Uncertainty over Tk 210cr stuck at gateways
With owners of digital commerce companies Evaly and E-orange behind bars and facing trials on allegations of embezzlement, the funds of thousands of customers have been stuck in the payment channels because of legal complexity.
This is not only for the payments made by customers to e-commerce firms until June this year. Those who have bought products after July 1 but have not received the deliveries are also facing legal tangles.
Customers placed orders worth Tk 490 crore with 25 companies since July when the government enforced Digital Commerce Operation Guideline 2021 to protect the interest of consumers in the face of rising complaints of non-delivery of goods against advance payments, according to a central banker.
Customers have received deliveries of products worth Tk 280 crore.
The rest of the money, or Tk 210 crore, has remained with the gateways of payment service providers (PSPs), payment system operators, and mobile financial service (MFS) providers as e-commerce platforms did not supply the products to customers and report to the payments gateway providers.
Officials of PSPs and MFS providers say since July 1, they have been keeping the payments made by customers in the trust-cum-settlement accounts (TCSAs) as per the directive of the Bangladesh Bank, and waiting for confirmation from the merchants about the delivery of the products.
In the absence of the confirmation, the payments of the customers who paid in advance since July 1 are kept in the TCSAs.
TCSAs act as custody accounts where the legal tender (currency in the form of printed note) is stored against the issuance of e-money by MFS and e-money service providers.
PSPs and MFS providers can't issue refunds even after the expiry of the 10-day delivery period stipulated in the guideline.
Here, merchants have to ask PSPs and other payment gateway operators to return the money to customers. Until no such instruction is issued, payment service providers have to hold the money in the TCSAs.
But it is not clear what will happen to customers when e-commerce platforms such as Evaly and e-orange, which have either trimmed their operations or gone out of business, after the passage of 10 days.
Bankers and officials of PSPs, PSO and MFS providers say there is no instruction for us to make refunds to customers. So, they are helpless.
"It is the call of merchants. But we can say that the money will be in our gateway until the delivery of goods," said Shamsuddin Haider Dalim, a spokesperson of bKash, the biggest MFS operator in Bangladesh, and a payment gateway operator.
The issue surfaced as law-enforcing agencies arrested the chairman and the managing director of Evaly on September 16 in connection with a case filed by a customer on allegation of embezzlement of money.
Following their arrests, the Rapid Action Battalion said Tk 30-35 crore paid by the customers to Evaly had been with several online payment gateways.
The top officials of E-orange are also in jail for allegedly embezzling Tk 1,100 crore from customers.
Dalim said its payment gateway with Evaly was active, and the MFS provider cleared the payments to the accounts of the e-commerce firm only after the delivery confirmation.
"Before clearing payments, we contact with customers to be sure about the receipts of products," said a senior official of Southeast Bank Ltd, one of the leading payment service providers.
"As a PSP, we can't refund money to customers without instruction from merchants."
Nagad, an MFS provider, also says it can't issue refunds without instructions from e-commerce platforms.
Md Iftekhar Alam Ishaque, deputy chief technical officer of SSL Wireless Ltd, which operates one of the largest payment gateways, SSLCOMMERZ, says it does not have any direct relations with customers.
"Refunds depend on e-commerce platforms," he added.
Bankers and PSOs say if the products have been purchased using credit cards since July, customers can file complaints with card-issuing banks for the non-receipt of goods.
In the case of MFS, the government is yet to devise any process.
The central banker says payment gateway providers can't issue refunds as they would be in an awkward situation if e-commerce platforms submit claims against the delivery of products later.
"The commerce ministry and the central bank are working to devise a system so that customers who bought goods since July 1 can file complaints to get back the money stuck in the payment gateways."
As part of the exercise, the government is considering engaging the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection so that customers can lodge complaints.
The government is trying to define the legal process to ensure the refunds, said the central banker. But in case of the payments made before July, customers will have to wait until the court cases are settled, he added.
"We will discuss it with the Bangladesh Bank to find a solution," said Md Hafizur Rahman, head of the digital commerce cell of the commerce ministry.