Police say they have dismantled an international organized crime ring responsible for a series of distraction thefts across southern Ontario and Quebec.

Durham Regional Police say a total of 263 charges have been laid against 34 people, and 28 of the accused are in custody.

It's alleged the ring would recruit people from Romania to come to Canada, where they would claim refugee status and then apply for social assistance, primarily in and around Toronto.

They would then be brought into the distraction theft and fraud operation and hand over any profits to the ringleaders.

The suspects would allegedly target people on the street or in stores, then use distraction in order to steal valuables such as jewelry.

Police say their tactics included:

  • Swarming a store with people, using some to distract the clerk while others steal merchandise. In some cases special shoplifting pockets were sewn into garments.
  • Offering to sell or swap worthless jewelry with their targets. In other cases, targets were allowed to "try on" junk jewelry, which was swapped for more valuable items.
  • Memorizing debit card numbers while shoppers made their purchases, following them to the parking lot and stealing the card from the front seat of the vehicle as the victims loaded purchases into the trunk.

Police say investigators looking into cases in Oshawa soon realized similar distraction methods were being reported in other areas, including Toronto, London, Sudbury and Quebec.

Ring involved more than 400 people, police say

Durham police Chief Mike Ewles told a news conference Wednesday that the investigation dubbed Project Mansfield identified more than 400 people associated with the crime ring.

"This is by far the largest investigation of its kind here in Durham Region," Ewles said.

The operation, which began in November 2011, also involved the Canada Border Services Agency, RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, the FBI, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Interpol and police services in Toronto, Montreal, York Region, London, Sudbury and Peel Region.

Police say investigators closed in last month on four main suspects living in Pickering, Ont., and Toronto, but two had fled to Europe. Warrants have been issued for those two, along with four other outstanding suspects.

Social services officials have calculated that the people identified in this investigation have received more than $2 million from various social support programs since January.

Investigators seized a total of $85,000 in Canadian currency and stolen merchandise as well as credit cards. More than $1 million in suspicious wire transactions were also shipped overseas, police allege.

Investigators believe there are additional victims and are asking anyone with information to come forward. 

"Individual victims may not be aware that this group has actually hit them, so we're asking for them to think back if they were victimized, if they did lose a necklace in a distraction theft and just think they lost it," Ewles said. 

With files from The Canadian Press