PNB fraud accused Choksi says Indian authorities ignoring due process

In this file photo, pedestrians walk past a Punjab National Bank office in Mumbai, India. (Reuters)
Updated 08 March 2018
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PNB fraud accused Choksi says Indian authorities ignoring due process

MUMBAI: Mehul Choksi, the jeweller accused of being a central figure in an alleged fraud of nearly $2 billion against Punjab National Bank, criticized India’s investigating agencies in a letter alleging gross abuse of due process in the ongoing probe.
In a letter to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), one of the lead agencies probing the alleged loan fraud, Choksi said the seizure of his assets, bank accounts and the shutting down of all his offices in India has caused prejudice against him.
In the letter dated Mar. 7, which was reviewed by Reuters on Thursday, Choksi said investigating agencies were acting with pre-determined minds and interfering with the course of justice.
In what has been dubbed the biggest fraud in India’s banking history, Punjab National Bank (PNB) and police have accused two jewelry groups — one controlled by diamond tycoon Nirav Modi and the other by his uncle Choksi — of colluding with some bank employees to secure credit from overseas banks using fraudulent guarantees.
Choksi, who heads Gitanjali Gems, which operates stores under banners including Gili, Nakshatra and Asmi, said in his letter that while the CBI has seized his assets, it has yet to submit a “Seizure Memo” in court, as required by law.
Choksi, who authorities say left India before the complaint against him was filed and whose passport has been suspended, said he feared greatly that he would not get “fair treatment and a fair trial” if he returned.
Both Choksi and Modi have denied the allegations and lawyers for the two key accused PNB employees in the case have also said they are innocent. The whereabouts of Choksi and Modi, who police say also left India in January, are unknown.
A spokesman for the CBI said he did not have any immediate comment on Choksi’s letter.
Choksi said in the letter he had traveled abroad on business before the complaints were made and his departure was not “a direct result” of the allegations against him.
Local media reported last week that a Mumbai court issued non-bailable arrest warrants against Modi and Choksi following an appeal by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), an Indian agency focused on foreign exchange and money laundering offenses.
Choksi said in the letter that he had undergone a cardiac procedure during the first week of February and he was unable to travel for at least four to six months as the procedure was yet to be completed. He did not say where he was.
The jeweller also told the agency he was being threatened by individuals with whom he has a business relationship and that his employees, customers and creditors have started expressing their “animosity” after his business was shut down.
Choksi, accused the media of unfair coverage in the letter, and said politicians were politicizing the case and creating a bias against him.
Police have also so far arrested 19 people including eight of PNB’s current and former employees, along with executives from jeweller Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi’s companies.
A source and documents reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday showed the amount involved in the fraud is likely to rise beyond the $2 billion mark.


Shopping ‘Star Trek’ style becomes next frontier for most major brands

Updated 18 June 2018
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Shopping ‘Star Trek’ style becomes next frontier for most major brands

  • The use of smart speakers has expanded the possibilities available through smartphone chatbots or text-based systems, including those from Facebook and Apple.
  • Voice shopping is expected to jump to $40 billion annually in 2022 in the US, from $2 billion today, according to a survey this year by OC&C Strategy Consultants.

WASHINGTON: Voice shopping using smart speakers and smartphone apps is starting to gain traction among consumers, opening up a new “conversational commerce” channel and potentially disrupting the retail sector.

Devices such as Amazon’s Alexa-powered speakers and Google Home, which use artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands, are offering new choices to consumers who are looking for more convenient ways to order goods and services.

Voice shopping is expected to jump to $40 billion annually in 2022 in the US, from $2 billion today, according to a survey this year by OC&C Strategy Consultants.

“People are liking the convenience and natural interaction of using voice,” said Victoria Petrock of the research firm eMarketer.

“Computing in general is moving more toward voice interface because the technology is more affordable, and people are responding well because they don’t have to type.”

A recent eMarketer survey found 36 percent of US consumers liked the idea of using a home-based assistant such as Amazon Echo for making a purchase.

Amazon’s devices, which hit the market in 2015, were designed in large part to help boost sales, and Google Home was launched a year later.

“This is growing exponentially,” said Mark Taylor, an executive vice president at consultancy Capgemini and co-author of a study on conversational commerce.

“We’re getting very used to asking Alexa or Google to do something on our behalf, which makes it simple to switch and say, ‘Hey Alexa, buy me dog food.’”

Capgemini research shows many consumers are satisfied with voice interactions and that this is growing for search and information as well as for purchases and that this is likely to become a “dominant” mode of consumer action within a few years.

“It’s becoming part of the fabric of our lives,” Taylor said.

The most commonly shopped categories through voice are groceries, entertainment, electronics and clothing, according to OC&C.

For now, Taylor said, most voice-based purchases have been “low consideration goods” such as items consumers have purchased before.

But as people grow comfortable with voice assistants, Taylor sees a potential for growth in “higher consideration” items including insurance or financial services.

An important element will be the tonality and personality established by intelligent assistants that will help companies establish an image or brand.

“People like to talk to human beings because humans give insight and guidance, and AI can do the same thing,” he said.

The “conversational interface” is a tremendous advantage in some situations, said Manlio Carrelli, executive vice president at Live Person, which provides technology for firms in online platforms.

“This is like ‘Star Trek,’” Carrelli told AFP. “I can just say what I want and get it. Consumers don’t care what’s on the back end, they just want to be able to get what they want.”

Carrelli said these systems are important not only for sales, but for customer service — reducing the need for dreaded call centers and saving millions for businesses.

“We’re now entering the mainstream for this market,” Carrelli said. “I don’t think you’ll find a single major brand that isn’t looking at this.”

Walmart last month launched a text-based concierge shopping service called Jetblack, which uses both artificial intelligence and professional assistants offering buying suggestions as part of its effort to compete with Amazon.

But Walmart is one of dozens of retailers offering voice-based shopping through Google Express as well, along with sellers of flowers, hardware, groceries and other goods.

Domino’s Pizza has embraced this technology, allowing orders through Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Facebook Messenger and other platforms.

In France, Google Home devices can be used to shop at the giant retailing group Carrefour. And retailers in China have been partnering tech firms for similar services.

According to OC&C, Amazon Echo speakers are used in around 10 percent of US homes, with 4 percent for Google Home.

According to the report, Apple is lagging behind in this sector as its Siri assistant lacks the AI capabilities of Google, and the new HomePod has only just hit the market.

Apple just this year rolled out “business chat,” enabling consumers to ask questions and place orders through iPhone text or voice commands, and see images of products on the iMessage service. Retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot are among the partners.

Some analysts, however, expect more players to enter the market, with speculation rampant about a speaker from Facebook, which now is allowing business and consumers to connect through Messenger chatbots.

“Voice commerce represents the next major disruption in the retail industry, and just as e-commerce and mobile commerce changed the retail landscape, shopping through smart speaker promises to do the same,” said John Franklin of OC&C.