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Don’t play the shelf & shell game with fraudsters

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In our world of business challenges with revenues level or trending down and business loans tougher than ever to get, “shelf” and “shell” companies continue to be an easy option for business opportunities.

Shelf companies are defined as corporations formed in a low-tax, low-regulation state in order to be sold off for its excellent credit rating. Click on the internet and you will see a plethora of vendors selling companies in a turn-key business packages. Historically off-the-shelf structures were used to streamline a start-up, where an entrepreneur instantly owns a company that has been in business for several years without debt or liability. However, selling them as a way to get around credit guidelines is new, making them unethical and possibly illegal. Creating companies that impersonate a stable, well established companies in order to deceive creditors or suppliers in another way that criminals are using shelf companies for fraudulent use.

Shell companies are characterized as fictitious entities created for the sole purpose of committing fraud. They often provide a convenient method for money laundering because they are easy and inexpensive to form and operate. These companies typically do not have a physical presence, although some may set up a storefront. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, shell companies may even purchase corporate office “service packages” or “executive meeting suites” in order to appear to have established a more significant local presence. These packages often include a state business license, a local street address, an office that is staffed during business hours, a conference room for initial meetings, a local telephone listing with a receptionist and 24-hour personalized voice mail.

In one recent bust out fraud scenario, a shell company operated out of an office building and signed up for service with a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) provider. While the VoIP provider typically conducts on-site visits to all new accounts, this step was skipped because the account was acquired through a channel partner. During months one and two, the account maintained normal usage patterns and invoices were paid promptly. In month three, the account’s international toll activity spiked, causing the provider to question the unusual account activity. The customer responded with a seemingly legitimate business explanation of activity and offered additional documentation. However, the following month the account contact and business disappeared, leaving the VoIP provider with a substantial five figure loss. A follow-up visit to the business showed a vacant office suite.

While it’s unrealistic to think all shelf and shell companies can be identified, there are some tools that can help you verify businesses, identify repeat offenders, and minimize fraud losses. In the example mention above, post-loss account review through Experian’s BizID identified an obvious address discrepancy – 12 businesses all listed at the same address, suggesting that the perpetrator set up numerous businesses and victimized multiple organizations.  It is possible to avoid being the next victim and refine and revisit your fraud best practices today.

Learn more about Experian BizID and how to protect your business.