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SpeakAsia: Another Ponzi Scheme in India?

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I recently read an article in the local daily here in Chandigarh, India that brought back memories of a sum of money I lost this year. God help poor Ph.D students like me who risk the little money that they possess for a prospect of earning a little more from it and losing it all. Am I greedy and stupid? I guess I can rightfully wear the dunce crown.

Anyway, the article said that a 26-year-old guy was arrested for misleading the police about a case he registered about being robbed of Rupees eight lakhs (~15,000 USD) at gunpoint. Investigations were on and gradually the cat got caught in the caveats of its concoction. Ah! He thought that he could fool the Chandigarh police; alas! He was no seasoned criminal to do so that easily, just the dude next door who thought he was smart.

Let me digress a bit. Charles Ponzi, on whose name the term “Ponzi scheme” was coined, was no nobleman. He devised a method to earn money which was so simple that I reckon it might have existed before Ponzi gained infamy from it. The scheme simply means that people have to invest a sum of money to become a member. This new money is used to pay people up the chain who joined it earlier. This way as newer members keep joining and the chain grows, the older members keep accumulating the money, but it really is no investment as the money is not growing anyway, there is just the constant inflow of new money. The only way to get the capital sum and more money back is by adding more people down the chain.

When the chain begins to break, i.e. the number of new members start to decrease, the payments begin to dwindle. Once this starts to happen, the newer members stand to gain very little or even lose their investment compared to the older ones who might have actually ended up earning quite a bit.

Despite this being common knowledge, Ponzi schemes are still alive and kicking under the guise of other credible and honest means. Another problem is that some people who have already invested in such a scheme, on the slightest hint of reality get desperate, cover up the truth, and get more people to join in, just so that their own money is recovered somehow.

And now I’ll talk about Singapore-based SpeakAsia Online, touted as the largest Asian online survey company. A close friend of mine who was swearing by it for months invested around 1500 USD, and brought in a number of panelist memberships which, according to me, made it theoretically impossible for him to fill the outrageous number of surveys that came his way every week; he pressed me hard to put money in as well.

The deal was simple: invest Rs 11,000 (~210 USD) to become a panelist and fill out surveys provided in a set of two every week, then start withdrawing money after eight weeks at the rate of Rs 1000 (~20 USD) every week for a whole year. Initially I discouraged my buddy from investing but after he did so against all my good advice and sat with me dreaming of his 1,500 USD magically mutiplying into more than 18,000 USD by filing out surveys over 12 months, the greed rubbed off on me as well. I threw all caution to the wind and invested all the money I had saved, a paltry sum of 620 USD. In the days that followed we both dreamt of the shiny cars we were about to own in the near future. SpeakAsia was one of the promoters of the famous Indian Premier League cricket tournament and thus gained widespread popularity and trust this year with our cricket-crazy Indian masses.

When I filled out their surveys, I found them to be rather downgraded versions of other surveys I had filled out for some known survey companies. Many a time, it seemed that the surveys were just put together in a hurry. Their language and sometimes their logic seemed messed up. When I talked about this to my friend, whose command over the English language is a bit compromised, he chided me for being pessimistic and reassured me saying that I was being over-cautious.

To my horror, just five weeks after I joined, we learnt that speakasia.com wasn’t sending any more surveys and its business accounts had been frozen by the Singapore government. Soon a legal battle ensued in India as well but like most court cases in India, this one has been on for more than six months now and it doesn’t seem like there will be a resolution anytime soon. How I ruefully remember the money I lost; hard come, easy go.

Its CEO was said to be a Singapore citizen of Indian origin, Ms Harinder Kaur. It was later divulged by the media that the business is actually owned by Podium Ring International Ltd, based in Tortola in the Virgin Islands. Nothing was virginal about this scheme though; apparently the CEOs and secretaries had been put there to conceal the identities of the real owners. Why hide, and why India? Indians have a bit more money than they did in the past and the population is phenomenal…hmmm! Let’s see, if lots of Indians put in a small but decent sum each, that would end up being a lot of money indeed.

The biggest stakeholders/investors, who have thousands of people under them in this chain, and therefore have earned hundreds of thousands of rupees by now, have come up with a website (The All India SpeakAsia Panelist Association) on which they update all the “Speakasians” about the latest on the court-case hearings and keep alive the promise that the gains are on their way to them. As for the small fish, the poor Speakasian (who invested small amounts…though nothing was small I tell you), this is nothing more than a method to borrow time, evade a strong counter-action while they slog on with Plan B, which is to somehow make the SpeakAsia business into a legal one in India by converting it to something other than market surveys; after all now they have the capital to start something legal.

I spent many a sleepless night after the bubble burst but my buddy couldn’t care less about losing his money, which belonged to his rich dad anyway. SpeakAsia has 19 lakh (almost two million) subscribers in India. I wouldn’t get down to calculating the amount of money these that Speakasia has gathered from India.

Now let me get back to the 26-year-old guy I was talking about in the beginning. This guy took Rs. 8 lakhs (~15,000 USD) from his sister’s locker to which he had access, spent Rs. 3 lakhs to buy a Ford Figo, and invested the remaining 5 lakhs (~9,500 USD) in SpeakAsia Online thinking he’d get rich quick, return the paltry sum to the locker, and pocket the huge gains. When he realized that the money was gone for good, he fabricated the story to save his skin and appear a victim of armed robbery rather than of foolishness and greed. We, now christened “Speakasians” by no choice of ours, sit and wait for the courts to decide something that will bring our money back.

You know it is such an old adage, yet we do not take it seriously: “If something is too good to be true, it normally is.”

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About jesesa

  • Hey jesesa,

    Your article is good, the way you picturized look great.

    But there is something called Moral. I dont see any moral in it, simply i understood from your title that from your experience you have named speakasiaonline business model as another ponzi scheme.

    since you have a brief knowledge on what is currently happening. SAOL had submitted the list of clients for whom the surveys are being conducted and they almost proved that they dont use joining fees to payback the end users.

    As seen on the aispa, all process by lahoti committee is done with everyone including eow too. Lets wait for good results in the days to go.

  • Adding to my comment,

    Understand one thing, it seemed in singapore account they have 900 or 2000 crores and 160-170 crores in indian account. They would have bypassed and paid back to all its panelist or members. Since they want to rebuild their so called business model in India like what they rebuilt in Bangladesh months back after 6 months break. So SAOL or its sub-ordinates like AISPA were working legally be host full launch in India. Either they would have bycotted govt and completed they pending payment to everyone through cheques, money orders , demand draft through various top leaders, franchies account to their member, they have never did since they wanted to serve and retain there member base of 18 lakh. And they deviation on consumer empowerment is one of the best proven biz model. You believe me, one the shopping is opened, i saw around 20,000 booking for tvs in less than a week or so. And till site is shut down i noticed more than 40,000 booking happened in their shopping portal. Wait and see, SpeakAsiaOnline will be in master studies as an life market example.

    Your friend made 18,000 usd from 1500 usd since he started and took risk earlier and you took 12 months to break your obstacles after seeing the proven system. So wait to get your 620$ returned. We as a team in chennai ventured around 1,10,00000 USD with min 50,000 panelist under our leader, my closed circle of 93 people have ventured 25,000 usd. I personally ventured 4000$ and took 7000$ from nov 2010 till apr 2011. And i have now repaid / compensentated around 10+ member worth 8000$ since they created a panic around other in my team. So please be patience.

  • Sudhakar your discourse was great, however I have a few points to make of my own.

    I reckon that you missed the question-mark in the title. Sure I want the readers to judge for themselves if the similarities of SAOL and ponzi schemes based on facts not based on the utopic dreams that even I wish come true.

    SAOL sure’s had problems divulging the “so called” business model to the public, so only the almighty know what “rebuild” means.

    And what Moral are you talking about? Let me make you understand one thing and here it goes. You think it’s morally correct to secretly own a business in one country, start a business in another country, get people from yet another country to invest huge sums of money and run it in such an irresponsible way so as to get their accounts frozen and have the law chasing you? If there’s anybody who should be reflecting on Morals, it’s SAOL.

    I never said that my friend “made” $18,000, I just said that he dreamed of it. He couldn’t even recover what he invested.

    You sir are apparently a rich-speakasian who’s made a substantial sum that you’re handing out thousands of dollars to ones who have panicked; I hope you’re not suggesting that the people who’re “creating” panic are bad people. You’ve gotta understand that not everyone under the Sun has a large heart like yours to be losing a lot of money and maintaining their patience. You’re a good man, I wish I was under your chain and would’ve had my money back. You’ve no idea what financial crisis I am in right now due to this SAOL debacle.

    Not just me, I just risked what I owned, there are many others, like the guy I mentioned in the article, that played bigger risks by borrowing money from others and jeopardized the whole of their future and even risk going to jail; all because they believed SAOL. I will not lambaste their business model, for I know not what it was in the first place, I just know they now I am being told that it was NOT one thing i.e. ponzi scheme. Understand that selling TVs is not what I was told SAOL does when they took my money and told me that it was going to expand and rise like a hot-air balloon. I paid money to work for them, to fill surveys, which I dutifully did to the best of my abilities only to find out that now SAOL will be selling TV sets!

    All India Speakasia Panelist Association (AISPA) is not Speakasia online (SAOL), it is a forum formed by panelists like you and me (or maybe just ones like you that have invested the big bucks)because there is no direct communication from SAOL. SAOL has the “sweat n’ blood” of 1.9 million Indians on their hands and they’re smart enough to use those very people to defend SAOL in court, very smart indeed. Now we have the very same investors whose money is blocked, scouting the internet to rubbish anything said against SAOL.

    Whatever their business model is, moral, immoral or even amoral, I let my morals down too and hope that the court decides in their favor and the 1.9 million people in India get their original investment back, if not the promised returns on it.


    You said nothing new, why u wasted so much of time? As they said, they are going no where but forward, u have some common sense to understand the meaning of this sentence? did charles ponzi said same in news papers? nonsense write up

  • “They say” yeah sure, “they said” lots of things before.
    I give two hoots about what they say anymore. I’d rather see their actions than their words. I’ll tender an apology the day I get the money and the promised sum back, till then you guys can keep scouting the net writing all the balderdash in the world.

  • Thanks for wasting your time on reading a nonsense write-up and even taking time to comment on it. And why are you so troubled about me wasting my time anyway…how about worrying about me wasting my money? Shucks!

  • jjm

    Dear jesesa,

    Nice write-up. Ignore people who behave like ostriches.

    They still want to believe that everything will fall back in place.

  • It is an indeed an eye opener for all those who believed they would get millionaire. Sad is that some of us still believe in an org who has duped such an huge amount of Indian public despite of losing out grands of money. Well, with all our greed we are going to doom ourselves someday.
    I also believe that the best way for SAOL to win the heart of the members was to atleast return 50% of the money that the members had invested. In this they would atleast not have people lose their faith in the lucrative scheme they once offered.

    You and I can only hope that the flicker of the light that we are seeing at the other end of the tunnel just prove real and we get atleast the money we have invested.

    Jesesa this article has brilliantly voiced the opinion of a huge mass of people.

  • Haseeb

    Dear Jasesa,
    I like your article…and I appreciate you..
    I am also a Member of SAOL.. still we panelist belive that SAOL will be back with more power after Supereme court decision.
    … All medias really giving misinformation against SAOL.. as a normal SAOL memmer I understood that.
    I requesting you to give New about Supereme Court hearing and all…. That will be helpful for lackhs of people to know the current status of SAOL cases hearings.

  • jesesa

    Amen to that

  • Well wisher

    Sudhakar, Ashish Pandey and Haseeb, I feel that you are living in a dream world.
    I feel sad when I see people like Anubha. Its good to see that you have at least acknowledged that SAOL has duped the investors. But its ridiculous to think that SAOL will win heart by giving 50% returns.

    But Jesesa, when I see people like you, I get very angry. Being soo knowledgeable, how can you even think of getting your investment back, let alone making huge profits. I’m sorry to say that your rationality and intelligence has been defeated by your greed. I sympathize with uneducated/ignorant people, not with the people like you.
    I think you guys have very less chance of getting your money back. But I wish you all the very best.

  • jesesa

    SAOL will surely win My heart if they immediately return 50% of my money back (till they’re taking their sweet time to restart business).
    Sorry for raising your blood-pressure.
    “Less chance” is still some chance.
    Thanks for your wishes.

  • Bechaara Well wisher :-P

    Jesesa, yeh v will surely win buddy …….. n will wisher is not our well wisher. Infact he is a pessimistic person…… well, forget about that he will get his answer soon …. SAOL will definetly will

  • “Hate me if you must but please do not misunderstand me” – Ashleigh Brilliant

  • It is in the daily news today that Abir Malhotra, the 26 year old guy I wrote about in my article, who invested in speakasiaonline by taking his sister’s money without her knowledge, HAS COMMITTED SUICIDE. The Honorable Supreme Court Should take note of this incidence.

    So many weeks passed since the delusive SAOL supporters got angry at my article and there’s still no sign of the money coming back, only hollow statements to rouse hopes of gullible people and hushing up as many people as they can from raising their voices while they scout the internet to check for anything said against them and leaving no room to rubbish the allegations.

  • Dear Jesesa
    Your article is good for those who does not believe in innovation in financial sector.When RBI increase/ decreases ROI and creates /withdraws money from banking system no body talk any thing .But when an innovator in financial sector come up with a new module and because of some bottlenecks if the process is delayed public is making innovator as culprit .Public should support the innovator and help to stabilize a new sector like banking sector

  • Agreed Mr Prasad but RBI does not take money from the common and then dupe him. If there is an innovation by SAOL then why did the law have to tighten the noose around it? Why are shady people running it and where’s all the money gone now. Why aren’t they paying back? How can one even think of supporting an organization like that, it would be like supporting organized crime. Why is it that at the end of the day, the very people who invested and got other people to invest, are the ones fighting in the court on behalf of SAOL?

  • innovation in the financial sector is the need of the day.recirculation of money at a faster speed is a must for the development of society.when method of recirculation have some draw backs it should be reinnovated .The public of Greece has not supported the financial discipline imposed on them and it is not seen as organized crime.On debut when shares of a company IS DOWN 7.33% it is not a crime because it is supported by govt organization but investors have lost the money.
    In all MLM scheme or ponzi schemes if organizer in combination with early subscribers ensures that the last entrant will not be put to loss under any circumstances it will solve all the problems being faced by the mankind

  • Let me bring your high-flying stats and intentions in black and white; you’re saying that if SAOL, as a debutante, ate up > 2,000 crore rupees of the Indian public and produced a bunch of mercenary sycophants, who’re still out there fighting for its ‘honor’, it is not a crime? Where’s the honor; there’s just shame. SAOL baited people posing as a survey company. If ponzi schemes were so useful for all the miseries of ‘mankind’, why was the concept banned in the developed world? You think you’re smarter than the whole history of the developed world put together? You need to be made PM then. Or maybe you’ll ascribe the recession of the western world to their being recalcitrant to ponzi schemes. In any case, by saying that, you’re just reaffirming that SAOL is a ponzi scheme! What guys like SAOL do is bait the unsuspecting, angle them, bleed them, all the while caressing them with affection and finally sell them off as salted meat and laugh their way to the bank. Have a heart, do something legal with YOUR OWN MONEY; something that will not invite the curses of billions (yeah billions, you know we’re a lotta Indians here). I curse myself every night that I dropped my guard to greed; I’m broke now, in desperate need of money, I could’ve used that money to bail out of my present crisis. People like you bleed me every time you emanate stinky burps from your insatiably greedy guts, in the form of words. Now you have Indians covering the whole thing up! You, my friend, as a person AND as an Indian need to do some serious talking to the man in the mirror.

  • R Prasad

    Let me first clear that I am in no way connected with SAOL .My only concern is to innovate a full proof system where entrepreneurs would not suffer for want of finance and simultaneously the return of money of investors with minimal ROI is ensured.All existing legal systems are having one or other drawback where people loose money.In order to stop that we have to find new avenues which are not tested any where so far .I am not against the persons who earned through SAOL but i am with the persons who lost money through SAOL OR other such operators with the help of seniors in their group.Have you ever thought that while our savings provides us two benefits .First by way of provision for our requirement and second by way of interest,where as our expenditure is giving us only one benefit ie fulfillment of our present requirement.But in case of our expenditure the system is developing at much faster rate where as in case of saving the growth is reduced to a much lower rate.So if a new system is started where your expenditure is also rewarded by way of incentive and the same is redistributed properly it will solve the problem of investors like you who invested the money but not having any system to recover it because the mechanism has been destroyed by the existing system.For becoming PM/CM/President in the existing system is more dependent on one’s destiny .I will try my level best to implement the system and help people to retain their entrepreneurship and leave the safety part for the concept called expenditure banking

  • I understand what you’re saying kind sir. I am in no way against any kind of entrepreneurship so long as it does not involve cheating people. I, from the personal experience of filling in SAOL surveys, am telling you that since the day I started to receive them, I was alarmed at their incoherence and lack of logic (alas! I’d already thrown in my money). They seemed to have been quickly put together by some amateur but I still kept my fingers crossed. They were anyway taking money from the panelists for subscribing to their e-zine (and not for filling surveys) which itself was nothing but plagiarized material put together by copying information from Wikipedia and the likes. I understand that you see money differently from the way the common man sees it; probably because you have a lot of it. It would be futile to tell you what losing 33 grands means to a lower-middle-class man who just wanted to work hard filling surveys and earn money from it. Let me tell you there’s been no circulation here, just a one way trip of the stuff out of the common man’s pocket into the accounts of some godforsaken con-men who’re nowhere to be found. MAN! They conned the cricket crazy nation by funding IPL. I tell you, this ancient nation of ours doesn’t need revolutionary concepts in finances, it desperately needs some common-sense and a meager amount and honesty and integrity, else we’ll meditate our way back to the stone-age or maybe worse; we’re already disintegrating as human beings anyway. Your words and ideas doesn’t bring back the 2000 crore that common people lost. You bring it back and then we’ll listen to you.