On December 11, 2009, a former Soviet air force transport plane flying from North Korea to Iran stopped to refuel in Bangkok. The flight listed its cargo as spare parts for oil-drilling equipment. Instead police found 30 tonnes of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles, all being transported in breach of United Nations sanctions.
Three months later in a Miami courtroom, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed the country's largest money-laundering scheme involving billions of dollars from Mexican drug lords.
Then, last April, documents emerged in London concerning Russia's largest tax fraud, an alleged $230 million heist that led to the untimely deaths of four people and threatens to damage the Russian government.
The story behind the three events is many degrees stranger than fiction, but it includes one common element – a number of shell companies associated with 68-year-old Queensland businessman Geoffrey Taylor or members of his family.
Shell companies – that is, corporations with no apparent operations, no apparent employees and no apparent physical assets – are used by those who register them for a range of nefarious activities around the world.
Thanks to loose laws of incorporation in many jurisdictions, it's easy for offenders to remain anonymous. And the entities can often be formed in less than 24 hours using online facilities. It is not just criminals that take advantage. The Tax Justice Network, an international group of individuals opposed to tax havens, estimates that about $11.5 trillion worth of assets are held offshore and are therefore beyond the reach of effective policing. It claims this represents about a third of total global wealth.