Offshore in central London: the curious case of 29 Harley Street

On a central London street renowned for high-class healthcare sits a property that houses 2,159 companies. Why has this prestigious address been used so many times as a centre for elaborate international fraud?

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No 29 Harley Street does not look like a centre of intricate intercontinental fraud. It is a handsome stone-fronted terraced house, a couple of minutes’ walk from the shops and the tourists of Oxford Street. It is five storeys high, with a bay window on the ground floor, an intricate steel balcony at first-floor level, and a stone balustrade just under the roof. Its front door is dark wood, with brass fittings.

As soon as companies were involved in owning other companies, as well as being their directors and secretaries, it became extremely difficult to discover who really controlled them (ie who was the “beneficial owner”, the person who received any benefit from the company). In February 2004, for example, Formations House created three companies: Corporate Nominees, Legal Nominees, and Professional Nominees. The second company owns the other two, while itself being owned by the first company. The third company is secretary for the other two, while its own secretary is the first company. The second company is director of the other two, while its own director is the first company. These three companies then became directors, secretaries and shareholders of other structures, in an increasingly baffling multidimensional web of crisscrossing lines of control. If you looked for the companies’ real owners, the most you could eventually discover was that the original three all owned, controlled and managed each other.

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