‘Frustration’ and ‘disillusionment’ are perhaps the two words that best explain the current mental state of Bangladesh’s online customers, who swayed by the aggressive marketing and huge price discounts and exciting offers by various e-commerce platforms, spent substantial amount of their hard-earned money on what they thought were once-in-a-lifetime offers to get their hands on that fancy motorbike, other more valuable products, fashion items, etc., only to realise the money that they had spent were stuck with the e-commerce players even as the wait for the delivery of products turned from days to months to unending periods.
It is a different story though that in the last one-and-a-half-years, e-commerce in Bangladesh has witnessed a tremendous growth, thanks to the pandemic induced restrictions and lockdowns, which led general people to depend on the e-commerce platforms to cater to their day-to-day requirements to buying for oneself fashion clothes and accessories during the festival season and even gift the near and dear ones as malls and stores remained closed due to Covid scare.
However, call it the lack of checks and balances or something else, many unscrupulous e-commerce entrepreneurs took advantage of this new-found popularity of the online marketplaces to amass wealth for themselves by swindling the customers even as reports suggest many resorting to large-scale cheating and money laundering, amongst which were some renowned and big names as well, that came to light following customers approaching the courts and other concerned authorities with allegations of being cheated, which made the Government to wake up and smell the coffee.
Believe it or not, even the Commerce Minister of the country recollected one such incident, when he himself, reportedly became a victim of the same.
Over time, the issue reached such proportions that the Commerce Ministry had to come up with guidelines for the sector after due consultations with the stakeholders but going by the reports of anomalies by the e-commerce entities, it seems impact of the new guidelines is yet to become visible even as rampant malpractices within the sector reportedly continues, which led Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina now to promise stern action against those involved in embezzling funds in the name of digital commerce.
“Some people try to swindle people by taking advantage of their bad times. They (fraudsters) will surely be punished. We haven’t sat idle. They were arrested instantly…And as they have been arrested, we will also find out where they’ve kept the money and what assets they have made,” maintained the Bangladesh Prime Minister, adding, “We are investigating where they kept the money or laundered it abroad. We will refund it whenever we get the money.”
It was thus just a matter of time before the concerned authorities further stepped up action against the errant players, which they did in the right earnest even as the Government decided to start registering e-commerce and F-commerce firms shortly, in a bid to restore discipline in the nascent industry and protect customers and merchants from unscrupulous business practices with the Commerce Ministry reportedly already finalising the draft of the registration form to provide a unique number to e-commerce platforms.
“We are trying to start the registration process as soon as possible,” stated Additional Secretary of the Commerce Ministry Hafizur Rahman speaking to the media while Commerce Secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh on his part underlined, “We are hopeful that we will be able to start the registration within the next one month,” while adding the registration form would be approved soon so that online firms could register quickly.
The companies that are currently running e-commerce operations in Bangladesh following registration with the Register of Joint Stock and Companies and Firms will also have to register with the Commerce Ministry even if the Government has moved to introduce a unique number for the e-commerce as well as Facebook-based digital commerce firms known as F-commerce after some digital platforms recently failed to deliver products to customers despite receiving advance payments months earlier.
Scores of top officials of many e-commerce firms are facing charges ranging from funds embezzlement to money laundering, and some of them were sent to jail even as according to an estimate of the Commerce Ministry, there are around 2,500 e-commerce and more than 2.5 lakh F-commerce platforms operating in Bangladesh.
“Primarily, we will make the registration free of cost. If necessary, we may charge a fee in the future,” said Rahman while adding, “In future, a separate cell may be created or a dedicated office of the Commerce Ministry might be set up to oversee the registration and monitor the activities of the registered firms,” even if the registration process is expected to enhance transparency and ensure the accountability of the Ministry, other Government departments or agencies and the e-commerce firms.
After the latest anomalies in the burgeoning e-commerce sector emerged, the Government has taken a lot of initiatives to discipline errant e-commerce companies and restore customers’ confidence in the sector while the Commerce Ministry has set up a 16-member high-powered committee, which in turn formed a nine-member sub-committee recently to suggest whether a new law is required to run the sector or existing laws are adequate to regulate it while the Commerce Ministry has identified 10 errant e-commerce companies which are said to be involved in fraudulent business practices, aimed at deceiving consumers and merchants.
So, when the Government is working on putting in place mechanisms to control and bring things back to place in the long run, law enforcement agencies have already started full-fledged crackdown against errant e-commerce platforms even as owners and top officials of several big e-commerce firms have been arrested recently over financial scams and, it is the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) which has been tasked with investigating bulk of the cases related to the e-commerce platforms. Speaking to the media, CID Additional Deputy Inspector General Kamrul Ahsan said they were investigating at least 24 cases against e-commerce platforms, including Evaly, E-ornage, Dhamaka, RingID, SPC World, Nirapad.com, 24tkt.com, Sirajganj Shop, Qcoom, while adding the firms primarily faced cases over money laundering, breach of the Digital Security Act and fraudulences.
Meanwhile, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Detective Branch Additional Commissioner AKM Hafiz Akter said that 12–15 more e-commerce platforms were under their surveillance as there were allegations against them of defrauding thousands of customers even as no Government agencies have reportedly been able to estimate exactly how much money customers have so far lost to such errant e-commerce platforms while some recent case statements and information provided by law enforcement agencies suggest that around Taka 3,500 crore has been embezzled from customers by the e-commerce platforms already.
As the allegations of fraudulences against the errant e-commerce entities kept piling up, Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) on 16 September arrested Evaly CEO Mohammad Rassel and his wife Shamima Nasrin, also Chairperson of the e-commerce company, on charges of cheating and intimidating a customer even as during the interrogation, Rassel reportedly told the police that Evaly owed around Taka 950 crore to customers and businessmen.
Separately, on 29 September, the RAB arrested the Chief Operating Officer Sirajul Islam Rana and two other officials of e-commerce platform Dhamaka in a case filed by a customer against the company on charges of embezzlement even as RAB’s Media Wing Director Lieutenant Colonel Khandaker Al-Moin said that the firm had transacted about Taka 750 crore and pocketed most of the money while adding Dhamaka owed its customers and suppliers some Taka 400 crore but had less than Taka 1 lakh in its bank accounts.
Earlier, in mid-August, a customer filed a case against E-orange with the Gulshan police station over embezzlement of Taka 1,100 crore, following which, E-orange owner Sonia Mehjabin and her husband Masukur Rahman were arrested in the case while very recently, the CID arrested SPC World Express owner Al-Amin and his wife even as the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB) has recently suspended the membership of eight e-commerce platforms, including Evaly, E-orange, Dhamaka, Sirajganj Shop, after receiving allegations against them of committing fraudulence.
As per reports, e-CAB has 1,620 members and 21 of them are facing allegations of cheating customers, even as the association has reportedly served show-cause notices on the errant companies after receiving several allegations against them.
Now, if such a crackdown on the errant players can bring back the discipline and semblance in the sector, which is growing very fast and has a lot of potential for the future, remains to be seen though.