A specialized Peel police task force is investigating 29 extortion cases and has laid charges against five more people in connection with some of those incidents, the service says.
The Extortion Investigative Task Force was launched in December in response to a wave of South Asian business owners reporting threats of violence against them and their families if they didn't pay money to prevent it.
At a news conference Wednesday, Supt. Shelley Thompson, who heads up the unit, said a total of 24 charges have been laid in relation to the 29 extortion attempts under investigation.
In nine of those instances, guns were fired at unoccupied businesses, Thompson said. No injuries have been reported in connection with the shootings.
The targeted businesses vary but include restaurants and bakeries, trucking and transport companies and independent used car dealerships, all with South Asian owners, Thompson said. The owners are contacted either by phone, social media apps or video calling services like WhatsApp.
The financial demands range from victim to victim, according to Thompson, but the perpetrators always ask for either cash or money transfers of Canadian dollars or Indian rupees.
Similar extortion attempts are under investigation by law enforcement in Edmonton, the Lower Mainland of B.C. and several jurisdictions in the U.S., she added. The Peel task force is in communication with police services in all of those locations, as well as with police agencies in India, Thompson said.
There is currently no information to suggest that the extortion attempts in Peel are connected to wider Indian organized crime, Thompson said, but that possibility is being actively investigated.
"We are still trying to sift through material to see if this is connected to India," she told reporters.
Peel investigators believe there are likely more victims.
"There is a lot of fear in the community … People are hesitant to come forward," Thompson said. "One of the reasons we are doing this (news conference) is to put it out there to the community that we are looking for information."
Four of the five arrests outlined by Thompson Wednesday were in connection with extortion attempts made against a Caledon business owner in December and January.
A search warrant carried out in Brampton turned up 50 cell phones, 11 laptops, "a large sum of cash" and a firearm with several rounds of ammunition, Thompson said.
A 23-year-old Brampton man is alleged to have made extortion demands on two separate occasions. He was charged with:
Two counts of extortion.
Uttering threats to cause death.
Discharging a firearm with intent.
Arson causing damage to property.
Fraud over $5,000.
Several other unspecified firearm-related offences.
A 24-year-old man from Mississauga was charged with fraud over $5,000 and firearm-related offences in connection with the same case, Thompson said. Two Brampton women, 25 and 21 years old, also face firearm charges in the investigation, she added.
Meanwhile, a 39-year-old man of no fixed address was charged with extortion in a separate case.
In December, Peel police announced they had arrested a 23-year-old man from Abbotsford, B.C., for allegedly discharging a gun and firing multiple rounds at a business near Rutherford Road S. and Clark Boulevard.
"I want to reaffirm that these acts of intimidation on our community members will not be tolerated," Thompson said Wednesday.
She appealed for any victims to get in touch with police.
The task force can be reached at (905) 453-2121, ext. 2133, while a hotline set up specifically for extortion attempts can be contacted at 1-866-966-0616.