November 27th, 2006 08:25 EST
Cross-Border Counterfeiting Ring Busted
Even side-by-side, you can hardly tell them apart.
On the left is a silver subway or bus token about the size of a dime that, for $2.50, will take you across the city of Toronto. On the right is one of the millions of incredibly realistic knockoffs that began flooding the city’s transit system two years ago.
How good were the fake tokens? Good enough to slip into the system virtually unnoticed. And weighted just right so they were accepted by fare machines.
It wasn’t long before the Toronto Transit Commission, an arm of the Canadian government, got wise to the counterfeit tokens. The ensuing investigation—led by Staff Sergeant Mark Russell of the transit commission in concert with the Toronto Police Service—soon pieced together how the tokens were getting into the system: through black markets operating in pubs and convenience stores, on college campuses, and elsewhere, where the knockoffs were being sold at a buck a piece (shorting the Canadians an estimated $10 million total).
Try as they might, though, investigators couldn’t figure out who was behind the scheme. How were they minting these precise aluminum replicas? Where?
Then, a break in the case. In October 2005, a U.S. token broker reported that someone wanted to order two million of the Toronto tokens. The customer said that the tokens would be thrown from floats during a holiday parade in the Caribbean and that he wanted them delivered to Niagara Falls, New York.
Hmmm, strange, the broker thought. He called the transit commission and spoke to Staff Sergeant Russell, who immediately jumped on the lead. With a U.S. connection now established, Staff Sergeant Russell called the people across the border he thought would have the resources to help: our FBI agents in Buffalo.
That’s when Special Agents Rob Gross and Tom Doktor got to work. After talking with the token broker, Gross learned that a private mint in Massachusetts had already made millions of the fake tokens and was almost ready to deliver another shipment. Mint officials said they didn’t realize the orders weren’t legit and cooperated fully with the investigation. Gross and Russell learned the identities of the likely counterfeiters—and who was supposed to pick up the tokens in Niagara Falls.
Using a team of agents and our longstanding surveillance capabilities, we watched as a shipment of tokens left the mint and was delivered to a local man in Niagara Falls. The man told arresting agents he was just a middleman and agreed to cooperate. Our agents were ready several days later when he delivered several thousand tokens to a woman who would take the tokens across the border. She was arrested on the spot.
Meanwhile, Canadian police had arrested the suspected leaders—two Canadian brothers, one of whom was an ex-basketball player—based largely on evidence we helped gather at the mint. Soon after, another private U.S. mint called our Philadelphia office and said it had likely produced fake tokens as well. It provided more critical evidence—including 70,000 fake coins—to implicate a third suspect, who was subsequently arrested by TTC and Toronto Police officers. As part of their plea, the two suspects in American custody will be sentenced in the U.S. after testifying in the Canadian trials.
This month the TTC unveiled new tokens designed to thwart counterfeiters. They will completely replace the old tokens by the end of January.
Thus ended the worst ever counterfeiting scam of its kind in Canada…a crime that was enabled here in the U.S. “The fact is, law enforcement has to respect borders but criminals don’t,” Gross said. “That’s why it’s so important to have the great working relationships that we do with the Canadians—they are there when we need them, whether the case involves tokens or terrorists.”