In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
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.
SpeakAsia, is an online company collecting large sums of money by rapidly enrolling people with the promise of incredible payments for simply filling out online surveys. Our investigation, however, shows that the company is not registered in India and it cannot show us any legal documentation. Our efforts to get answers through its newly-appointed PR agency led to a threatening call from an agent of SpeakAsia. The company hopes to register one crore agents by the year-end
SpeakAsia (SpeakAsiaonline.com) an online survey company that uses multi-level marketing (MLM) to spread its wings across the country, does not appear to have any legal roots in India. Moneylife has been taking an interest in SpeakAsiaonline.com because its members and agents repeatedly ambush our comments section to hard sell the scheme, claiming to have earned large sums of money by filling out surveys. Consequently, our readers have frequently inquired whether SpeakAsiaonline.com is legitimate and if it will indeed cough up the high returns it promises.
When the company hired LinOpinion Public Relations, a leading PR agency, to handle its communications last week, we took the opportunity to send a list of queries, which were answered by Vivek Gautam, its chief marketing officer (CMO). While the company provided long answers to our questions (reproduced below), it has still not shown us any documentation that it is legally registered in India, or answered whether it requires regulatory clearance from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) or any other body.
Mr Gautam also sidestepped our question on the company's promoters. In addition, although it claims to be Asia's largest online survey company, it neither provide names of its top management nor addresses or contact details of its offices across the region, except in Singapore. (Read, "Another MLM scam in the happening, this time under the pretext of an online survey"). Moneylife has written to RBI deputy governor, Dr KC Chakrabarty, asking about the company and are awaiting a response.
Here are the responses from Vivek Gautam, of SpeakAsiaonline.com, to questions from Moneylife.
Q1. We have written in the past and even today, we could not find any valid or legal document that shows SpeakAsia as a registered entity in India. Can you tell us about the company's registration?
Ans: The company has a unique business model internationally. The business in a given country is supported by the factoral organisation, in India:
a) Own dedicated sales team. In India they have over 110 sales people. This team is managed by a fortune 500 company in India - Ma Foi.
b) A dedicated 53-man training and knowledge organisation in New Delhi managed by La- Marca.
c) Marketing communication managed by Raceme and Lintas.
d) Customer support both through a call center and a BPO managed by outsourced partner.
e) Technology support is managed by Xorient, an American MNC through its office in Mumbai.
f) The company pays all the taxes, like service tax, in India.
g) Foreign remittances are handled by RBI approved forex agents like ICICI Bank.
i) The company is registered in Singapore and is not required to have a permanent establishment (PE) in India as per prevailing laws.
This level of intense on-the-ground infrastructure is rare in the online industry.
Q2. We would like to know about the founders/promoters of SpeakAsia in India. Can you share their contact details?
Ans: There are no promoters from India.
Q3. Has SpeakAsia obtained any permission from the RBI as the business involves handling foreign currency transactions?
Ans: Foreign remittances are handled by RBI-approved forex dealers ICICI Bank and ING Vysya Bank.
Q4. How does SpeakAsia transfer money from other currencies to Indian rupees and vice-versa into the panelists' account?
Ans: By bank transfer through TT. Indian banks convert the currency once the TT is received by a panelist.
Q5. Has SpeakAsia obtained any permission from SEBI to run a collective investment scheme, which promises assured returns?
Ans: NA (not applicable). It's not an investment scheme. Participation in the company activities earns reward points. No work-No rewards, unlike an investment.
Q6. Are there any legal cases pending against SpeakAsia in Singapore or in India?
Q7. We have written on SpeakAsia in the past and these reports received many comments from readers. Most of the comments were asking people to join the business with the promise to show income. We found it strange and unethical that panelists from a company should post so many comments, that too to spread their business on our site.
Ans: We will send a communication to panelists to desist from such promotion. Though, you will appreciate, we have very little control on independent consumers.
Moneylife's report about SpeakAsiaonline, published on 8 October 2010, continues to attract comments. Interestingly, a large number of them were panelists of SpeakAsiaonline who used our forum to market the service. We have been forced to delete these promotions from time to time.
According to a news report in February 2010, Singapore-based Harendra Kaur, through Haren Technologies, opened up a franchisee for SpeakAsia in India, which became operational from May 2010. Till date, the company claims to have enrolled around 7.5 lakh panelists and has ambitious plans to take this figure to one crore by end-December 2011, the report said.
A web search revealed that litigation has been filed against the company at several places. On 10 March 2011, the city magistrate, Gorakhpur, issued a notice to SpeakAsia for the third time seeking answers to 10 specific questions, it was reported by the Amar Ujala Hindi daily. The magistrate, Jitendra Pratap Singh, has asked the company to provide information about the MLM company's tax liabilities, how they provide money to subscribers at fixed currency rate, whether it has obtained permission from the RBI to conduct such operations, how it converts foreign currency into rupees for Indian subscribers, qualifications required to become a member, how the company maintains its records and the conditions to become a franchisee. What is stunning is that a person by the name of Anurag Nigam, who claimed to be the regional manager of SpeakAsia, could not provide any identification card or visiting card in the court, the newspaper reported.
In another news report published by Amar Ujala on 1 April 2011, Mr Gautam claimed that the company provides services to around 600 companies, including ICICI, Bata, Nestlé and Airtel. We sent mails to ICICI Bank and Bharti Airtel, but till the time of writing the story, there was no reply from them.
Most service provider companies are usually proud to display the names of their clients prominently on their web sites. However, either SpeakAsia is very shy, or it does not want to show off the names of its clients, who spend huge amounts of money on their surveys.
According to information available, SpeakAsia has set up its India offices at Navi Mumbai and Gurgaon. Here again, no information is available about these offices and addresses on the company website.
Although we have written about MLM companies many times in the past, here are a few facts that you need to keep in mind with regard to companies like SpeakAsia online.
1. Why would anyone pay Rs1,000 per week or Rs52,000 a year for a subscription of Rs11,000 per annum for a e-zine? Think for yourself as the owner of a company and answer this-would you pay four times the amount to anyone for his investment (!) in just one year?
2. If the business is so lucrative, why not offer this opportunity to people from other countries as well? How about doing this business in developed regions like the US and European countries? Where people do not get much more than about 3% a year on their investments. With returns as high as over four times their original investment, people from these regions would jump on to the online survey bandwagon. However, this will never happen, because there are very strict laws and punishments for fraud and for duping people in these regions, compared with that in India and Bangladesh. So the 'business' is thriving here and not in the US or even in Singapore, where SpeakAsia claims to be a registered entity.
3. Every agent, sorry, panelist of the company claims to have proof of their income from the surveys. However, what they show you as proof is not a bank statement, but their e-wallet created on the company site. Transferring money from e-wallet into a bank account involves a transaction charge of 3% or $7.5 per payment, whichever is higher.
4. You would rarely find any company doing marketing for its best-selling product. At the same time, you would find a number of offers for products that are not being sold as per expectations. Apply this logic to SpeakAsia, and you will understand why their agents are hell-bent on registering more and more people below their ranks. (BTW: It is called as legs, left and right and the pair is supposed to give the agent 'additional' binary income. The spreading of binary income is always in pyramid shape. The commission is given only on matching pairs, which means that if you have one sub-agent under one leg and two under another leg, you would receive commission only for two sub-agents and not three. In addition, every month, MLM companies 'carry' the stronger leg forward, or in short you miss commission from the leg that has less sub-agents.)
5. "If it looks too good to be true, it usually is." In short, stay away from any company, any scheme that promises you huge or substantial return.
Stockguru.India and its group companies are self-styled investment advisors, offering Rs22,000 on an investment of Rs10,000 in one year
As if there were not enough potholes on the stock market route, here is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company that is promising 20% returns per month! The company Stockguru.India describes itself as the country's 'Premier Financial Consultancy', offering trading solutions in equity, derivatives, currency futures, commodities trading, initial public offerings (IPOs), insurance (life/non-life), general insurance, mutual funds, portfolio management services, terminal handling all under one roof.
Stockguruindia.com (the company's portal) has only one standard line of advice in all market situations-whether it is a bull market or a bear market, range-bound market or volatile market. It says, "We advise our clients to buy shares at a low price and sell them at a higher price. Selecting the right share at the right price and entering the capital market at the right time is an art. We help all our clients to make huge profits by investing in good shares for very short/short/medium/long term depending upon the client's requirements. Trading/investment for minimum intraday to T+5 days may give you a handsome return of 5% to 25% on your capital investment."
This MLM company's investment (!) plan is simple. You pay a minimum Rs10,000 as investment and Rs1,000 as registration fees. There is no limit on the maximum amount one can invest. Stockguruindia.com offers a return of 20% per month for up to six months and the principal amount invested is returned in the next six months. It also gives post-dated cheques of the principal and a promissory note as security. In short, on an investment of Rs11,000, the company offers to pay you Rs12,000 in six months and the rest Rs10,000 over the next six months, a total of Rs22,000 or a 120% return in a year.
So how does Stockguruindia.com offer such a high return where even leading investors like Rakesh Jhunjhunwala found it very hard to earn even 20% return from the stock markets? Here is the company's logic..."If you have gained Rs1,000 somebody has lost Rs1,000. If you have lost Rs1,000 somebody has gained Rs1,000. Most of the people you meet say (around 90%) that we have lost a lot of money in the financial markets. But that means around 90% people you do not know have made huge profits. For every seller there is a buyer."
If this sounds to be too good to be true, it lures investors with an additional 3% per month income through a binary plan of 27 levels. Binary plans of MLM companies are the new clients you bring in, who are placed below you in rank in a right and left combination. It's nothing but a trap. All MLM companies promise say you rewards if you complete the left leg-right leg cycle. But in practice this does not happen. There are very few people who manage to do this in a proper way. A majority of those participating fall in the category where they lack a single member in one leg, or a member becomes inactive thus freezing the spread of that leg and the business.
How do MLM companies operate without a trading license from the regulators, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)? Why has there been no action against Stockguru.India, Stockguruindia.com and its subsidiaries? Market regulator SEBI had, on its part, issued SEBI (Investment Advisers) Regulations, 2007 (the 'Draft Regulations') to regulate the advisory activities of investment advisers in India. But till date it has remained a draft only.
According to R Balakrishnan, a columnist for Moneylife, India probably is the only market in the world where a distributor needs to pass an exam, but absolutely no qualifications are required for someone to become a fund manager. The same is applicable for investment advisors as well. As a result, there are a number of 'self-styled investment advisors', including wealth managers, private bankers, chartered accountants and even some MLM companies like Stockguru.India.
According to the SEBI Act 1992, "No stock-broker, sub-broker, share transfer agent, banker to an issue, trustee of trust deed, registrar to an issue, merchant banker, underwriter, portfolio manager, investment adviser and such other intermediary who may be associated with the securities market shall buy, sell or deal in securities except under, and in accordance with, the conditions of a certificate of registration obtained from the Board in accordance with the regulations made under this Act."
In addition, the Act says, "No person shall sponsor or cause to be sponsored or carry on or caused to be carried on any venture capital funds or collective investment scheme (CIS) including mutual funds, unless he obtains a certificate of registration from the Board in accordance with the regulations."
Stockguru.India and all its group companies are openly flouting the norms and rules. It is not registered with SEBI as investment adviser and still offers to trade on behalf of its clients. According to information available over the internet, Stockguru.India and its chairman and managing director Lokeshwar Dev, will help anyone to open a demat account with Sharekhan so that they can manage the investor's money. We checked with Sharekhan and the brokerage said, neither Stockguru.India nor Lokeshwar Dev have any relations with or any demat account with them.
In addition, neither Stockguru.India nor any of its group companies possess a certificate of registration from SEBI for CIS, but they are still collecting huge amounts from clients under the pretext of stock market investment. Are the regulators sleeping on this one?