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Heston Blumenthal restaurant among those targeted in cloning scam

Heston Blumenthal
Heston Blumenthal's London restaurant is among those targeted by scammers

Restaurants owned by some of the UK's best-known chefs have been cloned as part of an emerging identity theft scam, BBC News has been told.

Heston Blumenthal, Yotam Ottolenghi and the Ritz have all been targeted by fraudsters, who then open bank accounts and apply for loans.

More than 750 fake firms have been registered, often with misspelled names, in the last six weeks.

Companies House has begun an investigation.

The BBC has been given the first detailed data revealing the scam - which is causing a major headache for individuals and businesses - by fraud expert Graham Barrow. He says Companies House, the UK's central registry of companies, is "not fit for purpose" and should carry out more checks.

For only a small sum, scammers can register a business online with Companies House - usually within 24 hours. After that:

  • They are then able to steal overdraft money from bank accounts set up in the name of the fake company they have cloned, and order high-value goods from suppliers keen to fulfil lucrative orders from a new, high-profile client. Goods are then delivered in transit and invoices left unpaid

  • In many cases, "clone restaurants" have been registered with very similar names to real businesses, usually with a slight misspelling. In other cases, fraudsters have misspelled a restaurant's address - such as "Zizzi - Caambridge", one character away from the Italian chain Zizzi in Cambridge

  • The scammers have to provide the identity of at least one director per registration - it is likely they are using names obtained from social media profiles or via data leaks

"There's been this rise of identity theft, and the requirement for all of us to provide bills, passports or a driving licence, even if you want to get a library ticket from your local council," Mr Barrow says. "Companies House requires none of that."

He said it was "scandalous", that situation has been allowed to continue "without any intervention whatsoever".

Next month the body will get new powers to tackle fraudulent registrations, but tougher checks will take longer to introduce.

Robust action

Mr Blumenthal is among those who have been targeted. A company has been registered with the name "Dinner By Heston Blumenthall" with an extra 'l'.

Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant business now also has a clone, "Ottolenghii Limited", again with an extra letter in the surname.

Mr Ottolenghi's company told the BBC: "Anyone who infringes our intellectual property or attempts to cause confusion with our brand or profit from our reputation, will have robust action taken against them."

Even the restaurant at the famous Ritz Hotel, which opened in 1906, has had its identity cloned.

Companies House holds documents for the business dating back to 1896, but a company called Ritz Restaurant Limited was registered on 19 December 2023.

Alexis Gauthier (centre) pictured with the team at Gauthier Soho
Alexis Gauthier (centre) was shocked his company was targeted

Alexis Gauthier, a Michelin-starred chef in Soho, central London, opened his French restaurant in 2010.

At the time he had not decided what to call his business, so used his initials to name his company "APJ Gauthier Limited".

In mid-January he was astonished to receive letters from a bank for a business called "Gauthier Soho Restaurant Limited".

"It's a better name than the one I chose," he jokes.

"What was really surprising is they managed to create this company at the same address as my restaurant. It's hard enough for us independent restaurants in central London to day in, day out, do the best we can do.

"We don't really need this on top of everything else we have to deal with."

'Trying to destroy me'

Steven, 34, is a junior chef who has been fraudulently registered as the director of 39 restaurants. We have agreed not to use his surname to prevent further identity theft. When we tracked him down and showed him the list he was astonished.

"I've never been a director," he says. "This is getting me upset. Someone's trying to destroy me. They're doing it for fun."

Steven had received dozens of letters from Companies House about restaurant businesses, but had no idea why he was getting them, he says.

One of the restaurants which has been cloned knows Steven's name well because it has received numerous calls for him from people purporting to work for Octopus Energy, insisting he is a director.

This appears to be another scam in which fraudsters try to charge companies for "updating their company details at Companies House" - details which are false in the first place.

Octopus Energy says it does not cold-call customers.

Most daunting for Steven will be removing his name from the register. This process could involve filling in two complex forms and providing documentary evidence 39 times - to prove he is not associated with any of the companies linked to his name.

A small restaurant chain told us it had received bank cards in the name of a "clone company director", suggesting an account had been set up in the restaurant's name.

This enables the scammers to ask for a business overdraft, which is withdrawn before they disappear.

For Steven, being the target of identity theft is unsettling, but it is a problem we all may end up paying for indirectly.

If criminals are able to clear out bank accounts set up for a fake company, the bank takes the hit, and may pass its losses on to customers.

"They are losing millions, hundreds of millions," Mr Barrow says.

The government and Companies House are aware of the problem.

But Mr Barrow believes it will be at least 18 months before the changes are fully introduced, and meanwhile he is tracking a string of other "clone company" criminal networks targeting the UK from all over the world.

Companies House said it was sorry about the difficulties businesses are experiencing.

"In the longer term we will be requiring company directors and people who file information to verify their identity to ensure they are who they say they are," a spokesperson said.

"These changes will enable us to crack down on the use of false addresses and other misuse of the register."

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