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For Sale: One Name, Barely Used, Good Credit Rating

From name tag to price tag
From name tag to price tag
Giuseppe Bottero

MILAN - “Prestanome for hire: thirty years old, good credit rating, permanent job...”

More and more advertisements like this one are finding their way onto the Internet. Literally a “lend-name,” the prestanome has made the leap from mafia-esque dodgy dealings into the real world. “The only thing I had left was my name: so I sold it,” explains one young man.

Who are these people prepared to pay big bucks for the use of someone else’s name? To find out we put our own ad on the Internet, and after two days the messages start flooding in. The first requests ask shyly for “a hand” with prepaid cards. They offer 50 euros in exchange for our name and signature on a prepaid card worth up to 500 euros. To buy what exactly?

They are followed by the artisans and the small businessmen and women. “I’m looking for funding to buy some equipment for my business. Unfortunately, I also have a mortgage with my wife, so asking for a loan is impossible.” He needs a prestanome.

“Basically,” explains the carpenter from Lecco, north of Milan, “you ask for a loan of 15,000 euros. You keep a third, and I’ll pay you back the rest in around five years. You can request the loan from whichever bank you want, and when you have everything, we’ll get organized.” Deal? Maybe.

But it’s also a huge risk, because the “customers” are extremely vague when it comes to guarantees. Some even offer advice: use this website, it will lend you money, no questions asked. It’s all so easy. Too easy.

One day later, we receive a telephone call from Andrea, an entrepreneur: “I have a business with approximately 30,000 euros of debt. I’m offering you 3,000 to take over the shares.” And so on and so forth, the proposals getting ever more detailed.

Mafia links

On the other side of the equation, there are the people behind the prestanome. The accountant who, quite openly, offers a travel agency as cover for other, more suspect, activities. The 26-year-old beautician who is auctioning off her diploma including membership of her professional association. And the master of disguise: “Do you need a name for tax relief purposes? Contact me.” No sooner said than done. He is from the region of Veneto, living in Cambodia and replies a week later: “I’ve been busy.” He explains in detail how to set up certain types of business abroad, and offers us his services.

Is it legal? You hardly need to ask. But it’s not exactly illegal either. It is a grey area filled with things unsaid, dreams of easy riches, the scars of virtual handshakes and signatures in permanent ink with extreme consequences. “I need 12,000 euros, but I’d ask for 15,000. That way I can give 3,000 to you,” writes Silvia. “The money is to pay the 19 months of tax contributions which my husband needs to retire. I guarantee repayment.” Right, but how?

Just a few years ago, the word prestanome made you think of dodgy entrepreneurs with links to the mafia, or homeless people hired for a handful of euros. Now the pool of “providers” has expanded to include immigrants and unemployed young people, just waiting to be torn to pieces by those who know how to take advantage of the naïve and inexperienced. Or else the simply desperate. Placing your name in the hands of a business can be worth up to 5,000 euros. That’s at least three months of income.

But if it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Stories abound of people who thoughtlessly gambled with their future. People like Marika, a beautician: “I thought I was helping someone in trouble, and I let him organize everything. Suddenly, I was drowning in debt, scared, and being chased by people I didn’t know who wanted me to pay back astronomical sums. It was a disaster. It seems so easy, but just by signing your name, you can lose everything. That is what happened to me.”

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