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It is not only online companies that provide products and services at low prices. Established companies with showrooms and sales outlets in various cities, also sell their merchandise online at lower prices than in their shops. Online businesses have no overhead costs of shop rent, operational costs, salespersons' wages and so on. They operate in huge warehouses, cutting down on workforce for purchase orders, packaging and distribution due to automation, and so they still make a profit even though selling at lower prices online than in shops.

Similarly, earlier travel agencies would have their offices in all cities. Now the e-travel companies need much less staff to run their business and can operate in just a small office. When an online company buys a product directly from the manufacturer, they buy more products in bulk than small or medium-sized shops. That is why they can get considerable discounts even wholesale. That naturally enables them to offer their customers attractive discounts.

The concept and the prevalence of e-commerce is nothing new. In fact, this started up quite late in Bangladesh. But it is now obvious that due to technological changes, no preparation had been taken at all regarding this system of commerce. The cheated consumers are now the target of unspeakable abuse for paying money to avail e-commerce facilities. They are not facing such diatribe only from their friends and families, but even from those who have exploited them. These fraudulent businesspersons are blaming the consumers, saying that their excessive greed has led to this predicament of e-commerce.

Products and services were advertised at sensationally low prices and the consumers, in good faith, waited day after day, week after week, for the promised products in vain. They spent hours on the phone, calling the customer service number, to no avail

The managing director (MD) of Anander Bazar, Ahmedul Huq Khandakar, now in hiding, said on Facebook live, "Why do you take products at discount? Why do you buy motorcycles and fridges at discount? Why don't you all buy anything without discount? The clients are greedy. It is because of them that things are in this mess."

Prior to that, commerce minister Tipu Munshi had said that the clients faced losses when trying to buy products at low prices. He questioned, why should the government take liability for their losses? It is difficult to understand if the commerce ministry is in a market economy or a controlled economy. Then his ministry should be fixing the prices of everything instead of products being sold at competitive rates in the market economy. Then the spiraling prices of products in the market should not have shot sky high.

The tale which unfolded following Evaly being stripped of its facade, has revealed the fraud of over a dozen so-called e-entrepreneurs. The story is the same. Products and services were advertised at sensationally low prices and the consumers, in good faith, waited day after day, week after week, for the promised products in vain. They spent hours on the phone, calling the customer service number, to no avail. They skipped their offices to go to the offices of these companies, only to discover their true face.

When making payments online, they justifiably thought that there are laws pertaining to business and commerce in the country. There is even an office to protect consumers' interests. There is the government. They even paid through government approved transaction systems of online banking or mobile banking. This was no backdated system where one takes a shopping bag to go and buy things from the marketplace.

In other countries, the banks or companies that do business through credit cards, have a separate responsibility. If a client does not receive the product purchased by means of a credit card or is not satisfied with the quality of the product, or if there are complications in returning the product, the credit card company will return the client's money if informed. The credit card company will later adjust the payment with the business firm. As a result, online businesses cannot resort to cheating and the client does not face losses.

In November 2019, a decision was taken at the prime minister office to initiate an 'escrow service' so that the e-commerce firm would only receive payment once the customer received the goods. Prior to that, the money would be held at an institution approved by Bangladesh Bank. The directive has not been implemented over the past two years.

In the case of Evaly, some further sensational information surfaced. They were highlighting 'cash back' offers on purchases and this gave rise to suspicion of money laundering behind the scenes. Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) froze all their accounts for a month. But without any detailed investigation into Evaly's transactions, their bank accounts were reopened. Their irregularities only came to light eight months later.

All these incidents of fraud prove that the country has no laws, monitoring system or system of resolution required for online business. The government is there, but only to reject any responsibility. The commerce ministry said that the government is taking action against the e-commerce companies that have corruption and irregularities. It is as if bringing the cheaters to book will assuage the sorrow of the consumers.

This blame game had so far been restricted to the general people who were victims of the share market scams. But now the public is blamed for everything. The authorities are now quite adept at adopting the culture of denying all liability

The government is in a hurry to portray the country as a digital state. So there are all sorts of incentives to become an e-entrepreneur. There is no question about who can claim the credit for the expansion of e-commerce in such a short span of time. The government is the sole claimant to this success. But when e-commerce becomes a tool of limitless exploitation due to weak laws and lack of supervision, then the liability falls on the shoulders of the innocent customers. This blame game had so far been restricted to the general people who were victims of the share market scams. But now the public is blamed for everything. The authorities are now quite adept at adopting the culture of denying all liability.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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