By Jesse Robitaille
A group of middle-aged men and women are alleged to be making the rounds at numismatic dealers across Canada with the hopes of shoplifting high-value gold coins.
It’s believed at least half a dozen locations across most of the country – from British Columbia to at least New Brunswick – have been hit by about a dozen different people alleged to be part of a larger criminal organization.
“They work in groups of two. It’s a gang – a crew – that’s being organized by somebody. There’s a king, and he sends out the crews to do their nefarious activities. They come back to him with the goods, and he pays them off for whatever work they’ve done,” said Canadian Association of Numismatic Dealers (CAND) President Michael Findlay, who added one dealer described it as “almost like a mafia situation.”
Upwards of eight ounces of gold – usually in the form of one-ounce gold coins, such as the Royal Canadian Mint’s Gold Maple Leaf (GML) – have been stolen from each of the locations using distraction tactics and sleight of hand. As of March 1, the price of gold was about $1,685 Cdn. an ounce.
“One dealer was hit for $20,000 in gold. It seems to be mostly around three or four ounces though,” said Findlay, who’s also the editor of CCN Trends as well as the founder and publisher of the Canadian Coin Dealer Newsletter.
‘BAIT & SWITCH’
The suspects’ modus operandi is described as a “bait and switch,” in which they surveil the location before attending, at which time they show interest in purchasing gold coins and bullion.
“They take out cash – and flash several thousands in cash – and they ask to look at the coins before saying they need it packed up in a box because they need to ship it,” said Findlay.
“They get the owner to pack the box and tape it up, but then they say they don’t have enough money to pay for it and offer to go to the bank – but then they’re gone.”
Kitchener, Ont.’s Colonial Acres was hit on Feb. 21 and lost four one-ounce GMLs. Co-owner Kirk Parsons said the alleged thieves tactics are “pretty consistent,” adding they will sometimes claim they are going to the airport or will even provide a down payment before getting the remaining money from the bank.
“You place the box on the shelf, unknowing the gold is missing and unlikely that you will open it up as you personally placed the items in the box and taped it up,” said Parsons. “They use distraction and sleight of hand to pull the heist off. From the video, I think they are professional magicians; it is impossible to see where the grab takes place.”
Findlay added these incidents usually occur at about 4:30 p.m., immediately prior to the closing time of the dealers as well as the banks.
“You put the box aside for the next day, or open it back up to put it back into stock, but the container is empty and they’ve palmed every item. It’s like they’re trained in sleight of hand, like magic.”
According to Findlay, another business that fell victim to theft was Brampton, Ont.’s B & W Coins and Tokens.
“It took two of them watching, and they did not pick up on the fact the gold was taken out of the containers. Everyone described it as ‘really slick’ or ‘really good’ and said ‘we watched them the whole time and we couldn’t tell.’”
One dealer that was visited by a suspicious duo but didn’t fall victim to thievery was Ed Agopian, owner of Imperial Coin and Stamp Co. in Hamilton.
“These guys were flashing $100 bills and U.S. currency, and I told them we don’t take U.S., so to go to the Money Mart next door,” said Agopian, who was visited in early February.
“I went to the Money Mart later on and asked them if they had a couple guys come in to exchange U.S. currency, and they said they didn’t, and I knew it was a scam.”
When asked to confirm the appearance of the suspects that visited other dealers, Agopian said it was a different pair that came into his shop.
“These aren’t the people who were in my store; I assure you.”
Parsons suggested there’s an organized group of people behind the recent thefts.
“We all have to get the word out so everyone knows how they’re doing it, and to be ready for it. At the end of the day, it’s not a happy situation, but it is what it is and makes you open your eyes and tells you not to relax when dealing with gold and silver.”
Following the thefts, Findlay reiterated common advice about how dealers can protect themselves.
“If you’re at all suspicious, don’t show them anything. Show one item at a time, and if they’re interested in that item, you have to pay for that item, and once you show the one item, make sure you have it back in your hand before anything else goes on,” said Findlay, who also owns his own business, Certified Coins of Canada, in Angus, Ont. “When anybody wants to look at anything, it’s one item at a time.”
He also echoed another sound sentiment: “If the transaction sounds too good to be true, it likely is.”
In regards to larger financial transactions, he said dealers must also consider their professional business responsibility.
“If you do $10,000 or more in cash, it’s a reportable transaction. If it looks like these people might not have enough cash or might not want to identity themselves, why even get involved with it? You have to be so careful with your responsibility as far as reporting goes,” he said, adding it’s “good business sense.”
“People tend to get a little lackadaisical when someone flashes a bunch of cash, like, ‘Wow, I get to do a transaction today,’ but while it’s a big cash item, it’s an item where margins are small.”
He said for a purchase of four ounces of gold, a dealer might make $200 on the whole transaction (or about $50 an ounce).
“That’s more of a margin than some of them are working on.”