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COVID-19: Toronto crime upswing

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Toronto sees increase in cybercrime, domestic assaults, commercial break-and-enters, stunt driving, and speeding

TORONTO, ON., May 13, 2020 — It is often said that home is where the heart is but for COVID-19 crime victims it is no refuge from predators bent on taking advantage in a crisis situation. The pandemic has ushered in emergency declarations in Ontario as well as the rest of the country severely restricting the movement of Canadians and shuttering businesses. Daily public service announcements tell us to stay at home in order to save lives while we wash our hands and hope that the worst is over. However, not much thought has been given to the downside of shelter-in-place directives and many criminals are having a field day. With nobody minding the store and, as public services such as hotlines, shelters, legal aid, crime prevention, and protection services are scaled back and personnel redeployed to fight COVID-19, the perfect storm is brewing.

Phishing scams during the pandemic

“Since the pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in phishing scams for both email and text messaging aimed at stealing users’ credentials and banking information,” says Det. Sgt. John Menard of the Toronto Police Cyber Operations – Intelligence Services. These encompass fake remote access log-ins for businesses, false CERB notices sent to text messages, fraudulent employment insurance schemes, phony sign-in verification of home streaming services, and people trying to sell fake test-kits, masks, and hand-sanitizer.

“Cybercriminals have gotten creative during the pandemic and are preying on the unemployed by staging elaborate fake job interviews and training sessions aimed solely at stealing financial information,” says Menard. “The best way to protect yourself is by doing ‘due diligence’,” Menard says. “Verify why you are giving information, who is asking, and find out if the person or company is legitimate. If you receive a request from a loved one for money reach out and call them first before transferring funds. “If you spend a little extra time looking at all these suspicious emails and text messages you’ll be able to see that they are actually fraudulent,” he says.

Increase in domestic violence during COVID-19 pandemic

Women and children in troubled homes are paying a heavy price for stay-at-home edicts to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Stress, loss of income, and isolation can all increase the risk of violence under normal circumstances. A Stats Canada report found that 10 percent of women have been very or extremely concerned about violence in the home during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organization preliminary reports from China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries suggest an increase in domestic violence cases since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

Calls to crisis shelters in Toronto have spiked since lock-down went into effect but there’s no easy exit strategy for victims of domestic violence. Travel restrictions, fear of infection, or simply being unable to make a call to a crisis hotline when an abuser is within earshot make the new COVID-19 reality particularly dangerous.

The Sandgate Women’s Shelter of York Region has seen a dramatic upswing in complaints noting that domestic assaults in York Region have surged 25% in the COVID-19 crisis: “We are facing a complicated and unprecedented situation, when “self-isolating at home” is both the primary advice to respond to our current public health crisis, yet the most common location of harassment, violence, and lethality for women and children.” The situation isn’t always uniform across the GTA. “We have been seeing a small decrease in Intimate partner violence reports,” says Meaghan Gray of Corporate Communications for the Toronto Police Service. However, she cautions that this isn’t necessarily a true reflection of the realities on the ground. “We also know that these crimes are historically unreported and we would encourage anyone who has experienced this type of violence to contact police.” She is advising people to contact Victim Services Toronto – 416-808-7066 – www.victimservicestoronto.com and The Assaulted Women Helpline – 416-863-0511 or 1-866-863-0511 – www.awhl.org. By connecting with these agencies, callers can be provided with community resources in their own neighborhoods. The Toronto Police Service works collaboratively with all emergency services and other regional police services in Greater Toronto.

Break-and-enters are on the rise

It’s been well over a month since Toronto was closed for business for all but essential services. A recent survey of businesses and commercial landlords in Toronto found that 61 percent will not survive over the next three months, without much-needed rent relief, due to the economic effects of COVID-19. The survey, conducted by Broadview-Danforth BIA estimates that 76 percent of businesses will close down for good within five months. That’s only part of a bleak picture for small business owners trying to navigate an uncertain course.

Many storefronts along Yonge and Bloor are boarded up as merchants brace for the worst; ditto, in many other areas of the city. Empty streets have emboldened thieves and vandals despite barriers and stepped-up security measures. There have been numerous arrests for crimes against commercial properties, restaurants, and retail stores. Gray says it is probably still too early to make any determination about possible crime trends during COVID-19 but says it would appear that commercial break-and-enters are on the rise while residential break-and-enters are in decline.

High-speed and stunt driving upswing

One interesting finding that is not in dispute: stunt-driving and high-speed driving are on the upswing not only in Toronto but other cities as well as the young and restless take to the open roads. Recently, a 19-year-old was clocked going over 300 km/h on the QEW near Burlington, while Police in York Region impounded nine vehicles recently after a rash of stunt driving incidents that officers say is linked to COVID-19 restrictions. The nine drivers were travelling more than 50 km/h above the posted speed limit highlighting the “problem of high-speed driving during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said York Region police. From March 1 to May 11, York police say they laid 306 stunt driving charges — more than double last year’s number during that period — for going more 50 km/h above the speed limit.

by Deborah Rankin

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