The Financial Express

e-commerce in troubled waters  

e-commerce in troubled waters   

The names like Evaly, Eorange, Dhamaka have recently been in the headlines, but for the wrong reason. For those names are being equated with cheating. Posing as e-business platforms, they took millions of taka in advance from their unsuspecting customers promising delivery of the cargoes afterwards with incredible discounts of 80 to 150 per cent. In some cases, a fraction of the promised deliveries was made while for others nothing reached the customer's end. The government finally put its foot down to hold the operators of some of the fraudulent e-business platforms to account. Meanwhile, amid the government action, many clients thus defrauded by these e-commerce platforms have lodged some 6,000 complaints with the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP). Some of these organisations are under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), while some operators of these e- business platforms have been arrested by the police. This is no doubt bad news for Bangladesh's online business, which, of late, saw a remarkable rise. Syed Almas Kabir, president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), for example, thinks the e-business is actually booming and within the next three years its net worth will be around USD 3.0 billion.

 Market analysts attribute the recent spike in the online business's popularity to the pandemic-induced restrictions on the public's movement. As physical shopping was out of question amid the strict lockdowns, many among the public, who earlier would look at the online retail operators with suspicion, were forced to seek their service. When they found that the service was prompt and reliable and that they could get delivery of the cargoes they ordered at their doorstep, it was definitely a game changer for those people's perception of shopping. They were beginning to love such shopping experience. But the tricksters would not allow that to happen. Their fraudulent means proved to be a blot on the e-business landscape. It is not just the new converts, but many bona fide customers of online retailing have also got disillusioned.

The fallout from this dishonest practice by a section of e-commerce portals is that a big trust-deficit has been created between the online customers and e-business in general. The fledgling online business industry will as a result reap the fruits of dishonest dealings by a handful of operators. Who is to blame for this? Normally, is it not the devious operators who bamboozled the trustful customers? But to be too trustful in a marketplace is also not the sign of a discerning customer. And this lack of wariness on the part of some customers is also an issue that has come under scrutiny.

Many are also pointing the finger at the excessive greed of the customers who were cheated by the crafty e-commerce operators. The highest court, on this score, in its observation regarding a public interest litigation involving the alleged act of cheating customers by an e-commerce portal also warned the public against being greedy. The court also instructed all concerned to raise public awareness about the issue. Some government high-ups have also pointed at the propensity of some among the public to get rich overnight.

True, if a person is taken in by a trickster who made a ludicrously lucrative offer, then it is the cheated one who is usually derided by the public for being gullible. Consider the case of Alesha Mart, an e-commerce platform. It allegedly posted an ad in the company's Facebook offering a card that would enable its users to buy various goods and services from the company at a concessional rate. The customers would get discounts even as high as 50 per cent against the goods or services purchased through the card. Alesha Mart also reportedly took Tk 8,000 in advance from its customers to get the cards. But any posting of ad or taking money before delivering the goods is, according to the government's e-commerce guidelines, unauthorised. Another online e-business platform, Evaly, was accused of not delivering goods even after taking money from customers in advance. The company's liabilities were higher than its assets, the commerce ministry was learnt to have found. The said e-business platform's heads are now in police custody. In either case, many customers of the noted companies were taken for a ride for their naivete.

This calls for making serious efforts towards raising public awareness through providing the potential e-business clients with some guidelines on how to navigate the treacherous electronic marketplace. Having said that we also need to note that e-market cannot be singled out for being hazard-pone. In fact, being perilous is in the nature of any market, digital or otherwise. So, the suggestion made by some that the e-business should be entirely shut down is completely nonsense. In this regard, the commerce minister's statement during the press briefing following the inter-ministerial meeting on e-business that this mode of trade will continue as usual makes sense. And he was right when he said that thousands of e-business platforms cannot suffer due to the gross irregularities committed by a few, hardly a dozen, bad apples. Even so, worries remain. Will the victims of online cheating get their money back? But the commerce minister's observation that they might not, is of real concern. One would still like to hope that those in authority would not wash their hands of the matter in this manner. At the same time, the government's latest move to bring the e-commerce sector under strict regulatory control, it is believed, would finally be able to restore order in the crisis-prone e-commerce sector.


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