You have probably never heard of Oliver Bellenhaus. Thanks in large part to the COVID-dominated news cycle, most people have never heard of Wirecard either. As one of Germany’s tech success stories, Wirecard AG was lauded by Presidents, financiers, banks, and traders. Founded in the 1990s, it grew so fast that within fifteen years Wirecard tried, and failed, to buy Deutsche Bank. Angela Merkel lobbied on the firm’s behalf when she visited China. The firm was valued at €24bn when it listed on Germany’s DAX. Today, the company lies in ruins, insolvent – its smoking ashes being acquired by its competitors. Although the collapse had tectonic consequences for capitalism and banking, it is also a story with huge relevance to the intelligence world.
During Wirecard’s golden years in the mid-noughties, a few contrarian investors, hedge funds, journalists and short sellers began to scrutinise Wirecard’s meteoric rise. The numbers didn’t add up. The growth was too good to be true. The business model was strange. But each year, big four accounting firms rubber-stamped its accounts. Ultimately, by June 2020, the contrarians were not only validated but richly rewarded for their perseverance.
As heard in his deposition, Oliver Bellenhaus lifted the lid on the billion dollar fraud and confirmed what the contrarians had been saying for years. One of Europe’s biggest companies was a global, multibillion-euro fraud. Bellenhaus was Wirecard’s top exec in the Middle East, moving millions in funds out of Wirecard’s corporate account into an array of shell companies that he and his colleagues had created. This was all going on as Wirecard’s corporate valuation soared. Briefly, its value exceeded that of Deutsche Bank.
In early 2019 one of our clients, who suspected that Wirecard was not all that it seemed, tasked Neon to investigate Wirecard’s executives and major clients. Using the thousands of tools we have within our COSMIC platform, the team exhaustively searched every corner of Wirecard’s operations, from website registration data, court records, company filings, dark web leaks, to social media accounts, insolvencies, and DNS records. Our investigation took us to Macau, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Maldives, India, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Dubai, Jersey, and the BVI.
We spent some time investigating Bellenhaus. His deposition confirms our 2019 findings – that he was tasked to create not only a whole ecosystem of shell companies but also millions of dollars in fictitious revenue. While analysing Bellenhaus’ online footprint, we discovered something pivotal. Bellenhaus had his own vanity website: bellenhaus.com. When we cross-compared bellenhaus.com and the website of Al-Alam Solutions (a €250M per year Wirecard ‘client’), we discovered that both sites’ email services were hosted at the same network within a UAE ISP and, critically, likely paid for by the same account. A smoking gun. Bellenhaus had likely created Al-Alam Solutions the same day he set up bellenhaus.com. This is a further reminder of one of the most important aspects of intelligence work today.
Our hunt did not end there. Moving east, we started to investigate ConePay, another mysterious Wirecard partner in the Philippines. Another clue hidden in the noise pointed to fraud. ConePay.com was registered using a German mobile number, by a German incorporation agent based in the Philippines. It’s not normal that a Philippines financial company would use a German incorporation agent.
Secrets, hiding in plain sight. These were just some of many findings delivered to our clients’ boardroom, adding further credence to Wirecard’s suspect operations. Ultimately, our client was able to strengthen their position by millions of euros.
2020s: THE GOLDEN AGE OF FRAUD?
Less than twelve months later, Wirecard AG came crashing down, a financial Hindenburg. Neither EY nor KPMG could account for a missing €1.9bn. The firm’s valuation went from €24bn in 2016 to €0. The Chief Executive and others were arrested. The deputy CEO – still missing – went on the run. Pension funds lost millions. The entire German public sector, from Angela Merkel downwards, was disgraced. A fraudulent, toxic company was removed from Germany’s stock market and, as world-renowned Jim Chanos argues, Wirecard was yet another indicator that the 2020s is ‘the golden age of fraud’.
Our client (and many of the other contrarians) returned over $100m. Why were they successful? What did they do that others missed? Coupled with a contrarian mindset (vital to any successful investor), the contrarians understood that persistent, careful, diligent, research, using intelligence analysts at the centre of the process, allowed them to build up a body of evidence that pointed to a fraud – and shorted Wirecard’s insanely overvalued shares in the process.
To conclude, the Wirecard saga is yet another example of the way in which high value data, pieced together from different corners of the internet, can be turned into boardroom intelligence – and in many cases that intelligence can be worth billions. The next major corporate meltdown – whether Wirecard, WeWork, or, Greensill – is out there, waiting to be found.