Narayanganj's Sadikur was just another ordinary man: humble, honest, and hardworking. At least, his colleagues at a readymade garment factory in Dhaka's neighbouring district did not notice anything suspicious, except his huge enthusiasm for high voltage international cricket matches.
But as his enthusiasm for cricket turned into a betting addiction, Sadikur started to develop strange attitudes. He would borrow from family and friends, put the money in online betting, eventually lose the gamble and turn to people for loans. The loans gradually mounted to nearly Tk1 lakh.
In early July, the youth hacked his neighbour and her child to death in order to loot the valuables in the house.
Earlier in March this year, the director of a cement company was murdered in Dhaka by his chauffeur, who was also addicted to online betting. After arresting the driver, police said he used to spend all of his salary on online gambling.
The two incidents show how severe the virtual gambling addiction is, forcing an ordinary man to commit a crime, put the money in the game and let it be siphoned out of the country eventually.
Gambling is illegal in Bangladesh. But police say people of different ages and professions are increasingly participating in various virtual gambling events mostly operated from other countries. Even though they go into gambling out of curiosity, the betting turns into an addiction for many just within a few days.
A humble beginning
For signing up, the gambling sites and apps just require an email address, mobile phone number and a password. The new account will have a virtual wallet attached.
To add currency to the wallet, the users need to convert the taka into gambling currency from the mobile financial service (MFS) outlets. The gambling currencies, also called bot balance, can be put into the betting process
The sites offer online betting and virtual casinos. Cricket betting draws a lot of hits during different international cricket matches.
The money laundering loop
The Cyber Police Centre of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police is currently investigating a case related to mostbet – a betting site operated from Russia.
The CID shares some of its findings with the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) for further investigation. The BFIU has investigated transactions made by some suspicious mobile banking accounts.
In January to June this year, each of the MFS accounts cashed in Tk50 lakh per month. This suggests around Tk15 crore was laundered by only five MFS accounts.
"Local rackets who had been involved in the online gambling sites used to change the MFS numbers frequently. Therefore, details of all the MFS accounts could not be recovered even after a number of gangs were busted," one of the investigators told The Business Standard.
"However, we suspect that hundreds of crores of taka have been siphoned out of the country by mostbet alone," the investigator said. He elaborated the steps resorted to in money laundering.
First, gamblers buy the gambling currency through mobile banking services. The local gambling agents then meet the MFS sales staff and collect the cash. In the third step, the agents deliver the cash to the head of the racket.
So far, the money is within the country, said the official. In the fourth and final stage, the racket chief will send the money to foreign countries through unofficial channels such as "hundi".
Police recently arrested two mid-level local agents of mostbet. One of them subsequently told the court that he has laundered around Tk1 crore.
Law enforcers said they have identified around 100 betting sites, which are now under the police radar.
In faraway bordering districts, agents became rich overnight
Most of the gamblers lose their last penny soon after becoming addicted to online gambling. But the owners of the sites and their local agents get the benefit of the illicit money flow.
Local agents, who are usually tech-savvy and understand the gambling operations well, purchase the agent account by paying Tk1-Tk10 lakh to the sites. Subsequently, they play the key role in popularising and spreading the gambling, currency conversion and cash collection.
According to police, gambling agents are mostly from Meherpur and Chuadanga – two districts bordering India in the southwestern swathe. Some other districts, such as Cox's Bazar, Cumilla and Jamalpur, also have gambling agents.
Law enforcers say many agents have become rich overnight in those areas. They claim to their neighbours that they have earned the money by freelancing.
Challenging investigation, say police
CID Cyber Police Centre and Detective Branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) have filed eight cases and arrested 60 people for running the online gambling sites.
But most of the arrested individuals came out on bail, and resumed their operations.
"Unlike other criminals, they are tech-savvy and smart," SM Ashraful Alam, special superintendent of police at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Cyber Police Centre, told The Business Standard.
The CID official said such rackets communicate through encrypted mobile-based apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram which the police cannot intercept, and change the MFS numbers frequently.
"If one of their members gets arrested, others promptly delete the data. Besides, members do not know each other even though they belong to the same group," he added.
Mohammad Tarek Bin Rashid, deputy commissioner of police (DC) at the Detective Branch (DB) of DMP Cyber and Special Crime, said the investigations could have been completed promptly if the apps had shared information with police.