TORONTO — TO Canadians trying to sell their cars, the high prices offered by Uniglobe Auto Brokers looked all too good.
Customers walked out of the new firm's glitzy showrooms in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, leaving behind their old cars in exchange for fat checks. Unfortunately, most of the checks were postdated 45 to 90 days - and proved worthless.
Uniglobe was a Russian organized-crime scam that netted $3 million and snookered almost 500 people in just a few months of operation in 1993, police say.
Russian crime organizations - led by criminals hardened in Soviet gulags (prisons) - are having a field day in Canada, say officials. And many are eyeing the US.
Whether it is sophisticated insurance fraud, gas-tax scams, money laundering, extortion, drug dealing, or murder, if it makes money, the Russian vory v zakone (''thieves in law'') are in on it in Canada.
''Canada has seen a dramatic and visible increase in Russian-based organized-crime activity, particularly in the Toronto area,'' says a new report by the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC), a government body created to track organized crime.
The report cites an influx of Russian criminals posing as immigrants or refugees since the 1991 breakup of the former Soviet Union as the main reason for the increase. In 1991, just 151 Russians immigrated to Canada. Last year, 1,202 did.
Only a small percentage of Russian immigrants are criminals, of course. But what has shocked Canadian authorities is the speed at which ethnic Russian organized-crime rings have begun to match the sophistication and ruthlessness of other traditional crime organizations.
Canada's proximity to the United States is one of its biggest draws to Russian criminals, who can run scams across the border. The Russian gangs consider the US to be simply ''the big store,'' according to Lee Lamothe, a Canadian journalist and coauthor of a new book, ''Global Mafia.''
And Canada's large Russian community provides a convenient base of operations. With a Russian population of around 100,000, Toronto is one of the largest Russian communities in North America.
Canada's criminal penalties are also more lenient than those in the US, Mr. Lamothe says. A drug trafficker might be sentenced to 25 years in a US prison, only 11 years in Canada.
And to Russians who might have spent tortuous years in a Soviet gulag, Canada's prison system is a breeze, says Stephen Handelman, another specialist on Russian organized crime.
No Canadian 'godfather'
Like the more well-known Italian Mafia families, Russian organized crime gangs are ruled by a council and a leader. Canadian authorities say they think there is no Russian ''godfather'' currently in Canada, but one in the US may be controlling the operations.
One specialty of Russian organized crime is to funnel resources and funds out of the former Soviet Union to be laundered in countries like Canada. The CISC report estimates $30 billion has been sent out of the former Soviet Union since 1992.
Canadian authorities are investigating one operation that is alleged to have funneled nonradioactive isotopes out of Russia.
The isotopes - special types of atoms often used in medical, chemical, or physics research - were stolen from a Russian government facility, Russian authorities say.
Authorities there say the operation would have pocketed $300 million had it succeeded in selling the isotopes through front companies in Canada and the US. No one as yet has been charged.
The gangs arrive
Canadians woke with a jolt to the Russian gang problem in 1993 following a string of shootings, murders, and well-orchestrated robberies. That fall, the federal government set up the Eastern European Organized Crime Task Force (EEOCTF), run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), to coordinate regional police efforts.
Today the EEOCTF already has one of the most sophisticated computer databases on Russian organized crime in the world.
Probes by the task force have focused on money laundering, where, according to Lamothe, Russians gangs are believed to launder up to $5 million a month through the Canadian financial system.
But while Canadian police are improving their abilities to track the Russian crime threat, prosecution is slow. Despite 1989 legislation aimed at hobbling organized crime by allowing criminal assets to be seized, many provinces are reluctant to use the law unless the cases are ''airtight'' for fear of being sued.
There are other gaps: Despite a growing money-laundering problem, Canada does not require banks to report large cash deposits, as does the US.
''Right now, our laws are perceived as being lax,'' says RCMP Cpl. William MacDonald, spokesman for the CISC in Ottawa. ''But we're playing catch-up.''
''What we really need is closer cooperation with Russian authorities,'' says Handelman, who delved deeply into organized crime in Russia and wrote a book, ''Comrade Criminal,'' on the subject. ''That's difficult because in many cases the top officials there are involved.''