By Tom Bergin
LONDON (Reuters) - British shell companies have been linked to 52 money laundering scandals involving 80 billion pounds ($105 billion) in the past 14 years, according to researchers at campaign group Transparency International.
Tax evasion and financial crime has shot to the top of the international agenda in recent days following reports based on leaked documents from Appleby, a prominent offshore law firm founded in Bermuda.
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But the report from Transparency International’s UK arm said it’s not just Caribbean islands that are used to hide illicit money flows and that Britain was a key link in many of the largest corruption scandals of recent years.
Fraudsters in eastern Europe and elsewhere often channel money through UK-registered entities because they appear to many people as more legitimate than tax haven-registered companies, the non-governmental body said.
The UK Treasury declined immediate comment on the report. Britain says it is doing more than most countries to tackle illicit money flows.
It is the only country to have introduced a functioning, publicly-available register of true beneficial owners of companies.
However, the system is poorly policed. Companies House, the body which overseas British corporate records, does not have the resources to verify the information submitted to it.
Also, successive British governments have sought to make it easy to register companies, for example allowing people to do so online and without verifying their identification, in the hope this spurs entrepreneurship.
This has led to a small industry of formation agents establishing blocks of companies and partnerships which they then make available to overseas parties.
Transparency International found that around half of the 766 companies alleged to have been involved in money laundering schemes were based at just eight UK addresses.
"Financially these scandals could amount to 80 billion pounds or more in illicit wealth, with some of them threatening the financial stability of whole economies. The human damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes is still being counted," the report said.
($1 = 0.7631 pounds)
(Reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Adrian Croft)