People of low-income group, who saved their hard-earned money with an NGO in Chattogram city for promised high returns, have become victims of alleged fraud as the organisation suddenly closed shop and its officials disappeared.
Some of the victims are house helps, rickshaw-pullers, janitors and beggars.
Seven years ago, Aleya Begum, who survived on begging in the port city's GEC intersection area, came to know about Organisation of Social Service and Elimination of Poverty (OSSEP) from locals.
The mother of two had been living in Jhautola area after her husband left her. When she heard about OSSEP, she thought it could change her lot.
Since 2011, OSSEP had been promising people high interest on their savings. Mainly from marginal-income group, like Aleya, deposited portions of their daily, weekly or monthly income with OSSEP as they would get a good return, in cases double their savings, after a period.
OSSEP, which allegedly operated in 39 wards of the city, closed its office in 2016 without returning money of the poor people.
Aleya had deposited Tk 95,000 under three policies. Two of those were supposed to have matured in 2016.
“Thinking about the future of my children, I had saved that money enduring a lot of difficulties,” said Aleya, adding, “I had skipped meals to save up and make deposits daily, weekly and monthly.”
“I was supposed to receive Tk 2 lakh in total at the end of a five-year deal in 2016,” she said. “All my dreams have been shattered… they have ruined me.”
Aleya is not alone. Many claimed that about 30,000 people had money with OSSEP. They said the amount added up to around Tk 50 crore.
The Daily Star spoke to over 30 of them and they had signed deeds and receipt books. Some of the deeds promised double the return in four years for fixed deposits.
Deceived and devastated, the depositors besieged the home of one Jahanara Begum Lucky, a field officer of the organisation, in Khulshi area. They handed her over to police on November 2 this year. They said Lucky collected the money from them.
One of the depositors, Ramesh Chandra Das, filed a case with Khulshi Police Station, accusing eight officials of OSSEP, including Lucky and Fatema Begum, 40, wife of the owner of OSSEP, Jasim Uddin.
Sheikh Mohammad Nasir Uddin, officer-in-charge of Khulshi Police Station, said, “Lucky told police that she deposited all the collected money to the office, but the organisation shut its office after its owner died in 2016.”
Sohagi Begum, a resident of Jhautola slum, told The Daily Star that her husband died some 10 years ago. After losing her home to river erosion in Bhola, the 45-year-old and her three sons moved to the slum seven years ago.
Sohagi teaches local children Arabic for livelihood while two of her sons pull rickshaws. Hoping to build a house in her village, Sohagi and her sons started saving money with OSSEP from 2012.
“We have deposited Tk 1 lakh and were supposed to get Tk 2 lakh at the end of a five-year contract,” said Sohagi. “One morning in 2016, we came to know that the owner died. We asked the officials about our deposits, they told me not to worry, all the money would be returned with interest.”
“After some days, we came to know that the organisation closed its office in Batali Hill area,” she said, adding, “As Lucky collected the money from us, we put pressure on her to return our money.”
Marjina Begum, who works as a house help in the city and had deposited Tk 1 lakh to get Tk 2 lakh in return in five years, said, “At first, Lucky assured us of returning the money and we managed conveyance for her to go to Dhaka to meet the wife of the owner.”
“Lucky went to Dhaka several times… Every time she came back she wanted us to give her some more time for returning the money. We have lost our patience after two years,” said Marjina, who had been saving the money for her daughter's wedding.
Another depositor, Azgar Ali, claimed that OSSEP had shut down without refunding 30,000 people Tk 50 crore. He said those who had saved up the money were mostly beggars, rickshaw pullers, house helps, and betel-nut sellers.
Contacted, OC Nasir said they did not know whether the organisation had a licence to run these activities. “None came to us with complaint before,” he said. “We are investigating the case.”
This newspaper while talking to the victims learned that the owner had other businesses under the same name in Narsingdi and other places and after his death his wife is in charge of those.
When asked, OC Nasir said the wife is also absconding.
Wahidul Alam, assistant director of Social Welfare Department, Chattogram, said no NGO named Organisation of Social Service and Elimination of Poverty (OSSEP) was registered or listed with the department.
Asked, how they monitor activities of NGOs, he said they monitor the enlisted NGOs but it is the duty of police to take action against those running without licences.
This newspaper visited the OSSEP office in Batali Hill this week. The four-storey building now houses some other organisations. Employees of those said OSSEP had office on every floor before it shut down.
No contact details of the organisation or its officials were available.
These correspondents, however, managed to find phone numbers of an accounts official and a field officer of the organisation, but they did not pick up their phones despite repeated attempts.