Attack of the clones! Blumenthal highlights threat of identity fraud

Heston Blumenthal: ‘The process for removing fake companies has to be speeded up and made easier.’ (Pic: Martin Griffiths/Flikr)

FRAUDSTERS are regularly using the names and reputations of legitimate restaurant businesses to register fake companies, set up bank accounts and apply for finance – but the authorities’ response to the problem is painfully slow.

Restaurateur and chef Heston Blumenthal OBE this week called for greater urgency in tackling such identity theft fraud at Companies House, following an investigation which found that more than 750 fake firms using restaurant names had been set up in the past six weeks alone.

Blumenthal’s business was one of those targeted and he has now written to the chief executive at Companies House and Registrar for England and Wales, Louise Smyth, asking for greater transparency on how her organisation is tackling the issue.

Action against fraudsters ‘damaging the reputations and legacy of a wide range of restaurants’ can take as long as 18 months, according to Blumenthal, who asked for a faster response from Companies House to help an industry which is already struggling against numerous economic woes.

He said: “Our legal team has been scanning the Companies Register for years and has regularly needed to notify Companies House of bogus companies claiming to be to be part of our group.

“The process for removing fake companies has to be speeded up and made easier. We need greater transparency from Companies House and a clear timeline. In some cases it is being reported it can take up to 18 months to rectify,” said Blumenthal.

“Checks by Companies House on the identity of people registering companies would reduce the risk of frauds and be a major help for restaurants and other businesses facing up to problems with fraudsters.”

The widespread scam often involves registering company names at Companies House by applying for registration with slightly different or misspelled names. The fraudsters then apply for bank accounts and finance in that name. Overdraft money from these bank accounts can be stolen, and high-value goods can be ordered from suppliers dazzled by lucrative orders from an apparently high-profile client – then invoices left unpaid.

The scammers have to provide the identity of at least one director per registration, but in this era of social media and data leaks, that is a small hurdle to overcome. Companies House, unlike many modern institutions, does not require proof of identity from registration applicants.

Prestige restaurant brands seem particularly attractive to the people running these illegitimate operations. Blumenthal’s own restaurants include the three Michelin star Fat Duck, the Michelin starred Hind’s Head, the Two Michelin star Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and the Perfectionists’ Café. One of the clone companies recorded was ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthall’ – note the extra letter ‘l’.

Blumenthal said: “The protection of our brands is absolutely paramount to our customers, our partners and our teams who excel every day in our kitchens and restaurants. We will not allow fraudsters to deceive unsuspecting patrons or partners and risk the legacy which we have collectively built with hard work, dedication, innovation and a grain of eccentricity.”