighted similar practices, noting that those behind the fraudulent companies had used random UK addresses in order to take out business loans and credit cards, leaving families scrambling to prove they were not responsible for paying them off.
Companies House likes to reassure business owners that it takes identity theft seriously, offering a number of solutions to anyone who discovers that a company is using their personal details without their permission. All of which relies upon someone knowing that a business is fraudulently using their identity to begin with. For those who have not randomly thought to check whether anyone on Companies House is misusing their name and address, there is little that can currently be done.
This is not the first time that the inability of Companies House to self-regulate has allowed fraudulent businesses to run riot. In July, Byline Times revealed how similar failings had allowed a member of the far right to set up multiple businesses in the name of legitimate, existing companies before renaming them in line with his fascist beliefs.
To register companies in Italy and France requires a number of official documents and verified ID. As yet the UK requires neither and will only do so after the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill is passed. Earlier this month, the Bill reached its final reading at the House of Lords and should be passed relatively soon.
A Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said:
“The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill will bear down on kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy, strengthening the UK’s reputation as a place where legitimate business can thrive.
“We have worked to develop a comprehensive set of measures to directly strengthen our business environment, support our national security and combat economic crime, whilst delivering a more reliable companies register to underpin business activity.”
The bill also claims that it will give Companies House greater powers to tackle companies using fake addresses but, given the thousands of fraudulent companies currently operating on the site, how this will work in practice remains to be seen.
Graham Barrow was unavailable for comment but gave us permission to quote him from a Radio 4 appearance earlier this week, where he said “It fills me with dismay, the ease with which people can circumvent our company registration rules and, at the moment, it appears to be escalating…In all the times I’ve watched Companies House I’ve never seen anything quite so obvious and egregious….”
Barrow also noted via email that the current format of the fake companies in the Henry Drive network suggests the involvement of organised crime gangs.