Police attribute the increase in distraction thefts to an organized criminal ring. Elderly women, many of them Italian-speaking, are being targeted in residential areas throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Yesterday, Det. Sgt. Colin Greenaway, of 12 Division, held a news conference to ask for the public's help in solving a series of distraction thefts that have taken place throughout the GTA since early summer.
According to Greenaway, a van pulls up and a woman gets out and approaches an elderly person on the street, usually a woman. The Toronto Sun reports even women who need the assistance of a walker have been approached. The victim is asked if she speaks Italian; if not, the conversation is conducted in English. A driver remains in the van and on several occasions, there has been a toddler in a child seat in the back of the vehicle.
The conversation the suspect has with the pedestrian takes several forms. Sometimes the woman asks directions to a doctor's office or a pharmacy. Other times the suspect asks for financial help for a funeral or assistance with a planned trip to the United States. Or the woman might ask the victim if she would like to sell some of her jewelry.
The conversation ends by the suspect giving the victim a hug. During the course of the hug, the suspect removes the victim's jewelry, necklaces and earrings, and replaces these items with cheap pieces. In many instances, the victim does not realize her possessions have been taken until hours later.
Greenaway said the victims are between the ages of 75 and 88-years-old and the loss to the victims ranges between $750 and $3,000. Many of the elderly victims cannot afford to replace what they have lost.
CBC reports that there have been 10 incidents in the past week alone in the York-Weston area of 12 Division. Eight robberies occurred and there were two attempts.
Global TV reports there have been hundreds of cases reported in Toronto, York Region, and Durham Region. Police believe there are more incidents that have gone unreported. Greenaway said, "We are aware some are not reporting the crime due to shame or a language barrier."
Greenaway told the media no one should feel shame over what happened; the robbers are professionals. He also advised that 911 operators have translators available for those who cannot speak English. The officer also requested that residents speak to their elderly relatives and tell them how to avoid becoming victimized.
The suspect who leaves the van and approaches the elderly person is described as being between 35 and 45 years of age and of Eastern European descent. Anyone who is approached is asked to get a description and the license number of the vehicle and call police.