Checking in with the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database

ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks Database is now five years old – and contains more data than ever.

Since its launch in 2013, the Offshore Leaks Database has been progressively updated with data from five major investigations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). It now contains information on more than 785,000 offshore companies, foundations and trusts linked to tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions.

To help users better explore this huge trove of corporate data, we’ve pulled together a few hints and tips, based on ICIJ’s years of experience searching through offshore financial information.

But first, a Q&A about the origins of the database, and the successes and challenges along the way with ICIJ’s head of research, Emilia Diaz-Struck.

How did you came to create the Offshore Leaks Database, and what data is included in it?

ICIJ doesn’t divulge raw documents or personal information en masse, but since the first offshore project in 2013, we have thought of ways to share information that’s in the public interest. The real value of the database is that it strips away the secrecy that cloaks companies/trusts incorporated in tax havens. This includes, when it’s available, the names of real owners of these structures. However, we never disclose bank accounts, email exchanges, and financial transactions.

How often do you add data to the database?

After the database was launched in 2013, we have progressively added data to it. Generally with each related investigation we add more data. After the Paradise Papers we added another 290,000 companies – more than any other project. There are now more than 785,000 trusts, companies or funds, and more than 720,000 officers listed in the database.

What examples of its use outside ICIJ stand out? Are journalists still using it?

Since the launch, we’ve been approached by journalists interested in the documents and stories linked to this data. A really good recent example was the Chicago Tribune’s J.B. Pritzker investigation. After the journalists found companies linked to the Illinois governor hopeful in the database, they reached out to ICIJ and requested access to documents relevant to their investigation.

Essentially, our database helped debunk claims by Pritzker: he said the offshore trusts linked to him were set up in the 1960s by his grandfather, and the money went to his charitable foundation. But The Tribune’s investigation found several offshore shell companies created between 2008 and 2011 that were owned by J.B. Pritzker himself, his brother and business partner, or other close associate.

This is just one example of how the data is still being used; ICIJ’s members and partners across the world continue to sift through the information and produce stories. And it’s not just journalists using the database – the audience includes investigators, compliance officers, and general citizens who search for a variety of things. We always welcome tips and encourage people to tell us what they find.

What have the biggest challenges been in creating the database?

One of the biggest challenges came from integrating data from a range of sources. The first batch of data was not originally in a database format, so we had to extract information from the documents and structure the data in a way that we could add it. Each time we add new data to the database, we face new challenges as we need to integrate and connect everything. The latest additions from the Paradise Papers, for example, came from the offshore law firm Appleby and a range of secrecy jurisdictions.

We are also looking for new ways to add storytelling features to the database to provide context and help guide users through the data. For example, we linked the database to our Power Players interactive that profiles some leaders and politicians found across the datasets. This allows users to quickly see the connections of these prominent characters.

The hints and tips below are based on articles written by Cecile S. Gallego, originally published here, here, and here.

How to search the Offshore Leaks Database by location

One way to explore the more than 785,000 entities is to use the jurisdictions and countries associated to these companies and their officers.

1. Find out who is connected to your country

A good way to start is by searching for directors and shareholders of offshore companies who are connected to your country.

To do that, simply select a country in the right-hand menu and hit ‘Search’. (Circled in the image here.)

The result page will list all entities, addresses and officers connected to this specific country. You can then explore each of those by clicking on highlighted results, which will take you to a visualization detailing the connection between an entity, its address and its shareholders or directors.

2. Focus on a specific tax haven

Another option is to focus on a specific jurisdiction. Let’s say you are doing research on Malta, a tiny island the EU that was used by the Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira to transfer more than $30 million of music rights, according to Spanish paper El Confidencial.

First, select “Search by jurisdiction”.

Then select “Malta” from the dropdown box on the right (the jurisdictions are ordered alphabetically).

3. Research addresses you found in other documents

Finally, contrary to a lot of corporate registries, the Offshore Leaks Database is searchable by addresses. This means that you could search for an interesting address you have found in your research and find out who used it to register an offshore company.

Type the address in the search bar and hit search.

Then, select the “Addresses” tab in the search results.

How to explore networks and entity metadata in the Offshore Leaks Database

The Offshore Leaks database displays networks of entities and individuals that can be challenging to navigate. Here are a few tips on how to make sense of those networks and all the information you can get out of the data we have made public.

1. Who are the intermediaries?

Offshore transactions involve:

  1. an individual who had money
  2. an entity that will be used to hide this money
  3. an intermediary that will oftentimes register that entity in the secrecy jurisdiction. These could be law firms or banks, or other companies.

When you search for any keyword you will be able to access the intermediaries connected to that key word by simply clicking on the ‘Intermediaries’ tab. When you explore an entity you will often find the connected intermediary (look for the icon on the right). 

Double clicking on this icon will enable you to find all the other entities connected to this intermediary. You can also click on the name of the intermediary listed under the graph.

2. Explore big group of companies

The Offshore Leaks data includes conglomerates of companies connected to each other through a mother company often called a group. Those are referenced as ‘Other’ in the data and be found under the tab with the same name.

You can search for example the company ‘Glencore’ and find a link to ‘Glencore Group’ in the ‘Other’ tab. This will display all the entities connected to that commodities giant accused of having abused loopholes to avoid tax.

The Nike group and WL Ross group, formerly run by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, both investigated as part of the Paradise Papers, can similarly be found under the ‘Other’ tab.

3. Additional information you can get out of the database

Extra information on entities can be found when you highlight the different icons or if you scroll down to the bottom of the page. You will find for example dates of incorporation of entities or dates of appointment of officers.

You can also find out the source of the information, meaning the leak from which the data originated. For each leak, you can see how current the data is. For example data from Appleby is up-to-date until 2014 whereas data from the Bahama Leaks is current through early 2016.

The database allows you to filter the search results for each specific leak through a menu on the right. We created a “same as” relationship to enable data from different leaks to be connected. Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s company, Fleg Trading Limited, is present in both the Panama Papers and the Bahamas Leaks, as you can see on the entity page.

How to investigate companies found in the Offshore Leaks Database

The Offshore Leaks Database is a starting point for investigating activities offshore: in order to to investigate comprehensively you might need to do research outside the database.

ICIJ partners often run matches on the data in order to find interesting leads. For example, crossing a list of EU current and former commissioners with the Bahamas Leaks data led us to the undisclosed Bahamian company of the EU’s former commissioner for competition policy, Neelie Kroes.

1. Download and reference the data

One way to search further is to download the data from the database, then cross-reference it with other data such as the Forbes 500 list or a list of elected officials, using tools such Open Refine or Excel’s Fuzzy Lookup add-on (available only for the Microsoft version of Excel).

This will show you which names appear in both the list you selected and the Offshore Leaks Database. Those tools also compare series of characters to find names that are similar but not exactly the same. It would identify as similar “John Doe,” “John R. Doe” and “Doe, John” for example – a handy feature given names can sometimes be written differently or be misspelled.

2. Check for false positives

This could, of course, lead to false positives, meaning an individual or company with the same name but that is not, after verification, the same company or person. The more common the name – Maria Rivera for example – the more likely it is that the director or shareholder you have spotted is not the person you were looking for.

In order to check those results you can go back to the Offshore Leaks database and search for that name. That way, you will find other companies that person is connected to and also expand the nodes connected to those companies by double clicking on them.

By clicking on this orange “node” you are able to see all of the connections a person has in the data.

Are the other shareholders and directors family members? Can we link them to the person we are searching for using external sources such as news articles or corporate websites?

3. Get more information from company registries

You might also want to use company registries to buy information. The Aruba, Bahamas or Malta registries for example allow you to download basic documentation on companies such as incorporation forms or notices from the registries for a fee. Those documents might give you information that is not available in the Offshore Leaks database, which only makes structured data available.

Happy searching! And don’t forget to tell ICIJ what you find in the data.