By Hayley Dixon in Hamilton, Bermuda
and Claire Newell in London
Some of the world’s richest people are bracing for their financial details to be exposed after a major offshore company admitted that its computer records had been hacked.
Appleby, a firm based in Bermuda with offices in many tax havens, said it was in the process of warning clients that they may be implicated in a massive leak of sensitive information.
It is understood the leak involves some of Britain’s wealthiest people, who have been instructing lawyers and public relations companies in an effort to protect their reputations.
The disclosure of the leak also threatens to call into question the status of several British Overseas Territories which can offer tax benefits to the very wealthy. If questionable activities or conduct are exposed, the British Government is also likely to face searching questions over its oversight of the territories involved.
It is understood that a global consortium of left-leaning media organizations is preparing to release the information in the coming days.
The leak comes a year after the release of the so-called “Panama Papers,” in which the hidden millions of some of the world’s rich and powerful were exposed. The disclosures led to the downfall of several governments.
Among those named in the “Panama Papers” were close associates of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and relatives of Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, as well as Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, Iceland’s prime minister, and Lionel Messi, the Barcelona footballer.
When contacted about a hacking attack in Bermuda, Appleby, which has offices in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Mauritius and the Seychelles, said “we are issuing a statement to all our clients today (Tuesday).”
Appleby denied any allegations of wrongdoing on its part.
The firm said: “Appleby operates in highly regulated jurisdictions and like all professional organisations in our regions, we are subject to frequent regulatory checks and we are committed to achieving the high standards set by our regulators. We are also committed to the highest standards of client service and confidentiality. It is what we stand for. This commitment is unequivocal.
“Appleby has thoroughly and vigorously investigated the allegations and we are satisfied that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, either on the part of ourselves or our clients. We refute any allegations which may suggest otherwise and we would be happy to cooperate fully with any legitimate and authorised investigation of the allegations by the appropriate and relevant authorities.
“We are committed to protecting our clients’ data and we have reviewed our cyber security and data access arrangements following a data security incident last year which involved some of our data being compromised. These arrangements were reviewed and tested by a leading IT forensics team and we are confident that our data integrity is secure.”
It is thought that the attack may have happened up to a year ago.
Despite being just over 50 square kilometres of territory and having a population of 65,000, Bermuda is one of the biggest centres of the insurance industry and has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
The British Overseas Territory has long defended itself against accusations that it acts as a tax haven, stating that the authorities are informed of the beneficiaries of all trust companies set up on its shores.
Appleby is one of the “offshore magic circle” and was recently named as the Trust and Estate Planning Law Firm of the Year from Global Law Experts. One senior industry source said: “All of the offshore law firms are aware that they are in an incredibly sensitive situation.
“I wouldn’t say that the Government knows everything in Bermuda, but because the beneficiary has to be declared the big firms here do not get approached by the same kind of people that you read about in the ‘Panama Papers,’ not by people who want to hide their wealth.”
Bermuda’s offshore status means that it is a target for cyber attacks. Banks on the island have been warned of threats from Anonymous, the hacking group.
In 2016 a branch of Appleby called Appleby Fiduciary, which dealt with a large amount of the firm’s trusts business, was bought out by its management and rebranded as Estera.
Estera last night said that it had no comment to make.
Chambers and Partners, which ranks law firms, says Appleby’s clients include “financial institutions, global corporations, FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies and high-net-worth individuals.”