Following the publication of our story about Ali Moulaye and the Ghost Companies – featuring the eponymous Mr Moulaye – I thought I’d write about the extraordinary journey we took to find him.
None of this would have been possible without a great team, and Jane Bradley and Oliver Bullough were amazing to work with as we looked for our quarry.
But first, let me take you back to the beginning of the story. A couple of months ago I had this weird idea of wanting to try and show how large numbers of UK Limited Liability Partnerships exhibited such similar structures and behaviours that there simply had to be an “invisible hand” controlling them.
I have also become fascinated by events across the Atlantic relating to Donald Trump and his ongoing trials and tribulations, so when I chanced upon the information that Paul Manafort, his erstwhile Campaign Manager, had allegedly used a UK LLP as part of a scheme to defraud Oleg Deripaska who had himself only just been sanctioned under the US Magnitsky Act, it was exactly the sort of opportunity I was looking for.
The entity was called Colberg Projects LLP and it quickly became apparent that it showed clear similarities to a whole host of other LLPs, ranging from identical changes of Designated Members, to close similarities in the accounts they filed, to a very small number of addresses at which they were registered and also, of course, to the fact that they all had annual accounts signed off by Ali Moulaye.
I felt straight away that this had the potential to be a bigger story than I could do justice to, so I got in touch with Oliver, who I knew through a shared interest in the use of UK entities to launder money (and he’s extraordinarily knowledgeable about this landscape) and he agreed it was worth seeing if we could get interest from a major publication.
An initial conversation with the FT went nowhere but then a conversation with Jane, from Buzzfeed News, sparked real interest and she agreed to work with us to see if we could bring the story to publication. Fortunately, her skills at persuasion are excellent, as her editors agreed to let her run with it. And her tenacity, once she’s got her teeth into a story, is really quite scary.
So we started full scale research, quickly identifying 115 LLPs all of which were still active (and that was an important part of the story) and which had all had the same three pairs of Designated Members: Ireland & Overseas Acquisitions & Milltown Corporate Services followed by Intrahold & Monohold and finally Tallberg & Uniwell.
As we started to find out all sorts of intriguing, and quite damning, information about them, much, but not all of which is in the Buzzfeed article, and regularly having to rely on Oliver’s fluent Russian to help out, Jane came up with this inspired but, at the time, seemingly impossible idea – “Let’s find Ali Moulaye!
This is the story of how we did it.
It actually starts here on LinkedIn. At the outset, we had no idea where in the world Ali lived. We knew he’d signed accounts on behalf of companies based in Nevis, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Panama, Belize and elsewhere but we thought it was unlikely that he lived in any of these places.
And then, one day, on a whim, I searched for his name on LinkedIn and up popped this:
And that made me sit up and take notice.
The history of these LLPs is littered with certain names which have entered the folklore of money laundering. Notably the triumvirate of Juri Vitman, Erik Vanagels and Stan Gorin, whose names crop up time and time again in relation to entities in the UK, New Zealand, Cyprus and elsewhere and they are all Latvian.
It seemed too much of a coincidence to find an Ali Moulaye based in Latvia so we were pretty sure this was our man. But the trail seemed to go cold again straight away. An image search on Google yielded nothing. There were no clues on LinkedIn other than the cryptic “dr” appended to his profile picture and searching for him on Latvian websites threw up no results.
And that’s probably where it would have ended but for the fact that one evening I entered a slightly different search string into Google and ‘bingo!’
But before I go any further I want to explain a bit about these search strings as they are important.
My initial search string was “Ali Moulaye” “Latvia” which will look for websites that contain both the phrase ‘Ali Moulaye’ and the word ‘Latvia’, and it didn’t work. My new search string, which looks almost the same was “Ali” “Moulaye” “Latvia” which looks for the same three words but doesn’t need “Ali” to be next to “Moulaye”. And this time it returned two interesting results.
The first one was this:
Which confirmed our suspicions that he was definitely in Latvia and appeared to be a doctor. The second one was even more interesting:
When I shared this with the others, Oliver said straight away that “Mulajs” was exactly how you would expect his name to be pronounced in an Eastern European language.
And even more interestingly, the website this was found on said there was a record of a marriage agreement. However, it was behind a paywall so Jane decided to take the chance and subscribe to the website to see what was available.
And what a great decision that proved to be. The record threw up the date of his marriage and his wife’s name, who I’m going to call Lyudmila (not her real first name and I’ve redacted her maiden name to maintain her privacy).
Now we really did have something to go on.
Within minutes, Oliver had found her on OK.ru (a sort of Russian Facebook) and we know that because he discovered this picture:
Mrs Mulaja also turned out to have a Facebook page (in her maiden name) which was a treasure trove of information. Fortunately for us (but maybe not for her) all of her security settings were still on ‘public’ which meant, amongst other things, we could see her friends, biography and photos.
And, at that point, we were convinced they were in Riga (not least because Mrs Mulaja’s Facebook page said that was where they lived).
And then Jane, following a hunch relating to one of Lyudmila’s FB friends, found this:
Not much doubt there. But no longer Ali. So to add to the seven different spellings of his last name we now had a different first name.
And we were still convinced they were in Riga (Ali’s Facebook page said he was a dentist in Brussels but we thought that might have been a touch of misdirection). We were checking phone directories and contacting local “fixers” in an effort to track them down, but nothing.
Over the next few hours we tracked down Ali’s dad (but, to be fair to him, I’m not going to provide any more clues), Lyudmila’s sisters and a whole lot more. But still no address.
And then, just as we thought we were going to grind to a halt, Oliver sent us an email with a thought.
He’d noticed a couple of photos on Lyudmila’s FB page where one of the children was holding up a certificate written in Dutch. And a note on her timeline that she had moved to Brussels in 2014. She also lists herself as working at Carrefour which doesn’t have any branches in Riga but plenty in Brussels.
And then we found a post on Lyudmila’s FB page saying that, despite the rumours, she was not getting divorced and returning to Riga.
After some debate (it’s astonishing how hard it was to let go of the Riga connection) we decided to start focussing on Brussels, a decision that was almost instantly followed by Lyudmila’s sister (who pretty much lived on FB) posting that she’d gone to Brussels to visit her sister.
So Brussels it was!
And later the same day, Jane found a dentist in Brussels called Nick Moulaye who ran his practice in the name of a company. The first corporate registry we tried was tantalising as it gave us a post code which was exactly where the FB check-ins were coming from but no address.
And then with great good luck, we found this:
Which did have an address. But was it the right one?
And this is where Google street view comes in handy. Because once we had compared photos posted on FB from where we presumed they lived, with street view pictures of Nick Moulaye’s address it was instantly apparent that they were the same place.
Here’s a picture we found on Lyudmila’s FB:
And here’s the street view picture I grabbed from the address on Nick Moulaye’s registry entry:
And then there were the pictures of the two sisters on FB:
And street view from round the corner from the first picture:
And one sister on her own:
With street view:
And even, when they posted that they’d been to an Iranian restaurant:
We found the restaurant:
So, to sum up, we had his names (all nine of them!) address, knew his wife’s name, his dad’s name and occupation, most of the rest of his family’s names and Jane certainly had enough to be able confidently to travel to Brussels and interview him. The rest is in her article.
This must read a bit like a spy manual, a bit like a thriller and a lot like a horror story. Because if we can track down a man from one small clue on LinkedIn, and end up knowing pretty much everything we might need in order to, let’s say, steal his identity (we’ve also got maiden names, dates of birth, parent’s names etc) what could a determined criminal gang do with your online information?
I’m not sure people realise just how much they give away on, for example, Facebook (and maybe lots of them don’t care) but maybe, just maybe, you should?