Citizen Investigations
Chapter 6
Finding Out Who Owns Corporations

Researching Corporations and Their Owners

Learning about corporations is one of the toughest challenges for investigators, professional or amateur. Unfortunately, the identity of the real owners may be legally disguised. The good news is that there are many ways to research companies. These include:

  • Free databases
  • Subscription databases 
  • Official records
  • Corporate websites
  • Court records
  • Internet searches

International Free Resources 

A number of nonprofit groups collect the reports that companies must provide to governments. Such official corporate archives are often called “registries.” 

Here are the best compilations:

OpenCorporates is an open data source for information on more than 150 million companies. The information is sourced from national business registries. The database can provide such things as a company’s incorporation date, its registered addresses, and the names of directors and officers. It can show connections between companies. It’s also developing a database of corporate events. 

Investigative Dashboard, sponsored by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, has millions of relevant items from data sources around the world, including many about corporations. Search for documents beginning here (click “search” for advanced search options). Not every database is searchable by the public, but there’s a lot there. 

The Offshore Leaks Database, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), is a database of corporate information based on leaked documents about nearly 785,000 offshore companies and trusts. The database can be searched by names, companies, and addresses connected to offshore entities and country, or by jurisdiction. ICIJ’s archive of stories based on the Panama Papers makes for good reading. Also see Beyond Panama: Unlocking The World’s Secrecy Jurisdictions. See three tips on using the database.

For good background information, the World Bank’s STAR (Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative) includes beneficial ownership guides on 23 countries that show what steps to take to identify beneficial owners and other related parties.

Commercial Sources

There are many private databases about corporations, most of which require a subscription for the best information, but free access may be available through libraries. 

One long-established database is D&B Hoovers. Its free website offers capsule descriptions of thousands of companies based in the US and abroad. More detailed descriptions are available on the subscription service Nexis

Other major subscription vendors include: Arachnys, ORBIS, Bureau van Dijk, Bloomberg, PrivCo (a source for US private company businesses), Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis, and DueDil. For more of a focus on developing countries, see Sayari.

To get some idea of the array of resources, check out library websites of university business schools, such as that of Harvard University Business School.

Official Government Registries

Many governments require corporations to register, but often with minimal and misleading information. To find them, check out:

  • The Commercial-Register is a listing of national registries maintained by Swiss researchers.
  • Another list of registries worldwide is maintained by the UK regulator Companies House.

Links to Resources for Some Large Economies

United States

The Securities and Exchange Commission holds information in its EDGAR system, including mandatory filings. The online system allows you to research a company’s registration statements, prospectuses, and periodic reports, which include financial statements. Start with the annual 10K report, a comprehensive overview of the company’s business and financial condition, including audited financial statements. EDGAR also maintains annual listings of International Registered and Reporting Companies, those foreign-owned firms that are required to file periodic reports in the US.

Many businesses are incorporated in the state of Delaware, so a good place to start is the Delaware Division of Corporations. No data is collected on beneficial owners, however, and “company formation agents” can act as nominee directors. (See a Transparency International description.)

The National Association of Secretaries of State can get you to all state sites (see “online business services” in small print at the bottom after picking a state). There you will find links to places such as the California corporation search and New York’s Corporation and Business Entity Database. 

Look for US government contractors here.

The United Kingdom

Companies House provides some details including:

  • company information, for example registered address and date of incorporation
  • current and resigned officers
  • document images
  • mortgage charge data
  • previous company names
  • insolvency information

Canada

SEDAR is Canada’s site for public company filings, which began in January 1997.

France

Infogreffe provides basic company information free of charge. In French.

Germany

Company Register allows free searches, in multiple languages, but some documents cost money.

China

The “National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System” can be accessed here. Here’s a description of what’s available, by China Checkup. 

Other Sources

Online searches of corporate websites and social media will surface scads of information. Here are a few recurring suggestions from professional researchers:

  • Search for company officials and directors. Check out methods included in Finding Former Employees, a presentation at the 2017 GIJN conference.
  • When looking for media reports, pay attention to the business and specialty press. To find them, try getting access to subscription services like Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory or trade publications.
  • Look up the company address and phone number.
  • Corporate philanthropy may be a backdoor for information. In the US, see CitizenAudit, ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer, and Guidestar. For the UK, see Open Charities and CharityBase.
  • Contact nongovernmental organizations such as groups concerned with pollution or human trafficking to see what information they have. Violation Tracker is a US search engine on corporate misconduct in the US.

More Official Places to Look

Every point of intersection between governments and the commercial sector may generate a public record.

Here are suggestions of where else to look for a company’s interactions with government:

  • Land ownership – Names and descriptions (see related GIJN resources).
  • Land development – Building, zoning, special permits.
  • Environmental regulation – Discharge permits, emissions reports, enforcement actions.
  • Labor regulation – Professional registrations, labor disputes.
  • Court records – Litigation by and against.
  • Financial regulation – Filings or enforcement.
  • Intellectual property – Patents and trademarks registrations.
  • Government contracting –Bids and awards records.
  • Government subsidies – Records of payments.
  • Political donations – Contributions to officials.
  • Lobbying registration – Disclosures about influence.

Thinking in terms of which sector the company operates in may lead to the discovery of pertinent information.

Consider what laws and regulations affect the business and what paperwork is involved. These connections will vary dramatically by locale and the type of business, but may provide leads.

Some official actions, or requests for official action, may be reflected in governmental publications of record. For Europe, checkout Open Gazettes, which makes European gazettes more visible. 

Related GIJN Resources: