Extortion threats leave South Asian communities shaken in B.C., Ontario, Alberta

Click to play video: 'Extortion threats leave South Asian communities shaken in Edmonton, B.C., Ontario'
Extortion threats leave South Asian communities shaken in Edmonton, B.C., Ontario
Edmonton police aren't the only ones investigating extortion targeting south Asian business owners. It's a tactic that's been seen in at least two other provinces in the past month alone. As Morgan Black explains, those investigating say what's happening here is also common outside Canada – Jan 5, 2024

It started with a voice mail demanding payment of some kind, then a series of missed phone calls, later came the gun shots targeting the home of a Metro Vancouver business owner whose family and community are now gripped with fear.

The businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the original message demanded a payment, “otherwise there would be consequences,” he said.

At first, it seemed like a “prank” of some kind, and he didn’t take the calls seriously, but he called the would-be extortionists back.

“We see that you’re doing well in business, so you need to pay us,” they told him.

Police in at least three provinces are dealing with similar investigations of extortion schemes targeting business owners in South Asian communities, a tactic investigators say is commonly employed by organized crime groups in the Indian state of Punjab.

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In early December 2023, police in Abbotsford, B.C., revealed that extortion letters had been circulating among businesses in the city and that its major crime unit was looking into them.

Click to play video: 'B.C. South Asian businesses targeted in extortion attempts'
B.C. South Asian businesses targeted in extortion attempts

Abbotsford police said at the time that social media posts depicting an extortion letter were consistent with what they’d been seeing.

The department also said it was investigating the leak of a police “Law Enforcement Only” bulletin that said investigators were looking into an “ongoing extortion” believed to be tied to two shootings at the homes of victims and an arson case.

It said the suspects are believed to be tied to a gang based in India headed by a man named Lawrence Bishnoi, and the scheme targets “affluent members of the South Asian community.”

The bulletin said the Hindi-speaking suspects use the messaging service WhatsApp to contact victims and threaten violence after “demanding large quantities of currency.”

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Click to play video: 'Development in extortion investigation involving business owners across Metro Vancouver'
Development in extortion investigation involving business owners across Metro Vancouver

In some cases, police said the suspects appear to have detailed knowledge of the victim’s personal information, such as family members, vehicles and lifestyle patterns.

In a statement, Abbotsford Police spokesman Const. Art Stele said police have not confirmed that the “letters are linked to incidences of violence.”

“Yet all possible avenues and leads are being investigated,” the statement said. “As there are many moving parts to this investigation, we cannot answer all questions as to not impede on the ongoing investigation, yet will communicate what we can to ensure the public is informed.”

Click to play video: 'Police confirm extortion attempts against B.C. business owners'
Police confirm extortion attempts against B.C. business owners

Other police agencies are now involved in a multi-jurisdictional investigation in B.C., and police say similar extortion schemes in Ontario and Alberta are under probe as well.

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Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS) said two homes under construction and one home that was recently completed have been destroyed by fire in Edmonton’s Cy Becker neighbourhood. Global News

Last month, the Peel Regional Police in Ontario announced the launch of an Extortion Investigative Task Force after the Dec. 8 arrest of a 23-year-old man from Abbotsford, B.C.

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Peel police said at the time that nine cases were under investigation, and the extortion threats have “caused grave safety and security concerns among our community members.”

In Surrey, B.C., RCMP Cpl. Sarbjit Sangha said in an interview that similar reports of extortion attempts have happened in their jurisdiction, in Edmonton, in West Vancouver and White Rock, B.C.

She said it started as rumours in the community that eventually escalated into complaints being filed with RCMP.

“There was also rumour in the community that people were paying the amount that was being requested and not calling the police. So we wanted to make sure the business community knew we are here to help them,” Sangha said.

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Sangha said these types of extortion attempts involving people seeking “protection money” from business owners are common in India, and police “believe that the same element has raised its head in Canada.”

“‘If you pay us, we won’t harm you. We won’t harm your business. We won’t harm your family.’ That is the similarity we seen all across these extortion investigations,” she said of all the cases across the country.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police investigating arsons, shooting as part of extortion targeting South Asian community'
Edmonton police investigating arsons, shooting as part of extortion targeting South Asian community

Sangha said people who receive these threats should call police in their home jurisdiction “immediately,” and “not give in to any demands that are asked by these individuals, whether they’re asking for money or anything else.

“They are trying to create a fear in the business community and they’re only targeting people who they know are well off and they have the money,” she said.

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“We are working very closely with all of the other jurisdictions that are dealing with similar incidents,” Sangha added.

On Dec. 28, Surrey RCMP arrested two people they said are connected with extortion attempts, but the pair was released while charges are considered by the BC Prosecution Service.

On Jan. 3, police in Edmonton announced that they’re investigating 18 extortion incidents in the region that they believe are tied to a series of arsons and drive-by shootings.

All of the crimes happened in the last three months of 2023.

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services received reports of two separate structure fires along Esaiw Place NW at 2:11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. Supplied to Global News

Edmonton Police said this week that six young males have been arrested in connection with the extortion attempts, shootings and arsons, and they are looking for another potential suspect in a Dec. 29 arson case.

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Failure to pay the extorted sum has resulted in fires or other property damage to new home builds, show homes and related property, Edmonton police said.

A fire on Nov. 12, 2023 destroyed a home near 16 Avenue and 12 Street in the Aster neighbourhood of southeast Edmonton. Global 1 news helicopter

At least seven cases of arson in new neighbourhoods all over Edmonton in the final two months of 2023 have been linked to the investigation, police and fire confirmed to Global News.

Edmonton police said the suspects have also been known to make follow-up demands for higher sums of money, “leading to an escalation of violence and drive-by shootings.”

One such shooting happened October and was witnessed by police already working in the area.

Click to play video: 'Targeted drive-by shooting in southeast Edmonton put families at risk: Police'
Targeted drive-by shooting in southeast Edmonton put families at risk: Police

Surrey-based Hindu temple president Satish Kumar said his own son’s family home was targeted by gunfire late last month.

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Kumar said he and his family members haven’t received any extortion calls or letters, but the escalating violence has people on edge.

“The community is very shaken right now,” Kumar said in an interview.

Kumar, the president of Surrey’s Lakshmi Narayan Mandir temple, said a community forum to discuss the violence and extortion incidents is happening at the Reflection Banquet Hall on Jan. 6.

He said he and others are still trying to understand why they’re being targeted.

“We do not have any enemy, no problem with anything,” he said. “You know, we are businessmen.”

Click to play video: 'Special public forum organized to deal with B.C. business extortion threats'
Special public forum organized to deal with B.C. business extortion threats

For the Metro Vancouver business owner still grappling with the shooting at his home, the incident has rattled him and he’s encouraging attendance at the upcoming forum in Surrey.

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“My children are afraid, my mom and dad are very afraid, you know, they don’t want me leaving the house,” he said.

The recent arrests announced by Surrey RCMP didn’t offer much comfort, he said.

“At the end of the day, for us, is until somebody’s actually held and found accountable and charged, I mean it really doesn’t do much to arrest somebody and let them go,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Reported extortion attempts prompt police warnings in Surrey, Abbotsford'
Reported extortion attempts prompt police warnings in Surrey, Abbotsford

— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News

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