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The SpeakAsia Story: E-commerce Innovation or Fraud?

Zafar Anjum | Jan. 17, 2014
Has SpeakAsia, a Singapore-registered company, taken the concept of e-commerce and social media too far? The company has run afoul of the Indian government, with its assets frozen, officials arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering in India to the tune of US$ 368 million. In an exclusive interview with Computerworld Singapore, the company’s embattled CEO Manoj Kumar Sharma explains what went wrong with his company in India.

"We are glad that the police have filed a charge sheet," he says. "Now we have the opportunity to explain our case before the judges."

Why did it take the economic offences wing (EOW) of Mumbai Police more than two years to file a 5,000-plus page charge sheet against the 13 office-bearers and franchisees of SpeakAsia and eight other companies?

"The charge sheet contains all the evidence that we have collected during the investigation. It was a lengthy probe. The money was collected in India, laundered in Dubai and other countries, and hence, it took time to file the charge sheet. We will be filing supplementary charge sheets too," Rajvardhan Sinha, city EOW chief told the Times of India.

The charge sheet names SpeakAsia COO Tarak Bajpai; director of Tulsiyat Tek Rajiv Mehrotra; SpeakAsia prime franchisee Deepankar Sarkar; panellists Ashish Dandekar, Raeesh Shaikh, Rahul Shah, Sanjiv Dandona among others; and eight firms-SpeakAsia Online, Haren Ventures Pvt Ltd, Tulsiyat Tek, Tulsient Info System, Kritanj Management and Allied Services, Seamless Outsourcing, Seven Rings Education and Seven Rings International.

"The accused have been booked for forgery, criminal conspiracy and cheating among other charges under the Indian Penal Code and Prize Chit and Money Circulation Banning Act. The maximum punishment for these offences is up to seven years' jail," B P Shelke, investigating officer, told media.

How did an e-commerce company become a hunted organization in India? What was wrong in its business model? And what are the lessons for other companies in this case?

E-commerce or Ponzi scheme?

The police have said in their charge sheet that SpeakAsia is a Ponzi scheme. Their main charge against SpeakAsia is this: As per the scheme, each investor (panellist) would be given two surveys a week to complete on an annual fee of Rs 11,000. If the investor successfully completed all the surveys, he or she would be entitled to Rs 52,000 a year (Rs 1,000 per week or Rs. 4,000 per month).

Sharma denies this characterization. According to Sharma, the business of SpeakAsia is not an 'investment scheme'. "There is not even an iota of evidence to suggest that SpeakAsia had asked any person to invest any money with a promise of any return. It is completely misleading and incorrect to suggest that SpeakAsia had propagated that upon investing Rs.11,000, one would get a return of Rs.52,000. At no place, SpeakAsia had made any such statement," says Sharma.

Sharma claims that the Company's business model is valid and legal. "Since there is no element of investment and there being various external sources of income, there is no question of this business model being considered as Ponzi or Money circulation scheme which is banned under Prize Chits and Money Circulation Scheme (Banning) Act, 1979," he says.


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