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UK business registry says ‘yes, chef’ to hundreds of cloned IDs and restaurants

UK business registry says ‘yes, chef’ to hundreds of cloned IDs and restaurants

Take a bunch of celebrity chefs; add biometric technology, bad intentions, a handful of bank accounts, a tablespoon of misspellings and a healthy sprinkling of lax verification safeguards. This is apparently the recipe for an identity cloning scam that has hit high profile chefs in the UK, which the BBC says has enabled fraudsters to siphon money from fake loans and other sources.

Celebrated gourmets Heston Blumenthal and Yotam Ottolenghi are among those who had identities stolen or cloned for malicious purposes.

Over the last six weeks, more than 750 fake firms have registered with Companies House, the UK government’s central business registry. Registration and a small fee allow users to set up clone restaurants, withdraw overdraft money from accounts and place orders that will go unpaid. Verification measures only require the name of one director.

Employees have been registered without their knowing, leading to baffling calls from scammers. In some cases, the names of targeted restaurants were misspelled in their clone registrations; both Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Ottloenghi got extra letters at the end of their surnames.

Alexis Gauthier, a Michelin-starred chef at Gauthier Soho in London, says he was most surprised that fraudsters were able to create a fake company with the same address as his real restaurant. Others are less surprised and accuse Companies House of doing far too little in the matter of identity verification.

Critics call registry’s verification safeguards scandalous

“UK law not allowing Companies House to verify ID of company directors has been bonkers for many years,” says a LinkedIn post Robin Tombs, CEO of Yoti. He echoes sentiments that fraud expert Graham Barrow expressed to the BBC, calling Companies House “not fit for purpose.”

In response to the criminal activity, Companies House is setting up new authorities to address the issue of fraudulent identities, and says via a spokesperson that “in the longer term we will be requiring company directors and people who file information to verify their identity to ensure they are who they say they are.” But the timeline could run to eighteen months, according to Barrow – an aeon in the evolution of the synthetic and AI-driven identity threats that have exploded around the world in half that time.

This is not the first time Companies House has leveraged digital identity. In 2022, it set up the Register of Overseas Entities (ROE), requiring companies to disclose their registrable beneficial owners or managing officers, to try and curb the use of shell companies for economic fraud. Its pledge to incorporate improved intelligence, data science and enforcement methods led to the September 2022 announcement that it was launching a digital identity verification system for those looking to register and operate a business in the UK. 

For his part, Robin Tombs is optimistic that biometrics and digital identity providers such as Yoti can play a key role in mitigating new threats. “As more ID fraud is committed against innocent individuals and businesses, it becomes inevitable that individuals will create and use super secure reusable digital IDs like the free Yoti app,” he writes. “More businesses will accept reusable digital ID providing more utility for more individuals to get their reusable digital ID.”

“The odds may seem stacked against innocent victims today but over the next few years the odds swing strongly against most fraudsters.”

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