Indian authorities have launched an investigation into Speak Asia, an online survey company that has collected hundreds of crores from users by promising huge payments for filling its surveys. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA), Economic Offences Wing, market regulator Sebi and bank regulator Reserve Bank of India will look into different aspects of the Singapore-based firm’s operations here, following complaints from various consumer groups, persons familiar with the development said.
Investor protection groups allege Speak Asia, which started operations in India about a year ago, appears to be running a Ponzi scheme where new investments are used to pay existing subscribers. An Economic Offences Wing official confirmed the probe. “A three-member team has been deployed to investigate the matter after we received complaints on the company’s working,” he told ET. A corporate affairs ministry official said it has initiated a fact-finding effort to identify details of Speak Asia’s registration and offices after receiving some complaints.
Speak Asia, which does not have an office in the country, charges 10,000 or 5,000 upfront from web surfers towards a subscription of ‘Surveys Today’ e-zine, an online magazine, for one year and six months respectively to enrol as its panellists. But it offers up to 900 to fill up twosurveys of about 12 lines each. And it says it has enrolled 1.9 million panellists.
While Sebi will examine if it is a collective investment scheme, which the company has denied, the Reserve Bank will probe if there is money laundering. ” Speak Asia is running a money circulation scheme that comes under the purview of the state governments. However, the Reserve Bank is also investigating if the unregistered company has remitted money overseas above the permissible limit,” a person familiar with the development said. Sebi officials declined comment. An RBI spokesman only said the bank does not regulate multi-level marketing companies.
One of the complainants is Kirit Somaiya, a former Member of Parliament and president of the Investors’ Grievances Forum. He alleges that Speak Asia is a fly-by-night operator trying to dupe investors. “It does not have any legal documents to carry its business. How can a company give 52,000 per week ( i think its per annum as far as i understood this) for a subscription of 11,000 per annum for e-zine?” he says.
The company’s income projections suggest that the joining fee can be recouped within 8-10 weeks. But it is not clear for whom it is doing the job. While Speak Asia claimed to have ICICI Bank, Bharti, Bata and Nestle among its clients, all these companies have denied doing any business with it. An ICICI Bank spokesperson said: “Speak Asia has never been engaged by ICICI Bank for any survey.”
At a press conference on Monday, Speak Asia Online CEO (India) Manoj Kumar apologised for using ICICI Bank’s name. But after that, in an email response to ET, the company once again said it has done internalsurveys for ICICI Bank. While the company seems to have kept its subscribers happy thus far, its other details are not reaffirming. It has changed its name three times in the last five years and is blacklisted in Singapore for non-compliance. And its website gives no Indian address, only two Delhi phone numbers. Indian Direct Selling Association , a self-regulatory body of network marketing companies too, said Speak Asia is not registered with it.