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We were always hot on its trail
Like all pyramid-marketing schemes, Speak Asia also flew below the radar until the number of panellists and their fat earnings caused a steady buzz. Moneylife decided to investigate when several readers posted queries on our website asking if the scheme was safe and above board. After all, Moneylife had exposed schemes like Gold Quest and the Orissa bank deposit scheme in the past. We discovered that Speak Asia had Indian promoters, but was registered in Singapore by the name Haren Technology Pte Ltd. Earlier, it claimed that there was no legal presence in India; our investigations have gradually discovered otherwise.
The scheme: Speak Asia requires people to enrol as ‘panellists’ by depositing Rs11,000 per identity for the job of filling out ‘surveys’ which it claims to conduct on behalf of client companies. Each identity is entitled to receive up to two surveys per week fetching a compensation of Rs500 each. However, the real moolah comes from enrolling new panellists in a binary scheme. This fetches a further Rs1,000 per new recruitment to Speak Asia.
The completion of a right and left leg recruitment entails a further commission of Rs1,000. In effect, an aggressive panellist could earn a return of over 500%. Since all the early panellists received the promised payout, word spread like wildfire and, by 16th May, when the company held its first press conference in Mumbai, it claimed a whopping 1.9 million panellists with plans to increase the number to 10 million by the end of 2011. Of course, the growth had slowed down dramatically after the media exposed its inability to answer basic queries as well as its many falsehoods. Here are some examples:
It claimed to conduct surveys for companies such as ICICI Bank, Bharti Airtel, Nestlé and Bata. All of them denied any association with Speak Asia and the company admitted as much at its press conference. Worse, it couldn’t name a single client and hid the fact by asking journalists to sign a confidentiality agreement. In fact, a genuine company would have boasted about its blue-chip clients.
While ING Vysya and ICICI Bank were supposed to be its bankers, both denied holding its accounts. Moneylife has since unearthed that the accounts were held in the two banks by companies such as Speak India, Speak India Online, Kritanj Management Services, Star Enterprises and Tulsiyat Tek Pvt Ltd. Sources say that there are dozens of other entities which have collected money paid by panellists, each reporting a multitude of businesses to the banks, to explain their source of funds. They include mobile services, intellectual property, agency fees, etc. Income-Tax Department sources say these entities have accounts in several banks including Allahabad Bank, Citibank, Yes Bank, HDFC Bank, State Bank of India, Axis Bank, etc, which have remitted the funds to core accounts for transmission abroad. The money, in turn, was transferred to Haren Ventures Pte Ltd of Singapore. We learn that over Rs500 crore has already been sent out of the country so far.
An interesting bombshell at its 16th May press conference was Speak Asia’s claim that panellists do not pay for filling out surveys, but for an annual subscription to an e-magazine that nobody seems to have seen. Moneylife later learnt that the company had to make this claim, because the entities that transferred funds to Singapore had claimed to be distributors for the e-magazine and were repatriating subscriptions. Banks were also told that the money was being paid for ‘survey software’. Again, Moneylife found that Haren Ventures has not developed any special ‘survey software’ which is used by Speak Asia. In fact, they used a free online site called www.surveymonkey.com and recently bought Novi Survey.
Singapore-based Speak Asia online Pte Ltd was previously known as Haren Technology Pte Ltd and is owned by one Harender Kaur. The company has been in trouble for not submitting accounts. While Speak Asia claims to be in existence since 2006, the website was actually launched only on 21 January 2010.
The company had hired two advertising and PR agencies. Aurum Media is still holding on to the Speak Asia account, but Lintas Lowe has resigned. Apart from a high-profile beach bash at Goa for its panellists, Speak Asia also released television commercials during IPL (Indian Premier League) matches and issued advertisements in leading print publications.
It continues to quietly announce plans to get into a slew of new businesses including a TV channel and providing feedback on advertisements. However, the fact is that none of these pay the kind of money that Speak Asia has been dishing out. The money (reward points, as they like to call it) earned by panellists goes into an electronic account which is drawn down at their convenience. Ever since it has been subject to investigation by the Income-Tax Department and others, Speak Asia has been telling panellists that they can redeem their earnings for buying books, products or services from them instead of cash.