London—James Carter, an investor who sank over $100,000 in several distressed ‘‘assets’’—carbon credits, land, palm oil—believes the companies had at least the appearance of legitimacy, or so the brokers of these deals assured him. Not far away from the pub in the well-heeled neighborhood of Mayfair where he’s sitting are the offices of several of these companies trading in lucrative investments, such as the Sierra Leone-based palm oil project. Well, so-called. Many are either virtual offices, or do not exist at all. These companies are shells, used merely as props, manned by nominee directors. Many have been dissolved or are inactive. Their websites are vague, providing no real detail. The companies have no bank accounts. The lease for the palm oil project is neither legally registered nor valid. Indeed, no palm oil plantation has ever existed at all.

But it was a lucrative investment for the network that ran the...

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