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In February, 2004, three people were shot dead, execution-style, inside a Markham body-rub parlour. The victims, two women and a male friend, were killed and bound, then loaded into a Ford Explorer owned by one of the victims and left behind a church. It's an important cold case for York Regional Police, who made headlines last month when they doubled an earlier reward for information to $100,000.

But that doesn't mean anybody's likely to come forward. In fact, the York service has offered five rewards since 1998 - and none has been paid.

"I've been a police officer here for 34 years, and I have seen instances of rewards being offered in criminal cases in the past," York Police Chief Armand LaBarge says. "I don't recall a time when a reward was actually claimed here in York Region and I suspect it's the same situation across Canada and the United States."

This low batting average may be surprising to the public, but not so to veteran police officers in the Greater Toronto Area, who readily admit that the much-publicized rewards are more about shaking the bushes of an investigation than luring a key witness out into the open, let alone into open court.

"You don't put out the reward with the true hope of someone calling you up and giving you that key piece of evidence," says Mark Mendelson, a retired veteran of the Toronto Police Service's homicide squad.

Mr. Mendelson was one of the lead investigators in the death of Simone Sandler, a 21-year-old who worked as a recruiter for extras in movies and commercials. Her semi-nude body was found floating in the mouth of the Don River in 1994. And after four years, Toronto Police offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

It was among 37 cash bounties worth a combined total of more than $2-million that the Toronto Police Service has offered over the past decade, in hopes of reviving stalled investigations into serial sexual assaults, thefts, arson and murder.

Yet nothing was paid out in the Sandler case, or any of the others. In fact, the Toronto service has coughed up only $30,000 in rewards since 1996, less than 1 per cent of all cash offered, and those payouts were for a case dating back to 1986, according to documents obtained under freedom of information.

The rewards, Mr. Mendelson explains, are planned as investigative tools. The offer of money "gets an old case or a cold case back into the media, stirs up people's minds and memories."

But more often than not, a reward does little to help a case. "I've worked on more than 100 homicides," Mr. Mendelson says. "I never received information of investigative value based on the reward."

Such was the case with Ms. Sandler, a well-educated young woman from Thornhill. Her job brought her to the area of Yonge Street between College and Gerrard, where she befriended several homeless teenagers in a neighbourhood rampant with drugs and prostitution. "She was sort of just coming out onto her own with a pretty high degree of naiveté," Mr. Mendelson recalled.

After her body was found, detectives interviewed more than 100 people, tracked transient youth across Canada and travelled to Northern Ontario, Saskatoon and Vancouver for interviews. There were media appeals, a televised re-enactment, and database comparisons with other homicides involving women found in Lake Ontario.

After four years, Mr. Mendelson and his partner were at a dead end - so they offered a reward. Ms. Sandler's parents made media appearances, giving the case national exposure.

It was of no use. "We didn't receive a single call from anyone," Mr. Mendelson says. "We always had our ideas about who was responsible, but the evidence wasn't there to support it."

In cases like this, the devil is in the details of each reward poster. Money is offered for "evidence leading to the arrest and conviction" of the culprit. That evidence must be given in court and prosecutors must successfully convict the accused - a deterrent for would-be snitches.

Yet a reward can be valuable in other ways. If a suspect is under surveillance, the announcement of a reward can bring incriminating phone calls or other giveaways.

"It might get the bad guy or bad girl thinking, 'Which one of my friends is going to rat me out for a hundred grand?' " Mr. Mendelson says.

Besides, not everyone is out for a reward. Detective Larry Straver, co-ordinator of Toronto Crime Stoppers, says only about a third of all tipsters who call his centre actually collect their cash. Last year, for instance, the program's board approved $70,000 in payouts, but only $15,000 was collected.

Crime Stoppers is a separate program, independent but closely linked to police services across North America. It guarantees anonymity to callers and requires no evidence or court testimony. Toronto Crime Stoppers, one of the largest such programs in the world, pays out $50 to $2,000 for information to tipsters, who can access their cash at any TD Canada Trust branch, without identification.

Last year, the Toronto program, funded solely by donations, received 6,877 tips leading to 530 arrests, 2,994 charges and the seizure of $3.3-million in property and $23-million worth of illegal drugs. The numbers are impressive, but any police officer will tell you that successful convictions depend on witnesses who relinquish the cloak of anonymity and agree to give evidence.

"We always want live witnesses in court," Det. Straver says. "If you feel safe enough to come forward to speak to a police officer and give evidence in court, that's fabulous. But we know that's not always the reality. There are a lot of people living in fear."

Still, police rewards are here to stay. Apart from their investigative value, York Region Chief LaBarge says rewards send a message to the community: that police take cold cases seriously, no matter how much time has passed.

"As police officers, we're eternal optimists," he says. "And we live in hope that somebody may come forward for a $100,000 reward … or that someone may just think that this is still important."