What You Need to Know About Shell Companies and Corruption in the Wake of the Panama Papers

On Sunday, the Internet experienced a meltdown of a different kind. With an unprecedented 2.6 terabytes of data, or 11.5 million confidential documents leaked from a popular Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca --  there is an impressive amount of investigative stories coming out about who's involved and the routes they took to hide money.

Thanks to the excellent work by Süddeutsche Zeitung, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and some 400 journalists at 107 media organizations in more than 80 countries -- people who have previously not been following reports about corruption are now fully aware of it.

Chances are you've seen immense coverage of it everywhere and might be unsure where to start. I'm part of the civil society movement to 'follow the money' and use open data, and investigative journalism/research to bring more transparency to how companies are often used to do illegal activities such as corruption and money laundering. Before I joined OpenCorporates two years ago, I had no experience of working in this transparency space and had to go through a bumpy learning curve before I could start going through regulatory filings to map corporate networks.

Here's my quick guide to what anonymous companies are and what reports you should read as you dive into the Panama Papers stories.

What are anonymous/shell/phantom companies?

Here is my recommended watch list for a simple explanation of how anonymous companies or shell corporations work.

1. ONE Campaign released a video starring Colin Farrell and a zombie explaining what phantom firms are and how they help siphon a trillion dollars every year out of developing countries. Watch the "The Biggest Heist You've Never Heard Of" video here.

2. This TED and Global Witness how anonymous companies are used to cover up crime and corruption. Watch it here.

3. Vox also has a lego version of what's happening in Panama which is worth looking at.

4. Global Witnes has a An Idiot's guide to Money Laundering which gives a quick how-to on the routes money laundering takes.

5. NPR also did a podcast on shell companies which you can listen to.

6. If you're still finding terms that you would like more clarity on, see this glossary by Transparency International.

Reading list: Reports about corruption, money laundering and anonymous companies If you read one thing  --  read the World Bank's groundbreaking "Puppet Masters" report which showed that 70% of grand corruption cases used anonymous companies or phantom firms as vessels to launder money.

If you read two things  --  then the second place you should visit is Global Witness. The investigative reporting NGO has a section dedicated to stories to do with corruption, money laundering, dictators, conflict minerals and much more. Their Great Rip Off map shows how anonymous companies are being abused around the world.

Beneficial Ownership and data: If you're into data and want to see what beneficial ownership would look like as data , read this article by Chris of OpenCorporates -- "Every person's guide to Beneficial Ownership/ company control as data". You might also be interested in the recent announcement of plans to create a Global Register of Beneficial Ownership.

Corruption and Banks: Banks are often party, willingly or unknowingly to the flow of corrupt money. Global Witness has a range of reports and stories on the role banks play in this. You can also see open data was used to map some of the world's largest banks here by OpenCorporates.

Corruption, Money Laundering and Property: Research by Transparency International UK found that 75% of properties in UK whose owners are under investigation for corruption made use of offshore corporate secrecy to hide their identities. Read the "Corruption ON Your Doorstep" report.

Corruption in Sports: Transparency International releases interesting posts and research over here about it. Their FIFA coverage was particularly excellent. Corruption and Development: Read the ONE Campaign's startling "Trillion Dollar Scandal" report about how at least $1 trillion is being taken out of developing countries each year through a web of corrupt activity that involves shady deals for natural resources, the use of anonymous shell companies, money laundering and illegal tax evasion.

Tax Justice: Work done by Tax Justice Network and Oxfam in this report "Ending the era of tax havens: Why UK Government must lead the way" is a must-read. For instance, the report suggested UK's wealthiest are hiding over £170 billion offshore.

Extractives (Oil, mining and gas): Read how OpenOil used open data to map the corporate network of BP and this analysis on how countries can require extractives companies to disclose beneficial ownership by NRGI.

Finding out who is listed in the Panama Papers Wikipedians are constantly updating this list and this would be my first pit stop for every time you want to check who is being implicated.

Discussion If you're ready to go into the world of reddit, go here.

Otherwise  --  check out the live coverage of reactions from leaders curated by Guardian here, and on Twitter here.

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