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Latvian ticket scam costs VANOC $2-million Add to ...

It was a ticketing scam that police say was as big as the Winter Olympics: Latvian criminals used compromised credit-card information during the Games to buy hot tickets for hockey and figure skating events.

But Vancouver Olympic organizers caught on to the transactions, and called in police - leading to the arrest of three Latvian men in late February, who were charged with fraud, and have since received probation and been deported to Latvia.

The cost: $2-million that VANOC has had to cover, and is trying to recoup through insurance and talks with Visa Inc. About 200 people have been reimbursed.

"This is something on a scale as big at the Olympics," Constable Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver Police Department said Wednesday, commenting on the scheme.

"It's certainly not something we would see for a B.C. Lions game or the Canucks."

And though the three men in their twenties and thirties were brought to account before the courts, police suggest the three may have been linked to at least 27 other Latvians in the province who were also involved in the scheme.

"There's nothing that would indicate they were part of an organized crime group; however, our financial investigators believe they were part of a larger group of Latvians who were here, possibly up to 30. We've never identified and don't know the identities of the other 20-plus," Constable Houghton said.

He said the three who were nabbed were staying in a Victoria hotel, and flying back and forth every day to Vancouver while they did their business.

As the board of directors for the 2010 Winter Games held their first meeting since the end of the Games, and proclaimed a balanced budget likely, they also faced questions about the scam.

Dave Cobb, executive vice-president, said the Games were victims to a fraud that could have been applied to any other product, service or event.

"I don't think it's an issue of the ticketing system or anything directly related to the Olympic Games as opposed to being aware that when you have high-volume, high-dollar transactions occurring quickly, you need to keep your eyes out," he told reporters.

VANOC CEO John Furlong said his remaining team will be warning organizers of the next Winter Games in Sochi, the Russian host of the next games in 2014, about this scheme.

"We will obviously explain to them as much as we know about it, and give the best advice we can to be ready and aware and pay attention to where these challenges can come from," he told the briefing.

Organizers said the scheme won't have much of an impact on their bid to balance the Games budget.

"Everything has an effect on the bottom line, there's no doubt about it," said John McLaughlin, chief financial officer for the organizing committee.

But he added: "We think we can still reach our balanced budget."

Final financial statements will be issued in the fall.

Mr. McLaughlin said the collection of revenues is key to nailing a balanced budget, but that he isn't expecting any surprises that would compromise the goal. "I've actually been surprised at the lack of surprises," he joked.

A surplus may even be possible, he said. "I think if there's a surplus, it would be a very small one."

Meanwhile, Mr. Furlong condemned activists who this week firebombed an Ottawa branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, and linked the attack to the bank's sponsorship of the Olympics.

The group, dubbing themselves FFFC Ottawa, in a video of the attack posted on YouTube, promised further action linked to the pending G8 and G20 summits in Ontario.

"This destructive protest against a respected Canadian company and Games sponsor is a disgrace, especially given RBC's support for the Olympic Torch Relay which shone a light on aboriginal communities across the country," said a statement Mr. Furlong issued after he was asked about the matter during the briefing.

"Those involved lose their right to be heard when they damage property, put people's safety at risk and disrespect Canadians' support for the Games that brought our country together in such an extraordinary way."

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