Shell Companies and Money Laundering

Blog / Shell Companies and Money Laundering

Shell companies are corporations created to protect or hide the assets of another company. They only exist on paper and have no physical location, staff, revenue, or significant assets, but they may have bank accounts or investments. While shell companies can be created quickly and affordably in the legal, financial system to raise funds, hold stocks, or serve as limited liability trustees, they are not necessarily illegal. However, they are often used for unlawful purposes, particularly as part of money laundering operations. Shell companies can be established by registered agents in most countries to hide Ultimate Beneficial Ownership (UBO). This means that shell companies can be set up with a level of secrecy and then used to conceal illegal funds, evade sanctions, and circumvent anti-money laundering (AML) measures used by companies to detect suspicious financial activity.

A comprehensive article to know more about UBOs and their relationship with AML.

Shell Companies and Financial Crime

Money Laundering

In 2016, the Panama Papers exposed the widespread use of shell companies for money laundering in different countries worldwide. This practice poses a significant risk to anti-money laundering efforts. The leaked documents revealed that shell companies were created in jurisdictions with loose regulations, including the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. Many of these businesses were linked to influential politicians and their families. As a result of the leak, global tax authorities collected around $500 million and pursued several criminal cases against implicated individuals and companies.

It is estimated that shell company exploitation costs the United States approximately $70 billion annually. Given the severity of this threat to the financial system's integrity, businesses must acknowledge the AML risks associated with shell companies and identify clients attempting to launder money through them. Some red flags to look out for include the secrecy surrounding shell corporations and the purposeful withholding of information by criminals. These are other possible red flag indicators:

  • Difficulties in receiving information regarding the transaction or transfer founders or beneficiaries.
  • A business that engages in transaction activity that is out of line with its business models, such as unusually large transaction volumes or irregular bursts of activity.
  • Payments in which there is no clear or declared purpose or for which there are no recognizable products or services.
  • Several high-value transactions between well-known shell firms.
  • Payments can only be traced back to a contract or an invoice.
  • Transactions involving products and services do not correspond to the businesses sending or receiving them.
  • Transactions involving two different businesses with the same registration address or corporations that disclose their registered agent's address.
  • A single business issuing wire transfers to a disproportionately high number of recipients.
  • Transactions with a large percentage of beneficiaries in high-risk jurisdictions or off-shore financial centers.

Other Financial Crimes

Shell companies can be used for a variety of purposes, including tax evasion, fraud, and terrorist financing. In many cases, these companies are used to hide assets and income from tax authorities or to disguise illegal activities.

One of the most common uses of shell companies is for tax evasion. In many jurisdictions, corporations and individuals are required to pay taxes on their income and assets. However, by setting up a shell company in a jurisdiction with lower tax rates or lax regulations, individuals and corporations can avoid paying taxes on their income and assets. This is often done by transferring funds or assets to the shell company, which then acts as a holding company or investment vehicle.

Another way that shell companies can be used for financial crimes is through fraud. In this case, a shell company may be set up with the purpose of defrauding investors, customers, or other stakeholders. For example, a company may create a shell company to sell fake products or services or to raise funds from investors for a non-existent project. The shell company can then be used to launder the proceeds of the fraud, making it more difficult for law enforcement to trace the funds.

phishing schemes and dishonest tax preparers jeopardize the personal information of countless taxpayers

Shell companies can also be used for terrorist financing. This involves the use of funds from illegal activities, such as drug trafficking or arms dealing, to finance terrorist organizations or activities. By using shell companies to move money around, individuals and groups can avoid detection by law enforcement and financial regulators.

One of the challenges with shell companies is that they can be difficult to trace. Since they often have no physical presence or assets, it can be difficult to determine who owns or controls them. This makes it easier for individuals and corporations to use them for illegal activities.

To combat the use of shell companies for financial crimes, many jurisdictions have implemented regulations requiring greater transparency in corporate ownership. For example, the United States has implemented a requirement that companies registered in the country must disclose their beneficial ownership information to the Department of Treasury. This information is then made available to law enforcement agencies to help detect and prevent financial crimes.

In addition, many international organizations have developed standards and guidelines for combating the use of shell companies for financial crimes. For example, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization that develops policies to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, has developed a set of recommendations for member countries to implement.

Despite these efforts, the use of shell companies for financial crimes continues to be a challenge. As technology and globalization make it easier to move money around the world, individuals and corporations are finding new ways to hide their assets and income from authorities. It will require continued vigilance and cooperation among law enforcement agencies, financial regulators, and international organizations to combat the use of shell companies for financial crimes.

Effective Compliance Methods

To effectively address the AML risk posed by shell companies and comply with domestic legislation and FATF guidelines, firms should focus on implementing risk-based AML procedures. This includes collecting comprehensive information about their clients and conducting thorough risk assessments to determine the level of AML response required.

To evaluate whether clients may be using shell companies to launder money, firms should particularly scrutinize their ultimate beneficial ownership, business connections, and transactional behavior. This information can be obtained from various sources and used to establish links between businesses, verify ownership, and understand transactional processes.

It is important to note that the use of shell companies is tightly regulated or even prohibited in some jurisdictions. For example, the European Union has established beneficial ownership registries to enhance transparency and facilitate the detection of illicit activities involving shell companies.

Firms must understand that noncompliance with AML regulations can lead to hefty fines and irreparable reputational harm. Therefore, having effective risk-based AML procedures in place and regularly reviewing and updating them is essential for businesses dealing with shell companies.

With this in mind, the following elements and measures should be included in an AML program:


  • Customer due diligence: Businesses should do proper customer due diligence (CDD) to confirm their customers' identities. Verifying the beneficial ownership of customer organizations so that their status as shell corporations may be determined should be part of the procedure.


  • Transaction monitoring: The kinds of transactions in which shell businesses participate can be used to identify them. Unusual transaction patterns or transactions involving high-risk jurisdictions might suggest money laundering using a shell business.


  • Sanction scanning: Customers who appear on international sanctions lists may attempt to enter the legal banking system through shell firms. Customers must be screened against applicable international sanctions lists, such as the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Person list maintained by OFAC or the UN's Consolidated List.


  • Adverse media monitoring: Shell company ownership frequently creates negative media attention, which might signal a customer's risk profile shift. As a result, companies should keep an eye out for negative articles in conventional screen and print media, as well as internet sources.


In response to the revelations of the Panama Papers, financial regulators are taking steps to prevent the use of shell companies for money laundering. The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) was established in 2019 in the United States to address the secrecy surrounding shell companies. Under the CTA, companies are required to disclose their ultimate beneficial ownership to FinCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) at the time of formation. Beneficial owners, according to the CTA, are natural people who:


  • Control a corporation or a limited liability company in a significant way 
  • Hold 25% or more of a company's shares.
  • Gain significant financial profits from their company's assets.


Businesses can leverage smart technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to efficiently gather and analyze data, uncovering any misuse of shell companies. These technologies also enable companies to quickly adapt to changes in laws, like the CTA, as well as new criminal methods. Moreover, they automate the compliance process, enhancing speed and efficiency.

Sanction Scanner is a leading provider of AML compliance solutions that can help businesses effectively combat financial crimes associated with shell companies. Our advanced AI-powered software utilizes machine learning algorithms to scan and analyze vast amounts of data in real time, allowing businesses to quickly and accurately identify any suspicious activity linked to shell companies.

Our platform also includes features that help businesses stay up-to-date with changes in regulations, including the CTA and any new criminal methods used by fraudsters. By automating the compliance process, our solution enhances speed and efficiency, allowing businesses to focus on their core operations while maintaining regulatory compliance.

Furthermore, it provides businesses with a range of compliance tools, including AML screening, customer due diligence, transaction monitoring, and sanctions screening. With Sanction Scanner, businesses can reduce the risk of non-compliance, minimize the threat of financial crime, and protect their reputation in the marketplace.

Don't leave your business vulnerable to financial crimes associated with shell companies. Contact Sanction Scanner today to learn more about how our AI-powered compliance solutions can help safeguard your business and ensure regulatory compliance.

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