Four men, a woman and a teenage boy are collectively facing more than 250 identity theft fraud charges in connection with an ongoing taxi fare scam investigation.
Police said that customers would get into various taxi cabs during the evening and morning hours and when they would attempt to pay with either a debit or credit card, the driver would swap their card with a fake card and steal their identity.
The drivers allegedly handed customers an altered Point of Sale machine and when the customers enter their PIN information, an error would pop up on the machine and the transaction would show up as not properly processed. The driver would then ask for the machine back to fix the issue and then swap out the customer’s debit card with a fake card and the transaction would go forward without an issue.
Police said the driver would then go to the bank, take the PIN information captured from the altered Point of Sale machine and then either the driver, or another person waiting at the bank, heads to the ATM and withdraw money.
“We’re in the millions of a loss when you put them all together,” Det.-Const. Kristin Thomas said of the sums of money involved.
Police received reports of the alleged frauds throughout 2018, but a few months passed before a pattern began to emerge, she said.
On Dec. 19, search warrants were issued for several addresses in the city and documents, as well as a point of sale machine, were recovered.
Between Dec. 19 and Jan. 15, six suspects were arrested.
The suspects face a total of 262 fraud-related charges, including identity theft, possession of property obtained by crime and fraud over $5,000.
The accused are brothers Alex and Adam Ghakhar, both 22, Mohammad Sarwar, 25, Tracy Begley, 48, and a 16-year-old boy who cannot be named.
Thomas said the suspects are all known to each other, but provided no other details on the relationships between them.
She said Toronto’s taxi providers have been very co-operative in the investigation, but provided no details on which ones the suspects worked for.
A spokesperson for one of Toronto’s largest taxi companies said the arrests mark what many hope is the beginning of the end of a difficult saga.
Beck Taxi Operations Manager Kristine Hubbard said the ongoing scam has prompted the company to step up security measures like ensuring all debit machines in its vehicles are prominently branded with the company logo.
She said the scam has proven difficult to investigate and said the incident represents a low point for all cab providers.
“People aren’t actually losing that money for good, they’re getting it back,” Hubbard said, noting banks or insurance companies have been quick to make defrauded customers whole. “So the victim in the end really is the bank and the reputation of the taxi industry.”
Thomas cautioned that the alleged fraud has continued to remain “very active” in the weeks since the bulk of the arrests were made, with police receiving reports that fit the pattern several times a week. She said the scam appears to be operating throughout the city of Toronto and surrounding municipalities.
She urged taxi passengers to take precautions with their financial information, noting technology has changed the way electronic transactions are conducted.
“Keep your eyes on your debit card or visa at all times,” she said. “It’s not like back when we used to hand our debits or visas over … You don’t need to lose sight of it.”
Thomas also urged passengers to note down the cab number and taxi company of any driver whose behaviour causes concern.
This is not the first time a taxi scam has hit the streets of Toronto.
In 2016 and in 2017, Toronto residents were bilked out of thousands of dollars through similar scams.
Files from The Canadian Press were used in this report