Canada

Extortions threatening South Asian businesses with shootings and arsons are linked, police say

Several brazen and violent attacks linked to extortion threats have targeted South Asian businesses across Canada since October. CBC News has learned that at least five policing jurisdictions in B.C., Alberta and Ontario are now investigating as many as 74 incidents or cases related to a series of extortion attempts.

RCMP believe threats and attacks in B.C., Alberta and Ontario are connected to organized crime

How criminals prey on South Asian business owners

2 months ago
Duration 4:50
A wave of violent extortion attempts against South Asian-owned businesses across Canada have police searching for the source. CBC’s Jamie Strashin breaks down the damage done and the links to international organized crime.

Last December, two partners at an Ontario car dealership received a threatening WhatsApp call, demanding they either give the caller hundreds of thousands of dollars, or face an attack on their business.

They were unsure of what to make of the call, but two days later, as one of the partners made his customary walk around the lot of their dealership just outside Toronto, they learned the message was no prank.

"I felt something under my shoes and then saw bullet shells. So I looked around. I saw more than 30, 40 bullet shells all over the place," said one of the partners. CBC News has agreed not to name the man because he fears for his safety. 

The night before, the dealership's security camera captured three gunmen entering the parking lot and unleashing a flurry of bullets, hitting 11 vehicles.

WATCH | Gunmen spray car dealership with bullets:

Gunmen shoot up Ontario car dealership

2 months ago
Duration 0:26
Security camera of an Ontario car dealership located just west of Toronto captured three gunmen entering the parking lot last December and unleashing a flurry of bullets, hitting 11 vehicles.

They then received another call, again demanding money. They didn't pay and instead went to the police, who told them to take precautionary measures, like changing their routine and possibly hiring security.

But a few weeks later, a man walked into another one of the three dealerships belonging to the partners and put someone on speakerphone. That person demanded $100,000 or else the dealership would be attacked like the other one was, but this time during the day.

This case is one of several brazen and violent attacks linked to extortion threats that have targeted South Asian businesses since October, leading to at least 14 arrests across the country.

CBC News has learned that at least five policing jurisdictions in B.C., Alberta and Ontario are now investigating as many as 74 incidents or cases related to this series of extortion attempts. The RCMP confirmed to CBC News that there are connections between attacks in different provinces, and said that some are linked to organized crime. 

Attacks inspired copycats, police say

While police have few answers to explain the sudden increase, they suggest the ease with which these threats can be carried out have inspired a number of copycats.

In the Peel Region west of Toronto, police say there have been 35 extortion attempts targeting South Asian businesses since October.

"The number, the frequency and the cadence of these extortions is unprecedented," said Peel Regional police Deputy Chief Marc Andrews. "We just haven't seen this before."

Peel Regional Police Deputy Chief Marc Andrews says there's been a 'sudden surge' in extortion-related incidents.
Peel Regional police Deputy Chief Marc Andrews says there's been a 'sudden surge' in extortion-related incidents that included violence and intimidation. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

"It wasn't a trend or an issue that we had seen on any sort of consistent basis prior to late fall, early winter," he said. "Then we had a sudden surge of these incidents that ultimately included the use of violence as well as intimidation."

Edmonton Police have confirmed they are also investigating more than 30 events related to extortion attempts and extortion-linked crimes targeting South Asian businesses in the same time frame, which include more than a dozen arsons and some drive-by shootings. One of the shootings took place at a home with children inside. 

The issue has become so significant in the city that police held a town hall meeting to address the violence.

Meanwhile, RCMP in Surrey, B.C., are investigating at least five potential extortion related cases, which also included shootings at residences, and police in Abbotsford, B.C., are investigating a series of threatening letters sent to local businesses. 

Bullet holes seen on hood of vehicle, one of 11 damaged when gunmen entered an Ontario car dealership and opened fire at the cars.
Bullet holes are seen in the hood of a car that was one of 11 vehicles that were damaged when gunmen opened fire at an Ontario car dealership. (Name withheld)

Last January in a letter to federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown and Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke noted their concerns about the recent escalation of extortion threats against business owners.

"These incidents have instilled fear in our communities and highlight the urgent need for a co-ordinated response involving multiple jurisdictions," they wrote. 

The following month, the RCMP announced it had established a national team to help co-ordinate investigations and information sharing about extortion schemes targeting South Asian businesses in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

People taking 'precautionary measures'

"People do worry. People are taking precautionary measures," said Brampton City Councillor Gurpartap Singh Toor.

"I know people that are travelling in armoured vehicles, that wear a bulletproof vest while going to work, have beefed up their security at their homes."

The framing of a house exposed by fire. The sun rises from the structure. Smoke rises from the exposed framing.
Edmonton police say this fire inside a home under construction in the city's west end last January is believed to be linked to a known extortion scheme. (David Bajer/CBC)

Andrews, the deputy chief of Peel police, said that based on their investigation, the attacks are focused on the South Asian community and are also being perpetrated by members of that community.

"I could say that with a fair degree of confidence because the languages and the accents that the victims are identifying are South Asian and all the arrests that we have made are of members of the South Asian community," Andrews said. "All the victims have been members of the South Asian community."

Links to organized crime

As for who may be behind the extortion threats and attacks, RCMP Supt. Adam MacIntosh told CBC News that there are "absolutely links" among some incidents across the provinces, as well as "links to organized crime."

According to MacIntosh, police are "looking at more than one potential organized crime group" in Canada, or possibly internationally. He is overseeing an investigative team related to ongoing extortion attempts across the country.

RCMP Supt. Adam MacIntosh says investigators are looking at more than one potential organized crime group who could be behind the rash of extortion-related attacks.
RCMP Supt. Adam MacIntosh says investigators are looking at more than one potential organized crime group that could be behind the rash of extortion-related attacks. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

While he says it's possible these attacks are linked to historical geopolitical issues related to India and the Khalistan separatist movement, and that there could be international connections, "it boils down to organized crime extorting people from money to profit for a criminal purpose."

As well, law enforcement officials say there are likely more incidents, but that some victims aren't coming forward and instead are simply paying the extortion.

MacIntosh says police believe there are people outside these jurisdictions who have reported similar extortion attempts, as well as people within them who have not come forward.

LISTEN | How police in Peel Region are handling extortion attempts:
Nishan Duraiappah is the Police Chief in Peel Region.

Police advise against paying extortion

Andrews, the deputy police chief for Peel Region, said that for those who do pay the extortion, there's a good chance the people extorting them will come back to the well more than once.

"I can completely understand the level of fear and concern," he said. "But by paying, you're not making the problem go away."

According to Andrews, these investigations are challenging due to the use of the encoded WhatsApp messenger and the emergence of copycats looking to make a quick score

"It's such a relatively easy thing to do. It involves a phone call."