A Criminal Investigation Department (CID) unit specialising in money laundering has launched an investigation into payments made by local digital companies for advertisements on social media sites, especially Facebook.
A top official of the detective agency said they were investigating the legality of the payments.
The unit has prepared a list of about two dozen companies that run digital campaigns and is calling over their representatives individually to the CID office to know about the payment procedures and avail documents.
Around 10 of the top online shops sat with the law enforcers on Wednesday when they responded to queries and provided documents. A top official of an e-commerce company who had attended confirmed the meeting's proceedings.
A top placed source at the CID office named the 10 as daraz.com, ajkerdeal.com, pickaboo.com, bikroy.com, foodpanda.com.bd, chaldal.com, rokomari.com, sheba.xyz, othoba.com, and khaasfood.com.
The list of the entities includes mobile phone operators, handset vendors, leading e-commerce platforms, companies for ridesharing, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and product delivery and other digital service platforms.
Sources say that mobile operators and vendors would sit with the unit next week.
Adnan Imtiaz Halim, chief executive officer of sheba.xyz, a startup providing various services through an app, said the CID officials discussed matters with each company separately and sought some documents.
He said as a company compliant with the rules of the land, sheba.xyz always paid the bills through government-affiliated agencies and preserved relevant documents.
Once all the companies are done sitting with the CID, there might be a second round of meetings, Halim said.
Companies in Bangladesh are spending more than Tk 1,000 crore a year for digital marketing on Facebook and Google to reach their target audience and this figure is growing rapidly, said market insiders.
The reasons for digital campaigns' fast rise in popularity are that people are progressively gathering on social media and increasing sophistication of algorithms means the ads can accurately reach the target audience, advertisers said.
Last year, following a high court order, the revenue and telecom regulators started focusing on the issue and imposed some taxes, including value added tax, on the bill payments, said officials.
Following the court order, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission collected data on digital media expenditures. It found that the top three mobile operators spent Tk 104 crore in the last fiscal year to reach their target audience through Facebook. However, insiders of the digital business have doubts over whether it was the actual figure.
The payments made by e-commerce companies are very nominal compared to the total amount and most of the advertisements come from mobile operators and FMCG companies, said the CEO of an online shop. CID officials said they found some of the payments being made abroad by companies that have partners abroad.
This is illegal as any such payment must first come to Bangladesh, so that the government can collect due taxes, before being forwarded to the receiver, they said.
Moreover, any such payment made abroad cannot be shown as local investment and expenditures by companies, they added. AKM Fahim Mashroor, chief executive officer of ajkerdeal.com, one of the leading e-commerce platforms of the country, also attended one of the meetings.
“We are welcoming the (CID) move. Most of the local reputed e-commerce companies, including us, pay social media platforms through the formal channels,” he said.
Mashroor, also a former president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), said they also wanted regulations in this field to be clearly defined. Another top executive of a firm said the members of the BASIS and the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh can avail special cards of Brac Bank and Mutual Trust Bank, using which up to $30,000 worth of products can be purchased from abroad.
Most of the e-commerce companies are using this mode of payment.
Meanwhile, seeking to ensure that the taxes are paid, Telecom Minister Mustafa Jabbar at a meeting on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Tuesday asked Facebook's top officials to set up office in Dhaka to run business smoothly and follow tax regulations.