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'The community is very shaken': South Asian businesses targeted for extortion in 3 provinces

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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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

“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. “I mean, these guys are on the street.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2024.

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