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By Chris Richardson

At an east-end cafe, a man sits at a candle-lit table and sips a drink. He waits for his next customer to join him.

When the customer arrives, he greets him and motions to the waitress for another drink. In the shadows, the two talk.

“Why pay extra money when [you] can get it for a cheaper price?” the dealer asks.

He takes another sip of his drink and tosses the merchandise onto the table in front of him. When asked if it’s real or fake, he has just one response: “It works. That’s all you need to know.”

The dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is part of a small group of Ryerson students selling a hot commodity on campus – illegal subway tokens.

These “discounted” tokens are priced at $70 for a package of 50 tokens – $25 less than the Toronto Transit Commission’s price.

That equals $1.40 per token as opposed to the price of $2.25 (or $1.90 when bought in bulk) from the TTC. First-time clients are allowed to use one token for free so they can test it out.

After that, it’s $70 per pack, sometimes delivered right to your door, but only if you know the right people.

The group has been keeping a fairly low profile at Ryerson, selling only to “friends of friends.” In the caf?, the man takes one last sip of his drink. “Don’t blow it,” he says before he leaves. “If you get caught with these, you’re fucked.”

Coming down hard on fraud is part of a TTC awareness campaign that launched in July. As part of a concentrated effort, more than 300 arrests have been made and more than 400 charges have been laid since April 2003.

This included one incident in which police officers came to a Ryerson classroom and arrested a student for selling fake tickets. The campaign to make people think twice before taking part in crime at TTC seems to be working.

Since then, fraudulent activities have dropped significantly. TTC Staff Sgt. Mark Russell was one of the people behind the arrests. He says the dealer is quite right when it comes to getting caught.

“Certainly. It’s a criminal offence,” says Russell, who is part of the TTC’s Special Investigations Unit.

He works closely with Toronto Police Services and has the same powers as a police officer when crimes are related to the TTC. Russell says there are different ways of dealing with fraud.

Offenders can be issued a provincial offences ticket, similar to a speeding ticket, for which they can choose to pay or go to court. The more drastic option, Russell says, is charging violators with fraud under $5,000, possession of property obtained by crime and uttering a forged document. A conviction can mean jail time, hefty fines, as well as a criminal record.

After examining the tokens being sold at Ryerson, Russell says they’re not fakes and he’s confident in his judgment. “I’m not often fooled,” he says, “I don’t know that I’ve ever been.”

The only difference Russell sees is that the details of the Ryerson tokens are more defined. He says the TTC has millions of tokens that it introduces gradually into circulation.

Fares are sorted with 2.4-metre long by 1.2-metre wide machines. The equipment has layers with small circular holes that vibrate to separate the coins from the tokens after fares are collected.

Russell says the Ryerson tokens probably haven’t yet been “beaten up by the system.” The Eyeopener found that the cheaper tokens on average weighed 0.59 gram, and measured 6.4 millimetres in thickness. Normal tokens from the TTC weighed 0.6 g on average and were 5.8-mm thick. The difference, Russell says, can easily be attributed to wear and tear.

He doesn’t think a counterfeit ring this big exists. “We’ve had oddball counterfeit tokens for decades but not in any large numbers,” says Russell. “If someone had fifty [of these] at a time, my guess is they’re stolen.” One possibility, Russell says, is that they have been taken during convenience store robberies. “It’s a fairly popular item to be stolen. It’s just like cash.”

The dealer will only say that he gets them “from a guy.” The dealer says that he buys 500 at a time for $1 each. He then makes packs of 50 tokens that he puts into dime rolls and sells for an extra $20 per pack. If they are stolen, he thinks it has to be an inside job. “I don’t know personally because nobody knows,” he says. “[But] you can’t steal it [from convenience stores] every fucking day. You have to have someone inside to give it to you, who works [at the TTC] on a daily basis.”

The problem with tracking tokens is that they aren’t serialized. This means they can’t be traced because there is no way of distinguishing them. So, whenever the tokens are used, there’s no way of knowing who used them or when. If the tokens are counterfeit, they are perfect fakes. The fact that they work in the automated entrances means they have the same chemical makeup as the real ones.

The automated machines weigh, measure and determine the alloy of the tokens. The machines are more than 99 per cent accurate, says Russell. It would be a difficult task to duplicate any alloy, including the one TTC tokens are made of, says Christopher Evans, chair of Ryerson’s chemistry and biology department.

“I don’t think you could do it in your basement, let’s put it that way,” says Evans. “You’d need a sort of reasonably sophisticated chemical manufacturing process.”

Deciding to buy the tokens is another consideration entirely. Dave Forero, a second-year business student, says he wouldn’t use them even though they are cheaper.

“The whole moral and ethical issue surrounding it is too much for me. I’d feel bad even if I was saving money,” says Forero, who commutes to school every day.

He considered buying some but decided against it. The TTC lost more than $1 million dollars in revenue due to fraud last year. At its peak, it lost about $200,000 per month. After the media campaign in July brought attention to the abundance of fake tickets used on the transit system each year, Russell says such crime has dropped significantly.

The TTC estimates that it now loses less than $50,000 per month. At Dundas station, which Russell says was “one of the higher incident stations,” counterfeit problems have also decreased.

But at Ryerson, where more than half the students are commuters, Russell indicates that more arrests will likely be made. “There’s a couple [of people] that we’re prepared to arrest. We’re just trying to find the time to track them down.”

After hearing this information, the dealer still doesn’t think the police will get to him. “I’m not scared,” he says, “[the other Ryerson student who was arrested last year] was just stupid to get caught like that.”

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