The IRS requires businesses to sign up for employer identification numbers for tax purposes. Although they are similar to Social Security numbers, EINs can much more easily become public information than an SSN, especially if the business is publicly traded. If you know a company’s EIN, you can get information on its ownership, as well as other information, as long as you know where to look.
Before you were able to start working, you needed a Social Security number, which you put on tax forms when you got your first job. At tax time, you provide that information to the IRS, where it is matched to all other documents filed that are related to your tax activities throughout the year. If a person’s SSN falls into the wrong hands, though, it can be dangerous; when combined with other information, it could be used for identity theft purposes.
An EIN is a unique number assigned to each business for tax identification. To get an EIN, businesses apply on the IRS' website by providing some basic information. It takes only a few minutes and once it’s in place, the business can start using it on paperwork that requires it. Generally, this only applies at tax time, but it’s also necessary when a business opens a bank account, files for business permits or takes out a credit card.
SSNs are protected information due to security concerns. The same concept doesn’t apply to EINs, though. Once an entity registers as a business, its EIN becomes public information. Unfortunately, EINs aren’t immune to identity theft and, in fact, stolen EINs have been used for fraudulent purposes. In order to commit fraud, though, criminals must know enough details about the business to fool the IRS.
To keep EINs safe, businesses are advised to protect the information whenever possible. Businesses that have credit scores should also regularly check their credit reports in order to know as soon as possible when illicit activity has taken place. You can also set up alerts so that you’ll know if an issue occurs. But with the information being public, it can be tricky to protect it.
Just like individuals who provide Social Security numbers, businesses provide their EIN whenever engaging in activities that the IRS needs to know about. Most often this involves the paperwork necessary to financial transactions. If a business pays contractors or vendors, for instance, the EIN may be found on the check or on the forms it sends to the IRS at tax time. An EIN is also used to open a business bank account, so it can be found on account applications.
Once a business begins making tax payments, both locally and federally, the EIN will be used for those transactions, whether online or by mail. If the business saves copies of these submissions, the EIN will be on that paperwork, but if the business is wise, that documentation will be kept secure. If a business loses the EIN, it can contact the IRS or its bank to get the number by providing some identifying information. But only an employee closely affiliated with the business should be able to do this. EINs are also on the paperwork a business files with state government agencies, but this information should be safeguarded from third parties, as well.
It’s important determine exactly why you’re trying to look up a business’ ownership information. If all you have is an EIN, your options are limited to resources that have that information. However, if you know the company’s name or enough information to track it down, there are much easier ways to look up ownership information than trying to round it up through the EIN.
The first place to look for information about a business is, of course, its website. Often there will be an "Our Team" page or a history of the company discussing who formed it and whether it switched hands over the years. You may even be able to find financial documents on a business’ page. After a quick Google search, if you still can’t find ownership information on the company in question, try Crunchbase, which not only provides ownership information, but also the date the company was founded and the number of people it employs. You’re likely also get more information than you’d ever want to know about a company through its LinkedIn page, which not only offers the owner’s information, but will also link you to that person’s page, where you can find work history. And, of course, there’s the always-free option of picking up the phone and calling the company to ask.
You may have better luck looking for company information by state. Each local government has its own setup when it comes to helping consumers find information on businesses. You can get to the search page by entering your state and the words “business search.” For New York state, for example, business search information is under a division called Corporations, State Records and UCC. This contains information not only of private and public businesses, but of nonprofits, as well.
In most cases, though, you won’t be able to search local databases by the EIN; you’ll need to know the company's name at the very least. However, if you have a company name, this can be a great, free way to get ownership information and other vitals on a business in your state. If you know an EIN, though, you could try contacting your state’s revenue department and providing the information to see if they can help. An EIN is more protected than a business’ name or owner, so government agency representatives should be willing to work with you.
Once you have an EIN, you can look up the business using one of the many databases available. The only problem is, you’ll often have to pay for the privilege. LexisNexis allows you to search for a business by EIN, but it doesn’t come cheap. You can pay $20 for a day rate to get the information you need, but if you'll be looking up EINs regularly, you’ll need to pay for a monthly membership.
If you only need to look up information on one business, a free option is FEINSearch.com, which offers up to five searches for free. You’ll be required to provide contact information and create an account to do so, though, and you must be a business user to qualify for a free account.
There are multiple ways to obtain the EIN for a business. If the company is public, you’ll likely find its EIN on its Investor Relations website. You can also go to the SEC’s filings page, where publicly traded company documents are listed. Generally, the EIN is on the first page of any official filing document. If you can’t find the EIN listed there, you can usually rely on the EDGAR online database, which provides information on publicly traded companies.
If you already have a company's EIN, though, you likely found it on a piece of paperwork you have on hand. Businesses often list EINs on documents like annual reports. You may also have found it on your tax forms or pay stubs if you’re an employee or contractor of a company. In that case, you may be looking for ownership information on that business for very specific reasons.
For-profit organizations aren’t the only ones that need an EIN. Charities and other nonprofits must apply for one, as well, even if they have 501(c)(3) status. In fact, the IRS requires that they get one before they can even request tax-exempt status. They still have to file tax returns each year, and the information included on that filing is accessible to the public. Each nonprofit is required to make its tax form, Form 990, viewable upon request during regular business hours. You may even find this information on the organization's website. However, don’t expect that you’ll find its EIN on this form, since the nonprofit will likely redact it to protect itself against fraud.
You can search the IRS' database for information on a nonprofit by EIN for free. But if you can’t find the information you need there, basic information on organizations is posted on GuideStar, a site that provides information on nonprofits. However, you won’t be able to search by EIN using the free version of that site, and you’ll only be able to access basic information about the organization. To search by EIN, you’ll need to upgrade to a premium subscription, which starts at about $125 per month. But once you’re signed up, you can search by 13 different fields, including EIN. You may be able to at least find the nonprofit’s name using the free IRS search and put that information to use in finding the name you need through a basic web search.
A business needs an EIN before it can do basic things, such as get a bank account or file for appropriate licenses with the state. The process of getting an EIN is extremely easy, though. Simply navigate to the IRS website and search for “apply for an EIN.” You’ll only be able to obtain a number between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. EST, and you’ll need to have the SSN for the person applying.
The good news is, validations are handled electronically and once they’re completed, you’ll get a number immediately. You can’t apply online if your business already has an EIN, though. In that case, you’ll need to contact the IRS to get a new number. You’ll also be limited to one EIN per responsible party per day, so if you’re registering a business for multiple locations, space your requests out over more than one day.
Most businesses have only one EIN over the course of their existence. However, there are times when a business’ EIN may change. If a company files for bankruptcy protection, for instance, or changes its name or location. The IRS also expects businesses to obtain a new number if their structure or ownership changes.
This is significant to a person trying to track down a business’ ownership by EIN, since the information could be outdated if the business hasn’t updated its EIN as required. They may not realize they need to do it, or they could simply wait until tax season to worry about it. For that reason, once you’ve gotten the business name from your EIN search, it might be worthwhile to check the business’ website and other resources to verify that the information you have is up to date.