Evading tariff with digital manipulation

A truck with imported products being weighed on a weight scale at the Benapole land port in JashoreProthom Alo

A ring of swindlers has evaded a large sum of revenue by manipulating the weighing scale at the Benapole land port in Jashore.

The frauds used the ID and password for the software used in the weighing which allowed the importers to bring products from India without paying any tariff.

Some of the port officials and employees have been accused of being involved in this.

Already the Bangladesh Land Port Authority has transferred 10 officials and employees on suspicion of being involved in fraudulent activities. Although a probe committee was formed to investigate the matter six months ago, no action has been taken against the people involved as yet.

There are some 24 land ports in the country. According to the land port authority, the highest 60 to 70 per cent products are exported and imported through the Benapole port. Some 7,000 – 8,000 metric tonnes of products are imported through this port. The government earned revenue of Tk 60 billion from this port in the last fiscal.

A reliable source relevant to the port and customs authority, the fraud ring has evaded a tariff of Tk 20 billion by rigging the weight machine in the last fiscal alone.

Admitting that there are flaws in the software used for the weight scale, Bangladesh Land Port Authority chairman Zillur Rahman Chowdhury told Prothom Alo, “A ring has manipulated the weight scale by logging into the server using the ID and passwords of some officials and employees taking advantage of the flaws in the automated system. We have already taken an initiative to fix the flaws in the system.”

However, the flaws still exist. According to port officials and people involved in the investigation, the software is still too risky, especially after the incidents of weight manipulation in recent times.

What does the weight scale do?

The weight scale is a 30 feet long iron bridge with a machine beneath it which is attached to a computer in a room beside. The scale measures the weight of the import products, including the truck. There are seven weight scales in the Benapole land port. Two of them are out of order now. The number 1 and number 7 weight scales are used only in case of any emergency. The weight scale number four, five and six are used for measuring the weight of imported products.

A reliable source relevant to the port and customs authority, the ring of swindlers evaded a tariff of Tk 20 billion by rigging the weight machine in the last fiscal alone.

The trucks laden with products from India enter Bangladesh through the export-import cargo gate along the Benapole border and get an entry. It then moves to the weight scale number four and five on the bypass road where the weight of the products is measured. The trucks then move to the TTI (Truck Terminal of India) field, where they get a posting from the posting branch. After that the trucks move to specific sheds depending on the posting number to unload products.

Meanwhile, the trucks laden with perishable goods wait at the transhipment yard after being scaled at the weight scale number six. Later, the Indian trucks unload products, which are taken to different places on Bangladeshi trucks from the transhipment yard.

The way of manipulation

An automated system was introduced at the Benapole land port to bring pace under the automation project in February 2020. The project cost was estimated at Tk 250 million. Dhaka-based private software firm ‘DataSoft’ was given the contract for the project. The software used in the weight scales subtract the weight of the truck and record the weight of the product in the server automatically. Besides, it also prepares a report to calculate the tariff.

Analysing some documents of the Benapole Customs and land port authority, it was found that some of the customs and land port officials, importers and a ring comprising C&F agents detected some flaws in the system within a few days of the launching of the automated system.

The members of the rings get to learn about the weights of the declared products and the truck carrying it as soon as it enters the export-import cargo gate. They resort to trickery to hide the weight of undeclared products. Sometimes, they keep the rear side of the truck outside the weight scale to reduce the weight of the imported products exponentially.

Sometimes, they also put a Bangladeshi truck of the same weight as the specific Indian truck to show a weight that complies with the declared weight. In this way, they used to evade a large sum of tariff. The ring used to prepare several receipts with manipulated information.

The ring also used to manipulate the automated system taking advantage of the flaws in it to evade tariff. Speaking to Prothom Alo, an IT expert in the probe committee formed by the land port authority said whenever the swindlers didn’t get the desired weight, they used to change it using the admin ID and password. They used to remove the actual data to hide their activities.

The officials with the admin IDs used to do this from far using the ‘AnyDesk’ software. The IT expert said there are several flaws in the security system of the software. The software is run through an independent server, which is a big flaw. It’s very hard to find the removed or manipulated data and the software doesn’t have any database log.

Swindlers used to remove all data

On 12 July last year, the land port authority saw an outsider at the weight scale number five using the ID card of Javed Billah, a traffic inspector at the port. On that very day, Javed Billah filed a complaint to the director (traffic) of the land port citing that some unknown persons are using his ID and password for illegal works. However, according to the sources in the land port, Javed Billah deliberately did this to save himself.

A probe committee, headed by Akter Unnesa Shiuli, director (traffic) of the land port, was formed on 16 July to investigate the incident. The committee submitted the probe report on 14 August.

They used the ID and password for the software used in the weight which allowed the importers to bring products from India without paying any tariff

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Akter Unnesa Shiuli said the swindlers have removed the digital footprint from the software. So they were unable to find the persons involved and when did it happen. However, they have found evidence in one of the weight scales. There were flaws in the software. So the probe committee has recommended removing the project coordinator of the ‘DataSoft’. They also have suggested closing the option to make corrections on the weight receipts of the products.

Six probe committees

Some six committees were formed after the news of such a fraud at the Benapole land port spread. The Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate formed five of those committees and the port authorities formed one.

The probe committee investigated the importers, C&F agents, operators, supervisors and suspicious persons who had admin ID and password.

The committee has already questioned assistant programmer of the land port Md Hossain Ali, traffic inspectors Saiful Islam, Jabedi Billah, Abdul Quader Jilani, Mohammad Mainul Islam and warehouse superintendent Saidur Rahman.

During the interrogation, the probe committee learnt that two outsiders named Billal Hossain and Anwarul Islam used to operate the weight scale number dour, five and six. Port deputy director (traffic) Manirul Islam was in charge of the scales during these incidents. Prothom Alo tried to reach him over the phone for his comment, but his phone was found switched off.

According to the port sources, the swindlers used the ID and passwords of Hossain Ali, assistant programmer of the land port authority and DataSoft’s project coordinator Shahadat Hossain. Hossain Ali himself was a member of the probe committee. Before getting transferred to the Dhaka office, he was the lone IT expert at the Benapole land port. He was withdrawn after the incident was exposed.

Benapole Customs House commissioner Abdul Hakim told Prothom Alo that they have sent a letter to the concerned authorities to reconfigure the software to remove the flaws from the software. He said any data that has been saved in the server once cannot be removed in an ideal software. The IT experts can detect any flaws in the system from the information stored in the server. However, the data from the software were not recorded properly at the Benapole airport.

* This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu