06/17/2015 09:09 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT

Montreal police arrest fake taxi drivers in $400K debit card fraud

At about 2:30 in the morning, on a Tuesday in early May, Hannah Lazare and her friends were leaving a bar on Crescent street in downtown Montreal. Lazare hailed a cab, alone, near the corner of Sherbrooke and struck up a conversation with the young, friendly driver. 

"I asked right away, can I pay with a card," said Lazare. "And he said, 'Yes, sure! Only debit.'"

"I didn't think twice about it." 

Fifteen minutes later, she was home. 

An hour later, she would be almost $3,000 poorer, without even knowing it.

Lazare is one of more than 150 suspected victims of a debit fraud scheme that has robbed taxi customers of more than $400,000, according to police. 

Now, after months of investigating, Montreal Police have arrested two men, aged 30 and 33, following a raid of three homes Wednesday morning in Montreal and Laval.

Police say the suspects were stealing customers' PINs and debit cards and swapping them out with fake cards, before draining their bank accounts. 

"The amount of fraud per person varies. It could go from tens of dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the client," said Montreal Police Sgt. Laurent Gingras. 

The two men, who are related, will appear in court Thursday to face more than 20 counts each of theft, fraud and conspiracy. 

A well-oiled scheme

The suspects generally followed the same pattern, according to police: The driver would pick up a passenger from the street.

At some point the driver would ask that the passenger pay by debit. When it came time to pay, the driver would insert the card into a special terminal that skims PINs. 

Then, while passengers weren't looking, he would pocket the real card, and hand back a different, nearly identical debit card. 

The fraudsters worked quickly, often withdrawing huge sums of money within a few hours of the card theft, before the customer had a chance to notice. 

Lazare said it was only the next day, when she went to her TD branch to cash a cheque, that she realized her debit card had been stolen.

"I noticed that there was some scratches on the back of the card. And I realized that the signature on the back was not mine," she said. 

Lazare, a law, ethics and history student at the University of Toronto, had just deposited several thousand dollars in scholarship money in her account a few days before. She balked when the teller told her there was just $6 left in her account.

On her bank statement, Lazare saw that the fraudsters had withdrawn $1,000 from a bank machine, and then spent the rest at a Couche Tard dépanneur.

Police say the suspects also tried to press passengers for personal information, to maximize their return.

"What interested them most was their date of birth," said Gingras. "Because with the date of birth, at certain banks, they can withdraw more money than is usually allowed."

"The guy was very good at chatting us up, asking where we were from and stuff — basically just distracting us and taking our mind off of anything we'd consider to be off about the whole situation," said Matt MacKinnon, a local freelance photographer who lost hundreds of dollars in the same scheme on Saturday. 

Neither MacKinnon nor Lazare say they gave personal information to the driver.

Lazare said she was reimbursed by TD bank once they determined she had been the victim of fraud. 
MacKinnon, also a TD customer, said the bank is still conducting its investigation.

Fake taxi drivers, real taxis

Gingras said the suspects were renting out taxis under the table from different drivers with different companies.

It's not clear whether the drivers who lent their cars knew anything about the fraud.

"By varying the kind of vehicle that was used, they would not [draw] attention to themselves," said Gingras. "Different types of vehicles — more difficult for the police to pinpoint."

One of the suspects appears to have had a taxi licence at one point. The other does not even have a drivers licence.

Gathering evidence 

Police say they started receiving a handful of complaints about this type of fraud in July 2014, but only started connecting the dots in January and February of this year. That's when the suspects started escalating their scheme, stealing from customers almost daily. 

"We were able to pinpoint that we were dealing with a couple of suspects, but again, we had a vague description at that point," said Gingras. 

He said police did not want to spook the pair and force them underground by alerting the public about the fraud.

"Investigators were working on several leads at that point," he said. "Unfortunately, sometimes investigations take time."

Protect yourself

Police are not currently looking at other suspects, but Gingras said customers should take caution to avoid being a victim of a similar fraud.

"First of all, if you want to call a taxi, the best way is to call them, not hail them on the street," he said. "If you decide to pay with a card, make sure you keep your eye on the card."

Gingras also suggests putting a sticker or distinguishing mark on your card.

The whole experience has made Lazare question whether she wants to take cabs at all. 

"We had a nice conversation and I sort of like that about living in a city — getting to meet all sorts of different people," said Lazare.

"But to know that that entire time, he was planning on scamming me was just a bit sad and hurtful. I haven't taken a taxi since."