A party can find out who owns a business by searching the online database of businesses on the website of the secretary of state or the department of revenue in the state where the business is headquartered. He may also be able to do an online business license search on the website of the city or county in which the business is based. A party can call or email one of these government agencies as well.
Information to Help With Search
A party can search for a business owner using the name of the business and the entity number. The entity number is the identification number assigned to a business by the secretary of state’s office. The entity number for a corporation may be in a slightly different format than that for a limited liability company or a limited partnership. It may also help to have the business’s address at hand.
A business’ entity number is different from its Employer Identification Number. The EIN is a federal number used to identify a business for tax purposes.
Options Beyond Government Websites
A party can search the online database of the Better Business Bureau. The BBB’s search tool is particularly helpful to find owners of large businesses. A party can also call or email the business to ask who owns the business. A business’s legal, sales, marketing or administrative office may be helpful.
A registered agent for service of process on a business may not provide the name of the actual owner of the business. A party should avoid relying on a commercial print or online database of businesses, because such databases may be outdated and costly to use.
Certain Businesses Are Hard to Find
A party may not be able to use an online search to find the names of the owners for certain types of businesses. Whether the name of the owner is available depends on the laws of the state in which the business is based. In California, a party cannot generally find information for general partnerships and for certain other entity types, including limited liability partnerships like law firms, architecture firms, public accountancy firms and land survey firms. The party should submit a business entities records order form to request copies of filings for these entities.
What Is a Fictitious Name?
A business is not required to provide the real name of its owner. It can register for a business license under a fictitious name. A fictitious name may also be referred to as a DBA, which stands for doing business as. In Nevada, a fictitious name is called an FFN, or fictitious firm name. A business that registers a fictitious name does not get exclusive rights to that name. State law determines how an owner gets a fictitious name. A common way is to file for a fictitious name with the office of the secretary of state.
When Ownership Is Complicated
A living trust can own part of a business. A shell corporation, a business entity that does not have active operations, can also own a business. An owner can use a shell corporation to mask her identity. A holding company, also known as an umbrella company or a parent company, can own a substantial amount of stock in a smaller company. This allows the holding company to control its subsidiary.
When a Business Is Not Registered
Some owners do not register their businesses, which is illegal. It is challenging for cities, counties and state agencies to enforce regulations related to business registration. A party can report an unlicensed business to the city, county and secretary of state where the business is based.
Read More: How to Become a Registered Business
- Missouri Secretary of State: Business Services: Fictitious Name Registration Frequently Asked Questions
- City of Chicago: City Service: Business License Look-Up
- Federal Communications Commission: Ownership Report Search
- California Secretary of State: Business Search, Search Tips
- State of Delaware, Department of State, Division of Corporations, Frequently Asked Questions
- Better Business Bureau
- Washington State Department of Revenue: Business Lookup
- Entrepreneur.com: Fictitious Name Certificate
- California Secretary of State: Service of Process
- Entrepreneur.com: What's the Best Way to Legally Structure Multiple Businesses?
- The Atlantic: Are Shell Companies Useful for People Who Aren’t Ludicrously Rich?
- Clark County, Nevada: Fictitious Firm Names
- IRS: Employer ID Numbers
- SBA.gov: Starting a Business: Register Your Fictitious or "Doing Business As" (DBA) Name
- Entrepreneur: Business License Definition
- SBA.gov: Starting a Business: What State Licenses and Permits Does Your Business Need?
- Library of Congress: Business Reference Services: Directories -- Doing Company Research
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.