Moneylife investigation reveals that the mysterious trail of Speak Asia runs through several India companies and the money is being remitted to purchase 'survey software' from a company linked to the shadowy promoters
Some new, worrying details about Speak Asia, the flashy survey company that has ensnared millions of gullible Indians over the past few months, are now available from a Moneylife investigation.
It now appears that Speak India Network Marketing P Ltd is a company registered in Mumbai, with Indian directors. This company and Speak India Online are collecting money from survey panelists and have accounts in ICICI Bank, ING, State Bank of India and a dozen others. Each bank has remitted Rs50 crore to Rs180 crore. About Rs1,000 crore has already been transferred abroad. The money remitted to these accounts are pooled into a company called Tulsiateck, which is also registered in Mumbai.
Our sources tell us that Tulsiateck remits funds to buy "survey software" from a company called Haren Ventures Pte of Singapore owned by Harender Kaur, who sometimes appears as a promoter of Speak Asia at mega events such as the glitzy conference recently held in Goa. The money from Haren Ventures in Singapore may or may not be going to Speak Asia Singapore, the company in whose name this massive 'survey' company has enrolled 1.9 million panelists. Haren Ventures is the distributor of e-zine "Surveys Today". Interestingly, it is also into trading in coal from Kalimantan mines in Indonesia, for China and India, shows a Google search.
We now learn from the banks that some of the accounts of Speak India have been frozen for possible legal violations. If banks take a tough stand, Speak Asia may fold up as quickly as it grew.
For months together there has been no clarity about Speak Asia's business model and no information has been forthcoming as to who owns Speak Asia and how it makes money. It appeared to be another chain-marketing scheme, which was distributing liberal patronage to the Indian media, hiring expensive advertising and public relations firms, even as it was spreading its tentacles at lightening speed.
After the banks have frozen the accounts for possible foreign exchange violations, it should now become an issue that has to be investigated by the Enforcement Directorate, which has clearly been sleeping on its job. The pooling of funds and the import of bogus software is in the jurisdiction of the Enforcement Directorate.
Strangely enough, at the press conference Speak Asia held on Monday, company officials neatly evaded all issues, saying it was collecting Rs11,000 as a deposit from panelists. It claimed that this money was the subscription price for the spectacularly expensive magazine called "Surveys Today".
The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Corporate Affairs have done nothing so far to follow the trail of the large sums of money raised by this company and its modus operandi. Right from the growth of Speak Asia, Moneylife has been warning the public about this company. Recently, two TV channels also telecast detailed reports on the issue.
The court said despite the department coming to know about tax evasion cases in 2008, it started taking action only after March this year after it was directed to file action taken report. The court added that had it not intervened, the officials would have "slept over it" and the oversees probe would not have proceeded
New Delhi: The Supreme Court today pulled up the Income Tax (I-T) department for not taking timely action against the companies involved in the second generation (2G) spectrum allocation scam and said had it not intervened, the officials would have "slept over it" and the oversees probe would not have proceeded, reports PTI.
The court said despite the department coming to know about tax evasion cases in 2008, it started taking action only after March this year after it was directed to file action taken report.
"We are sure they (I-T department) would have slept over it otherwise (if it had not intervened). There is no doubt about it," a bench comprising justices GS Singhvi and AK Ganguly said.
Additional Solicitor General Vivek Tankha, appearing for the department, tried to justify the delay saying that big companies are involved in the case and they are creating obstacles.
The court, however, was not satisfied with the submission and said there is no need to say all these things about these companies as they are "prima facie tax evaders".
"How are they big? What kind of mindset do you have? Prima facie they all are tax evaders. Do not call them big. Do not insult the word," the bench said.
The department also informed that all telecom companies, which after the allotment of the spectrum, have sold their controlling stakes to foreign firms through the Mauritius route, have been asked to pay tax on the capital gain from such transactions.
Mr Tankha submitted that the department has already served notices to these firms and are treating them as assessees.
"The Director General of International Transactions has already issued notices to them. Some of them have already admitted that they should be taxed in India and we have issued them notices. They have permanent offices in India and they are assessees now," said Mr Tankha.
The bench asked the I-T department to complete the departmental proceedings against the tax-evading firms within the permitted time.
The bench also asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and I-T department to cooperate with each other during the probe.
The department said that it was following the Vodafone case, where the UK-based telecom giant bought controlling 67% stake in the Hutchison Essar using the DTAA (Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement) route in Mauritius and claimed exemption. However, the apex court asked it to make part payment of Rs2,500 crore.
At a specially called ‘damage control’ press conference in Mumbai, Speak Asia officials refuse to divulge any details unless journalists sign a non-disclosure agreement with them. The officials also apologise for mentioning the names of ICICI Bank, Bata, Nestle and Bharti Airtel as their clients
Speak Asia (SpeakAsiaonline.com), the online survey company engaged in multi-level marketing (MLM) to spread its network across the country, on Monday said that it could not disclose specific information regarding its business. The company's top officials told a press conference in Mumbai, the first time the company has called such a media meet, that unless the journalists present sign a non-disclosure agreement with them, Speak Asia could not divulge details like the names of its clients and financials. (View the video of the press conference at 01.07.56, at the end of this report.)
Manoj Kumar, the company's chief executive for India, apologised for naming ICICI Bank, Bata, Nestle, Bharti Airtel and ING Vyasa Bank as Speak Asia's clients. "Taking the names of these organisations was a factual error on the part of our chief marketing officer Vivek Gautam and I apologise on behalf of Speak Asia," Mr Kumar said. He, however, said that during the initial period of operations, Speak Asia had worked on these brands, although the service was not commissioned by these institutions.
Throughout the press conference, all the company's officials, including Mr Kumar, president for emerging markets, Narayanan Rajagopalan and chief marketing officer Vivek Gautam, refused to answer any of the questions put by journalists in a simple 'yes' or 'no' manner. Mr Kumar repeatedly diverted the focus of the specific questions that led the media people to ask him to answer with a simple 'yes' or 'no'.
To date, Speak Asia does not have any registered office or registration of any kind in India. Today, the officials also failed to clarify the authority under which the company operates. All they pointed to were some generic documents and circulars of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and other authorities. Mr Rajagopalan said, "We are setting up a permanent establishment in India from 1st August and set up five offices across the country by the end of 2011."
Denying that Speak Asia is an MLM operator, he said that the company is neither a survey company nor a marketing company in the broad sense, but it was a 'precision' marketing services (panel) provider. While Mr Rajagopan insisted on the word 'precision', he failed to explain the rational of allowing its customers (again no agent, panellist or subscribers) to buy 21 pins or IDs to buy its e-zine, "Surveys Today".
Talking about market research, the official said that currently the cost of undertaking such activity was very high and there was inflated cost of ownership for it. "Therefore, Speak Asia, provides an opportunity for companies to do market surveys in a cost-effective manner from its number of panelists," he said. Speak Asia pays Rs500 for every survey filled by its panelist. However, according to market sources, the cost of conducting a survey in India is not so high and companies pay about Rs10 to Rs60 per person covered in a survey.
Mr Rajagopalan also claimed that in the US companies paid $12 to $100 for every online survey and yet the rate of responses there was just 0.5%. However, a simple web search shows that in the US companies pay $1 to $30 per online survey completed.
On the company's revenue stream, Mr Rajagopalan said, Speak Asia earned money by providing its panels to marketing research organisations (the company is not one of them) for online surveys, commission earned by selling products and revenues from displaying ads. The company started operations in January 2010, but its official launch happened only in May 2010. Since then, Speak Asia has remitted about Rs325 crore from India and distributed around Rs250 crore to its panelists, sorry...customers. The company spent about Rs50 crore-Rs60 crore on advertising, public relations agency fees and brand building, and earned a net profit of Rs15 crore, to date, Mr Kumar, the CEO for India informed.
Speak Asia claimed to have paid Rs68 crore as service tax through its collection agents, but preferred to keep mum on the question of any tax deduction at source (TDS), or income tax deducted from payments to its agents.
In a statement distributed today, Speak Asia said, "At the end of its first phase, Speak Asia Online Pte Ltd (SAOL) has clocked a revenue turnover of USD80.5 million over the last three quarters. 1.2 million panellists have received monies over USD52 million over this period through bank transfers via RBI authorized forex channels. This income has been generated by filling up of surveys, giving online opinion on advertisements watched, and income accrued from referring other panellists. The company has till date invested over USD9 million for various marketing, training and business development programmes. The company in line with other overseas online businesses has a collection representative, which pays all applicable service tax in India; they have paid a total of INR68 crores as service tax to the government of India, up to April 30, 2011."
To date, the company has avoided replying to e-mail messages by Moneylife about its registration and jurisdiction. However, in the statement, the company said SAOL is committed to transparency and corporate governance in all aspects of its operations across function areas.
Interestingly, company officials continued to play goof-up on the question about its operations. They said, Speak Asia operates in India, but has neither any operation nor any business in Bangladesh. Mr Kumar responded in the negative when asked at least two or three times about the company's operations in Bangladesh.
However, a letter from the company's owner Haren (Harender Kaur of Singapore) put up on the Speak Asia website mentions its ongoing operations in Bangladesh. According to Mr Kumar, Ms Kaur and her family owns SAOL. The letter which is not dated, says, "I am pleased to announce that Bangladesh has really done well in the Speak Asia way of operations and the rate of growth has been tremendous. The master distributor for Bangladesh has been finalised and shall be in working condition by the 20th of April. Their location shall be in Chittagong. All the new members joining Speak Asia shall have an option of paying in Bangladesh Takas only w.e.f 20th April 2011. Henceforth all the panel income (binary commissions) shall be remitted locally in BDT by direct bank transfers to the panelist accounts. This shall be completed by the end of April 2011. All the existing payouts shall be organised by the master distributor via bank transfers."
An interesting aspect is that the company, which up to yesterday said it was 'Asia's largest online survey company', today changed its tagline, choosing to be called 'Asia's leading integrated market services agency'.
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See the webcast of the press conference...