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Paytm case: A tech billionaire and the bumbling blackmailers

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Mumbai : The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has a reputation as a rough place, with one of the highest levels of crime in the country. In May, a dozen local politicians received WhatsApp messages that threatened harm to their families unless they paid $14,000.

Yet even by local standards, an extortion plot that’s surfaced in recent weeks stands out for its sheer outlandishness. It’s the case of a celebrated startup founder, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, who allegedly was targeted by one of his most trusted lieutenants for millions in ransom. The billionaire entrepreneur created India’s most popular digital payments service called Paytm.

Local police have arrested Paytm vice president Sonia Dhawan, her husband and another Paytm employee for allegedly stealing Sharma’s personal data so they could extort money. The three are in custody at Luksar Jail in Noida, the New Delhi suburb where Paytm is headquartered. Authorities are hunting for a fourth person, who allegedly made ransom calls to Sharma. A lawyer for Dhawan and her husband denies they did anything wrong.

 

Key questions remain unanswered. Why would a nine-year veteran of Paytm turn against her boss when she had so much to lose? Were Dhawan and her suspected collaborators pressured to act against Sharma by the true culprits, as Sharma himself has suggested? What is the data the group allegedly stole? The investigation touches on one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs, whose backers include Masayoshi Son of SoftBank Group Corp. and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

‘Everybody’s fascinated by this unraveling story,’ asked Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder and chief executive officer of Greyhound Research. ‘It involves a famous, very vocal person like Vijay Shekhar Sharma. Paytm’s done exceptionally well so there’s an emotional connection as well.’

Sharma, now 40, founded One97 Communications, the parent company of Paytm, in 2000 when fewer than 10 million Indians were online. He tried offering search services, ringtones and Bollywood movie songs before landing on the idea of digital payments. The business soared after the India government eliminated 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes at the end of 2016, in a bid to end corruption. With the stroke of a pen, 80% of the country’s paper money disappeared.

“Overnight, we went from a new thing to a must-have,” he told Bloomberg News in a profile last year.

One97 is now worth $10 billion, according to CB Insights, making it the most valuable startup in India. Sharma’s empire also includes the online retailer Paytm E-Commerce Pvt, backed by China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Sonia Dhawan started working at One97 in January of 2010, according to her LinkedIn profile. Recently promoted to vice president of communications, she was well known in media circles in India, fielding press calls and arranging interviews for Sharma. She also liaised with government officials and overseas partners. Given her equity interest, Dhawan’s position would have likely grown increasingly lucrative as Paytm expands and heads for an inevitable an initial public offering.

“Hard work is glory, everything else is theory,” she wrote on her Twitter page.

According to police, she allegedly hatched the extortion plot with her husband, a property consultant named Rupak Jain; a colleague, Devendra Kumar; and a fourth person, Rohit Chomal.

The idea was allegedly to steal personal data from Sharma, with Dhawan’s access to his passwords and computers, and then use the data to get cash, according to local police. Dhawan, Jain, Kumar and Chomal couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sharma got the first call from his purported blackmailers in September. A man said he had Sharma’s personal financial information, and demanded the equivalent of about $2.7 million or it would be released to the public. The perpetrators had taken a hard disk containing the information, according to a four-page police document called a First Information Report.

“It’s a case of blackmail and extortion with stolen personal data and sensitive business plans,” said Manoj Kumar Pant, the police officer heading the investigation in Noida.

Still, these appear to be bumbling blackmailers. Sharma purposefully ducked the extortion calls four or five times as they tried to extract money and then insisted they deal with his brother because he was too busy. When Ajay Shekhar Sharma, who also works at Paytm, pressured the caller for details, the alleged extortionist simply blurted out the names of his three co-conspirators, according to local press.

Ajay Shekhar Sharma then filed a complaint with local police in October. They recovered a hard disk from Kumar, who confessed and implicated Dhawan and her husband, according to the police.

Sharma’s net worth is estimated to be close to $2 billion, making the extortion attempt more distraction than financial threat. A far bigger challenge for Paytm is holding off global rivals like Google Pay and WhatsApp Pay in a digital payments market forecast by Credit Suisse to grow to $1 trillion by 2023.

‘Paytm runs the risk of getting slightly maligned over its handling of data,” said Gogia.

Sharma didn’t respond to requests seeking comment for this article.

The case has fueled intense speculation about Dhawan’s purported motive, if she is guilty, and how she could have landed in jail with such speed. Prashant Tripathi, a lawyer representing the couple, said she hasn’t done anything wrong.

“She is absolutely innocent and has no connection with the theft of data or extortion,” he said in an interview, adding that she had been framed by professional rivals in the office. He wouldn’t explain why he hasn’t tried to get the couple out of jail ahead of any trial. “I await instructions from the Dhawan family,” he said.

The police and Paytm are at odds over what kind of data was stolen. While investigating officer Pant told Bloomberg News that the theft included the company’s business plans, Paytm insists personal data was nabbed. “Paytm would like to reiterate that all our consumer data is protected with the highest and most impenetrable levels of security,” it said in a statement.

Sharma has made it clear he doesn’t think the whole story of the blackmail attempt has been told. In a brief conversation with the Economic Times last week, Sharma said his lieutenant is probably innocent and a ‘conduit of someone else’s bigger plan.”

‘I don’t know how many more people were involved in this sad conspiracy,” he said. “I am shocked and surprised at things that happened and some claims or theories being pitched. I am sure with support of police and everyone involved we will uncover the details soon.’


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Income Tax return processing time to reduce from 63 days to just 1 day

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Mumbai:The Union Cabinet approved an integrated income-tax e-filing and centralised processing centre (CPC) portal, which will reduce the return processing time from 63 days to just one day. The new portal is also expected to process the refunds within one day of filing of tax returns, in huge relief for taxpayers. However, one will have to wait for 18 months to see its launch.

“Earlier, taxpayers would face troubles because of delay in refund processing and the CBDT used to spend a lot of money every year as interest on pending refunds, which will be history now,” Union minister Piyush Goyal told reporters after the Cabinet meeting here.

Last month, Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) Chairman Sushil Chandra had said a simplified return form and process would be put in place soon in which the department would process the self-declaration made by the taxpayer. The new Rs 4,241-crore project will incorporate these changes.

 

“This is a laudable initiative and will go a long way to ease tax compliance, and enhanced experience for taxpayers. However, the real success of this will be measured when it brings ease to a common man and is accompanied by changes in the culture of the tax authorities at the operational level,” said Neeru Ahuja, partner, Deloitte India.

Currently, the e-filing portal and the CPC work separately. While e-filing is being managed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), the CPC is run by Infosys.

In the bids invited by the government, Infosys emerged as the lowest bidder and it would develop the ITR-CPC 2.0 project in 18 months from now, Goyal said.

Under the new system, Infosys will handle end-to-end solution — from e-filing to return assessment to refund processing. The CBDT and Infosys would work in a revenue-sharing model, sources in the know said.

Goyal said ramping up scrutiny was not the mandate of the new portal. Currently, about 0.3 per cent of the I-T returns are scrutinised, he said. The system intends to resolve taxpayer grievances as well as tax demands from the CBDT faster and equitably, he said.

“The decision will ensure horizontal equity by processing returns filed by all categories of taxpayers across the country in a consistent, uniform, rule driven, identity blind manner. This will assure fairness in tax treatment to every taxpayer irrespective of their status,” a government release said.

But even under the new ecosystem, only those applications which are clean would have the chance of getting processed in a day, sources said.

About 23 crore I-T returns have been processed, along with Rs 2.62 trillion worth of refunds, till September 2018 cumulatively. Of this, refunds worth Rs 1.83 trillion have been processed in 2018-19, said Goyal.

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Lenders considering resolution plan for Jet Airways: SBI

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Mumbai: State Bank of India (SBI) on Thursday said lenders are considering a resolution plan for Jet Airways to ensure long-term viability of the debt-laden company.

The SBI statement comes a day after the crisis-hit airline said discussions were “progressing well” with stakeholders on a comprehensive resolution plan that also contemplates equity infusion and consequent changes in its board of directors.

There are rising concerns over financial health of Jet Airways, whose shares have also taken a beating at stock exchanges.

 

“We would like to state that lenders are considering a restructuring plan under the RBI framework for resolution of stressed assets that would ensure a long-term viability of the company,” SBI said in a statement.

It said the restructuring plan for the cash-strapped airline would need approval from boards of lenders.

“Any such plan would be subject to approval of boards of the lenders and subject to adherence and clearance, if required, from the RBI and/or Sebi (takeover code, ICDR regulations.) and Ministry of Civil Aviation and in compliance with all regulatory prescriptions,” the statement said.

Shares of the airline are trading 4.24 per cent lower at Rs 259.50 apiece on BSE.

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NGT slams Volkswagen for not depositing Rs 100 crore as per its 2018 order

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New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) slammed German auto major Volkswagen for not depositing Rs 100 crore in accordance with its November 16, 2018 order and directed it to submit the amount within 24 hours.

A bench headed by NGT chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel took strong exception to the non-compliance of its order by the automobile giant and asked it to give an undertaking that it will submit the amount by 5 PM Friday.

“Why have you not complied with our order when there is no stay. We will not give you any further time,” the bench, also comprising Justice S P Wangdi, said while asking Volkswagen to submit an affidavit of compliance after deposit.

 

The tribunal deferred the matter for hearing after it was informed that the Supreme Court is also seized of the issue.

On November 16 last year, the tribunal had said that the use of ”cheat device” by Volkswagen in diesel cars in India leads to inference of environmental damage and had asked the German auto major to deposit an interim amount of Rs 100 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

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