Criminals use anonymous shell companies to hide their money.

Anonymous shell companies have been used by fraudsters to steal money from Medicare, international arms dealers to launder money, tax evaders to hide from the IRS and drug cartels to access the American financial system without scrutiny.

They fundamentally undermine the integrity of the tax system and law enforcement’s ability to identify and hold accountable people who commit crimes.

In Maine, we have taken a stand against these anonymous shell companies.

We require corporations and limited-liability companies to file some information about the true owners of the companies. While this is not a perfect standard and can be improved, it helps to create accountability for Maine corporations.

It is more difficult for a fraudster, tax evader or drug dealer to hide money behind a Maine corporation than an innocent-sounding company registered in other places.

While only a couple of states have laws as solid as Maine’s, a few states have made incorporating anonymous shell companies into a cash cow for the state.

Wyoming, Nevada and Delaware collect huge amounts of revenue in fees. Delaware brings in billions of dollars — as much as a third of its total state budget — from incorporation fees. The state requires almost no information be reported about a company’s real owners.

A race to the bottom encourages each of these states to make their corporations ever more shadowy and unaccountable.

Such actions undermines Maine’s own transparency laws. If a criminal, tax evader or corrupt public official wants to hide illicit money, that person can spend as little as five minutes and $100 to create a shell corporation in any number of states.

That company then can open a bank account in Maine and start banking here.

Individuals must show identification just to open a checking account at our local bank, but a shell company can conduct millions of dollars in transactions with absolute anonymity.

Anonymous shell companies do not need to exist. A proposed bipartisan law, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, would fix this problem.

It would require all 50 states to collect information about the real owners of the corporations they form and publish that information in public registries.

The small cost for the states to update their systems is covered in the bill. This funding comes from the departments of Treasury and Justice, which care so much about the law enforcement benefit of the bill that they offered their discretionary asset forfeiture funds to pay for it. It will not increase the deficit one penny.

Our federal government exists in part to solve problems among the states that states can’t solve individually.

We all suffer when anonymous shell corporations defraud federal programs, such as in recent scandals involving the bilking of Medicare and the Pentagon.

As the laws are written now, however, every state has an incentive to do what Delaware does — offer secret incorporation services that bring in fees for the state, while undermine the legal system for the 49 other states.

Only a few states’ coffers can benefit at all from this race to the bottom. The rest of us are left only to face dangers of greater fraud and anonymous criminality.

If Maine has been a victim rather than an enabler of anonymous shell corporations, our state can play an important role in eliminating them.

The bill is now under consideration for a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins is the ranking Republican on that committee. Collins should support the bill, so that Maine’s transparency standards are not undermined by other states.

Nicole Karatzas is a Maine advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), Portland

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