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These Are The Ghost Companies Paying Lycamobile Millions

Abandoned offices, PO boxes, building sites, and fake addresses. We visited the ghost companies that French prosecutors suspect funnelled tens of millions of euros into the accounts of the telecoms giant Lycamobile.

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French prosecutors investigating the telecoms giant Lycamobile for money laundering are focusing on a network of obscure companies that they say paid Lyca €75 million last year.

The money was ostensibly for tens of millions of international minutes – but investigators found that the small companies had virtually no way to distribute such huge amounts of airtime or customers to buy it. "The total lack of economic logic accruing to these transactions implies the likely existence of a vast system of false billing" to conceal illicit payments “from various networks laundering profits from crime", French intelligence analysts wrote in a report. Investigators suspect many of the companies were secretly controlled by a couple who were both charged with conspiring with Lycamobile to launder money along with seven others on Friday. Lycamobile did not respond to repeated requests for comment before this article was published but strongly denied all the allegations in a statement sent days later.

BuzzFeed News reviewed evidence detailing how much money investigators believe the small companies paid Lycamobile Services, a French arm of the telecoms giant, and how many minutes they got in return. Then we visited the 19 companies that allegedly bought the most Lyca airtime last year to see if it was possible to buy a single phone card from any of them. This is what we found.

This painting and glazing company paid Lycamobile €8 million before disappearing without trace.

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Name: MSR-F.D.B

Main type of business: Painting and glazing

Amount paid: €7,767,338.80

Minutes bought: 7,767,338.8

Lifespan: One year, three months (dissolved)

This company was the biggest customer of Lycamobile Services last year, French investigators say, spending almost €8 million on airtime. It was formed in December 2014 and entered its main type of business as "painting and glazing/construction" on the French corporate registry, but listed the buying and selling of phone cards among its other activities. The company was dissolved in March this year.

When reporters visited its address at a serviced office in a retail park in the Parisian suburb of Gonesse, the receptionist told them MSR-F.D.B had packed up and disappeared without finalising its paperwork. Its business there was supposed to be construction, she said, and it shouldn't have been selling phone cards under the terms of its rental. Later, reporters visited the residential address where the director of the company was listed on the French corporate registry, but found no sign of her there.

This liquidated construction firm spent over €4.5 million on international airtime.

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Name: MSB

Type of business: Construction/other

Amount paid: €4,565,933.16

Minutes bought: 4,566,933.16

Lifespan: Two years (liquidated)

MSB was registered as a construction company in 2013. It added the buying and selling of phone cards to its listing on the corporate registry in July 2014. After that, it allegedly paid Lycamobile Services over €4.5 million for as many international minutes before being liquidated in October 2015. It was registered at the office of an accountant in a dilapidated yard in the Paris suburbs. Staff at the office said MSB was no longer there and had been a construction company rather than a telecoms firm. Reporters later visited the Paris address of the company's director but could not find her living there.

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This property rental company paid Lycamobile €4 million but its registered office turned out to be an empty building site.

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Name: Les 3 Ecritoires

Type of business: Property rental

Amount paid: €4,040,806

Minutes bought: 4,040,806

Lifespan: 21 years (active)

This 21-year-old property rental company paid Lycamobile Services over €4 million last year, investigators say, and the French corporate registry shows it is still active. But when BuzzFeed News visited its registered address, reporters found it was an empty building site. Nearby shop owners said the address had been a vacant lot before the construction work started and there had never been any sign of a company there. The firm's main type of business is listed on the French corporate registry as property rentals, but it also lists the sale of telephone cards and electrical goods among its activities. The director of the company could not be reached by phone for comment.

This wholesaler of household appliances bought millions of international minutes from Lycamobile before packing up and disappearing.

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Name: Nego Tek

Type of business: Wholesaler of household appliances

Amount paid: €4,022,406.02

Minutes bought: 4,022,406.02

Lifespan: Two years (active)

This wholesaler of household appliances bought more than 4 million minutes of international airtime from Lycamobile, according to French investigators. Nego Tek operated from a small rented room inside a large run-down serviced office block in a remote part of northern Paris. A receptionist told BuzzFeed News that Nego Tek had packed up and left the address suddenly halfway through the contract – leaving behind a vacant office space and unfinished paperwork. "One day they were here, the next, they were gone," she said. The directors of the company could not be found living at the residential addresses in Paris where they were listed in corporate records.

This "shifty" IT business next door to a psychic medium paid €3.4 million to Lycamobile.

Name: Saving Business

Type of business: IT systems and software advisers

Amount paid: €3,417,292.59

Minutes bought: 3,417,292.59

Lifespan: 11 years (active)

This 11-year-old company is registered as an IT systems and software adviser, and an amendment to the corporate registry in 2012 included the buying and selling of airtime among its activities. Last year, French authorities say, it bought over 3 million minutes of international airtime from Lycamobile Services, but when BuzzFeed News visited its registered address, next door to a psychic medium, reporters found an empty office and a handwritten sign asking for any deliveries to be dropped off with neighbours. Nearby business owners told BuzzFeed News the office was never open and a man would occasionally visit to pick up mail. "Honestly it is weird, I don’t understand," one said. "I feel something shifty. I have never seen anyone here." The company's director could not be reached for comment.

This company based inside a Parisian social housing block paid Lycamobile €1.5 million.

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Name: Sofia

Type of business: Business-to-business wholesaler of electrical supplies

Amount paid: €1,519,169

Minutes bought: 1,519,169

Lifespan: One year, two months (active)

During its first year in business, this wholesaler of electrical supplies gave over €1.5 million to Lycamobile Services for international airtime, investigators say. It is registered at an address inside a large Parisian social housing block. The concierge didn't recognise the name of the company or its director and said businesses were not allowed to register there. The company's director could not be found at the residential address in Paris where he is listed in corporate records.

Staff at the serviced office where this electronics company claims to be registered don't understand why they keep getting its mail.

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Name: New Tek

Type of business: Business-to-business wholesaler of electronic and telecommunication equipment

Amount paid: €1,418,967.70

Minutes bought: 1,418,967.7

Lifespan: One year, three months (active)

When Buzzfeed News visited the registered address of New Tek, an electronics company that allegedly paid Lycamobile Services €1.4 million for airtime last year, a receptionist said he didn't understand why he kept getting the firm's mail, because it had never operated from that address or paid for any office space there. He told reporters some companies hang their own postboxes by the gate and use it as a registered address. The company's directors could not be found living at the residential addresses where they are listed in corporate records.

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This internet advertising firm paid millions from a letterbox in a neglected Parisian arcade.

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Name: Industry Web

Type of business: IT programming

Amount paid: €1,720,506.80

Minutes bought: 1,720,506.8

Lifespan: One year, nine months (dissolved)

A letterbox in an arcade off a busy Parisian shopping street is the registered address of Industry Web – an IT programming company that, investigators say, bought more than a million minutes of international airtime from Lycamobile Services last year. A receptionist, seated at a desk in front of hundreds of labelled letterboxes, told reporters that the company's rental had ended a year ago and no phone cards had ever been on sale there. She added: "If you want to know any more you can come back with the police." The company's registered director did not respond to requests for comment.

This abandoned warehouse was meant to be a call centre before the business moved to the UK – to another empty address.

Name: MG Trading

Type of business: Call centre

Amount paid: €1,470,520

Minutes bought: 1,470,520

Lifespan: One year, five months (active)

MG Trading was listed as a call centre at a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris for around a year, and French investigators say it paid Lycamobile Services almost €1.5 million for international airtime. When reporters visited the warehouse (above left) they found an empty building with shuttered windows and abandoned furniture outside. The company had transferred its business to the UK in February 2016, and reporters found its new address in Wakefield (above right) is a letterbox in the rundown offices of a company formation agent. The company's director could not be found living at the address where he is listed in Paris on corporate records.

This 18-month-old electrical company paid over €2 million from a dilapidated office before it dissolved.

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Name: Shaheen127

Type of business: Electrical Installations

Amount paid: €2,181,334

Minutes bought: 2,181,334

Lifespan: One year, six months (dissolved)

Shaheen127 existed as an electrical installations firm on the French company registry for just 18 months and allegedly paid Lycamobile Services €2.2 million for international airtime. Its French company was dissolved in October last year. BuzzFeed News reporters went to Shaheen127's former address in Paris and found a neglected serviced office on an industrial estate parallel to a busy highway. Staff there said the firm had packed up and left months before and they had no idea where it had gone. They were not aware it was involved in the sale of international minutes. The company's director could not be found living at the residential address in Paris where he is listed on corporate records.

This telecoms business that paid Lycamobile €1.2 million is registered at the offices of a tax consultancy firm.

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Name: Tauren Distribution

Type of business: Wired telecommunications

Amount paid: €1,250,700

Minutes bought: 1,250,700

Lifespan: Eight years, 10 months (active)

The telecoms company bought 1.25 million minutes of airtime for €1.25 million, French investigators say, but when BuzzFeed News visited its address at an upmarket apartment block in Paris, reporters found it was the office of a tax consultancy firm. Staff there confirmed that Tauren Distribution was a telecoms business but said it was not possible to buy any phone cards there. The company's director could not be reached by phone.

This electrical installation company spent millions on international airtime from a letterbox address.

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Name: France Service

Type of business: Electrical installation

Amount paid: €3,911,452.68

Minutes bought: 3,911,452.68

Lifespan: Two years (dissolved)

France Service allegedly paid just under €4 million to Lycamobile Services after it was registered as an electrical installation firm in April 2014. When BuzzFeed News visited its registered address, reporters found it had operated from a letterbox address in a business complex on the Rue La Fayette in Paris before dissolving in November last year. The company's director could not be found living at the residential address where he is listed on corporate records.

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This telecoms company that bought 2 million Lycamobile minutes is registered to a letterbox on the Champs-Élysées.

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Name: Theor

Type of business: Other telecommunication activity

Amount paid: €1,199,516.05

Minutes bought: 1,199,516.05

Lifespan: Four years, two months (active)

The registered address of Theor is surrounded by designer stores on the famous Champs-Élysées boulevard in Paris. The firm was formed in 2012 and listed "other telecommunication activity" as its business on the French corporate register. It paid Lycamobile Services almost €1.2 million for airtime, according to French investigators, but a receptionist at the company that services its letterbox address told BuzzFeed News she did not know what kind of business it was and no clients ever visited. Reporters visited the registered address of the company's director, where relatives said he was no longer active in the business because of ill health and was not available to comment.

This construction company paid Lycamobile more than €1 million but is registered at an empty building.

BuzzFeed News

Name: Razik

Type of business: Computer sales

Amount paid: €1,124,118.58

Minutes bought: 1,124,118.58

Lifespan: One year, four months (active)

Razik lists is main business as computer retail but includes the sale of phone cards among its other registered activities. It allegedly paid more than €1 million for the same amount of international calling time, but when Buzzfeed News visited the address of the firm, which is still active, reporters found an empty building with shuttered windows and locked doors. Relatives at the director's residential address in Paris said he was away for Ramadan and had mentioned some work for Lycamobile in the past. Then they asked reporters if they were working with the police.

This struck-off phone company bought 2 million minutes of airtime from Lycamobile but staff said they didn't stock its phone cards.

Name: Express Tel et Communications

Type of business: Telecommunication business activities

Amount paid: €2,071,717.60

Minutes bought: 2,071,717.6

Lifespan: Nine years, eight months (dissolved)

This telecommunications business paid Lycamobile Services more than €2 million for international minutes last year, according to French authorities. The company is registered at the address of a Parisian phone shop called Syma that has a Lycamobile advert on its front door. But the shopkeeper told BuzzFeed News no Lycamobile cards were on sale there. The firm was dissolved in May 2016 after failing to file any accounts since 2014. BuzzFeed News spoke to a man listed in company records as former director of Express Tel et Communications, who confirmed over the phone that he had worked at the company several years ago but said he knew nothing about the payments although he had heard of Lycamobile. The most recent directors could not be reached.

This letterbox address was home to a dissolved construction company that paid Lycamobile almost €4 million.

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Name: BNT

Type of business: Electrical installations / construction

Amount paid: €3,750,862.12

Minutes bought: 3,750,862.12

Lifespan: One year (dissolved)

BNT allegedly paid Lycamobile Services €3.8 million for the same number of international minutes, but a receptionist at the letterbox address told BuzzFeed News that she did not know anything about the sale of international calling cards. She said that a man from BNT visited once a month to pick up mail for the now-dissolved construction company. The company director could not be found at the residential address where he was listed in Paris.

This 4-year-old firm is registered at an office where nobody knows its name.

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Name: Raban

Type of business: Wholesaler (B2B)

Amount paid: €1,364,995.28

Minutes bought: 1,364,995.28

Lifespan: Four years, three months (active)

The wholesaler paid Lycamobile Services €1.3 million for international airtime, investigators say, but nobody at the serviced office address where it is registered in Paris had heard of the company or any phone-card businesses in the building. Two of the company directors could not be found living at the residential addresses where the are listed on French corporate records, while the other has not responded for a request for comment.

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This electronics company paid €1.4 million for airtime despite no signs of trading at its sole address.

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Name: Conception Diffusion

Type of business: Wholesaler (business-to-business) of electronic and telecommunication components and equipment

Amount paid: €1,427,240.42

Minutes bought: 1,427,240.42

Lifespan: One year, five months (active)

Conception Diffusion bought €1.4 million worth of international calling time, say French investigators. The electronics wholesaler is still active, according to the French company registry, but operates from a letterbox address on the outskirts of Paris. A receptionist told reporters that people visit the address once a day to collect the company's post but no phone cards were sold there. The company directors could not be reached by phone.

This electronics firm paid €1.6 million for airtime from a trading address in a residential apartment block.

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Name: CD Systeme

Type of business: Business-to-business wholesaler of electrical supplies

Amount paid: €1,638,635.60

Minutes bought: 1,638,635.6

Lifespan: One year, 10 months (active)

CD Systeme is an electronics firm that has allegedly paid Lycamobile Services €1.6 million for international airtime. But when BuzzFeed News visited the company's registered address, reporters found a residential apartment where there was no sign of any business. The company directors could not be reached for comment.

By comparison, the major retailer Relay France bought 7.3 million minutes to sell from its 941 outlets across the country.

Relay

Analysts at the French anti-money-laundering unit, which calculated how many minutes Relay and the smaller companies purchased, concluded: “It appears totally inconsistent that small companies that are not well known and moreover have no distribution network could have the capacity to purchase volumes comparable to Relay France." The volumes of international minutes the tiny firms acquired “could never be used or consumed”, they wrote in a report passed to prosecutors, and therefore the payments received by Lycamobile Services appeared to be "disconnected from all economic reality".

This table shows how many minutes Lycamobile's French customers allegedly bought and how many outlets they have to sell them from.

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Chris Applegate / BuzzFeed News
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A note on sources: The figures for the amount of money paid and the number of minutes bought by each company are taken from documents prepared by French law-enforcement authorities. Their type of business and lifespan come from the French corporate registry.

Lycamobile strongly denied all the allegations in a letter sent days after this article was published.

Lycamobile did not respond to detailed questions from BuzzFeed News before this article was published. But in a letter sent several days later, its French lawyers strongly denied all the allegations and threatened to sue “all responsible parties” for damages. The letter said that Lycamobile “receives no cash payments from any of its business” in France and as such “the central theme of alleged money laundering relating to cash does not even arise”. It continued: “No company of the Lycamobile Group has ever taken part in any criminal activity of this nature or any other nature whatsoever.” The lawyers said no action had been taken against Lycamobile itself by the French authorities and pointed out that the company had not been banned from trading, but did not address the fact that its accounts have been frozen or that its general manager and eight others have been charged. The company also strenuously denied the allegations in a statement sent the same day.

Tom Warren is an investigations correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Tom Warren at tom.warren@buzzfeed.com.

Richard Holmes is an investigations reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Richard Holmes at richard.holmes@buzzfeed.com.

Jane Bradley is an investigations correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jane Bradley at jane.bradley@buzzfeed.com.

Heidi Blake is the UK investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Heidi Blake at heidi.blake@buzzfeed.com.

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