Likee and Bigo Live – two smartphone-based platforms offering short video creation, sharing and live streaming – have become quite popular among Bangladeshi users, but a gang of culprits are using these apps for nefarious purposes such as money laundering and blackmail.
Both apps offer ranks, virtual coins and gems that must be purchased with real money, and users can spend them to try and get closer to women live streamers. Capitalising on this function, some app agents and admins are swindling wealthy users, and even running prostitution rackets.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) further claims that a certain quarter – with support from Likee and Bigo Live officials – laundered more than Tk100 crore of the swindled money taken from Bangladeshi users in the last couple years.
Moreover, the gang blackmails its victims by luring them in with women live streamers through these apps, and then they threaten to release text, photos or videos that could tarnish the victims' reputation.
A 40-year-old businessman in Dhaka recently became one of the victims of such a scam. A woman enticed him through one of the apps and then swindled him out of around Tk26 lakh over the course of last year, CID sources have said, but they kept the victim's identity anonymous.
The Cyber Police Centre (CPC), which operates under the CID, believes that the actual situation is far worse, and the gang has already scammed dozens of wealthy users through Likee and Bigo Live.
On Saturday, the police arrested five people from Dhaka – including BIGO Live's Operation Manager and Chinese national Jie Yao – for alleged involvement in money laundering and blackmail thorough these two apps.
Later on Sunday, the police filed a case against the five under the Digital Security Act and Pornography Prevention Act.
Providing more details about the case on condition of anonymity, an additional superintendent of police at the CPC said, "A gift shop owner in Old Dhaka named SM Nazmul Haque became our first suspect after we found him carrying out a number of suspicious transactions.
"He transferred Tk26 crore through mobile financial services (MFS) in just eight months. But when we paid a visit to his shop, there was nothing for sale. Upon investigation, police found that Nazmul acted as an agent for Likee and Bigo, and scammed large sums of money from the users."
CID officials added that most of the swindled money might have been laundered to a foreign country – where both the apps originated. Law enforcers plan to thoroughly investigate this matter to unearth further evidence.
Additional Superintendent of Police at the Cyber Police Centre Mahmudul Islam said, "Likee and Bigo Live have been transferring crores of Taka through their platforms without the consent of regulators and tax authorities in Bangladesh.
"The government should bring such streaming apps into compliance and formulate a fresh guideline for these services operating in Bangladesh."
At least 40 agents involved
Cyber Police Centre officials told The Business Standard that at least 40 agents such as SM Nazmul Haque are scamming the users of Likee and Bigo Live. They reportedly paid Tk50 lakh each to the apps' admins and to Jie Yao – Bigo Live's operation manager – per month.
The 31-year-old man collected the money in cash from different areas of the capital – especially some exotic restaurants and star-rated hotels. He was arrested from outside of a five-star hotel in Dhaka on Saturday.
Several people had also gathered there to hand over the collected cash, but they managed to evade the law for now.
A team of cyber police detained five suspected swindlers that day, and the other four – Mostafa Sayeef Reza, 26; Md Arif Hossain, 27; SM Nazmul Haque, 27; and Asma-ul-Husna Shejuti, 28 – were detained from various parts of the capital.
During a press brief on Sunday, CID's Deputy Inspector General Jamil Ahmad said, "Some admins and agents of Likee and Bigo Live are engaged in money laundering. They are also luring in young women into illicit relationships, swindling users with the help of female streamers and running prostitution rackets."
The CID however did not bring Jie Yao into the press brief, instead they only mentioned a Chinese national's connection with the case. The Business Standard later collected a case document and confirmed that Yao has been named the prime accused.
According to CID's briefing, Mostafa Sayeef Reza was the Bangladeshi admin of a Bigo Live account and Md Arif Hossain worked on recruiting girls on the platform. SM Nazmul Haque was one of the top Bangladeshi agents selling virtual currency and Bigo Live Diamonds.
Meanwhile, Asma-ul-Husna Shejuti served as the head of admins, and a foreign national was directly involved with the racket. The initial investigation carried out by CID also revealed the names of several other gang members.
The group illegally transacted around Tk100 crore in the last couple of years using different banks and mobile banking services, said CID, adding that during the Saturday's drive, police seized eight mobile phones, four laptops, seven credit cards, six chequebooks, and Tk50,460 in cash.
Both Likee and Bigo Live platforms are owned by Singapore-based BIGO Technology, which was founded by David Li and Jason Hu in 2014.
According to the police, Bigo Live has two types of IDs – Broadcaster ID and Supporter or Sender ID. Both are being used by some agents and admins to scam users and launder money. The target group for these apps are people from the younger generation and Bangladeshi expatriates.
Agents who sell ranks, virtual coins and gems for real money can be reached via social media platforms, and some even advertise their services online. These agents also send money abroad through illegal channels to buy virtual currencies for these apps, then resell them to Bangladeshi users in local currency.
Bigo Technology's statement
Bigo Technology, parent company of Bigo Live, sent a statement to The Business Standard on Sunday stating that the company has a zero-tolerance policy against any criminal activity by any person or individual, regardless of whether or not the person is involved with any of the company's local agency partners.
It continued, "We have developed rigorous policies and processes, combined with our industry-leading technology to combat any criminal behavior. At the same time, we do not take a side with or endorse any isolated action of any person or organization who may or would have an intention of involving BIGO's name in any criminal activity.
"We are conducting a thorough review on this case and will work with relevant law enforcement agencies in whatever way we can. Our commitment to ensuring a safe, secure and trustworthy environment for our users is to be upheld in the days to come."
Bigo Technology added that the company will cooperate closely with the law enforcement agencies and the government for upholding regional and national laws and values.