The Coral Gables grandmother thought the voice on the other end of the phone was her grandson, a freshman at the University of Miami.
The caller was in a panic, saying he just got arrested after a fight at a McDonald's and needed $4,000 to make bail and pay his lawyer. “The boy said I'm afraid of being raped in jail,” recalled the 74-year-old grandmother, who did not want her name used for this story.
She ended up sending $2,000 to someone she believed to be the caller’s lawyer, using a virtual Green Dot money order that she bought at a Walgreens pharmacy.
She now believes she was a victim of a Canadian accused of being a con man, Stephan Moskwyn, who was set to be arraigned Wednesday on charges of fraud and money laundering in Miami federal court. But instead, a magistrate judge granted a two-week delay on filing the indictment because it appears that the U.S. attorney’s office and federal public defender’s office are negotiating a plea deal for Moskwyn, 33, of Montreal.
He was arrested in October at Miami International Airport by Homeland Security investigators, who dubbed his case the “grandmother scam.”
In a criminal affidavit, agents accused Moskwyn of running call centers in Canada with operators who posed as relatives of targeted grandmothers and lied about their desperate need for money to trick them into sending virtual money orders totaling at least $833,000. The callers instructed the victims to send fundst via virtual money orders, such as a Green Dot MoneyPak. Then, they arranged to have collaborators convert those orders into Bitcoin, the virtual currency, through a series of financial transactions.
Three elderly South Florida residents called the Miami Herald this week after a story was recently published about Moskwyn’s criminal case. All three said they believed they were victims of his or similar alleged predatory financial schemes.
“He just preyed on my emotions,” said the Gables grandmother, who recalled being distraught on the August 2014 day when she received the call because her car had a dead battery and needed to be towed.
She said that before she sent the money order to the caller’s purported attorney, she had tried to reach her grandson. When she finally reached her grandson, she asked him if he was in jail. She said he laughed. “I realized then what a terrible mistake I had made,” she said. She initially called the Coral Gables police about the scam but said she did not follow up.
She said her grandson felt so bad for her loss that he made out a check for $2,000 and placed it on her pillow at home. Now, she said she wants to file a claim with the U.S. attorney’s office as a victim of Moskwyn’s alleged scheme.
“I would like to repay my grandson with that money,” she said.
That may be a challenge. Despite being suspected of ripping off potentially millions of dollars, Moskwyn was appointed an assistant federal public defender because he claims to have no money or other assets. An attorney for the public defender’s office, Sowmya Bharathi, declined to comment on Wednesday.
Homeland Security investigators cracked the alleged scheme a year ago by tapping two cooperating witnesses who owned accounts on localbitcoins.com in Miami and Denver. According to the affidavit, they converted MoneyPaks for a person with a screen name “alevine843,” who communicated in text messages. This person, who was referred to in the affidavit as Levine and who would later be exposed as Moskwyn, said he was from Canada.
The cooperating witnesses converted more than $833,000 into Bitcoin for Levine from May to November 2014, according to the affidavit filed with the criminal complaint by prosecutor Michael Berger. The witnesses also said Levine had other trading partners, and estimated that he “likely converted several million dollars' worth of MoneyPaks into Bitcoin.”
The witnesses arranged to meet with Levine in Miami to discuss a new virtual money order, Reloadit, that was replacing MoneyPak. In February, they all gathered at a pizza restaurant in Miami. The tags on Levine's rental car indicated it was rented to Moskwyn.
In recorded conversations, Moskwyn said he was in charge of moving money for various call centers in Canada and that "kids" were targeting elderly Americans for money.
“Moskwyn indicated that some victims are especially willing to transfer funds and often agree to transfer more funds than requested,” according to the affidavit.
A Miami Beach grandfather told the Miami Herald that he also believes he was a possible target of Moskwyn’s alleged scam, or one similar to it.
That man, who also did not want to give his name, said he got an early-morning call in September from someone claiming to be his grandson and that he had broken his nose in a car accident. The caller then put on a purported lawyer who claimed the victims in the accident would be willing to resolve the dispute for $2,000 in two equal payments.
The grandfather was told to buy two iTunes cards for $500 each at an Apple story on Lincoln Road in South Beach. After calling the lawyer to give him the card numbers, he was again asked to buy two more iTunes cards for $500 each.
Growing suspicious, the man then called his daughter and asked about her son, who is only 14 and not old enough to drive. “I knew I was being scammed,” the 73-year-old said.
He felt foolish but said in the end he foiled the fraudsters. With the help of his wife, he persuaded Apple to deactivate the iTunes cards and reimburse him. “I got lucky,” said the man, who did not contact authorities.
A grandmother in Miramar, however, said she lost $2,000 in a similar scam in August. That woman said she received a phone call from someone pretending to be her granddaughter, who claimed to have been arrested for possession of drugs while riding in a cab in Chicago. That seemed strange, because her granddaughter lived in Tennessee.
The caller said she needed $200, but then put a purported police officer on the phone. The officer told her that she needed to send $2,000 and instructed her to go to a Walmart to buy four pre-loaded debit cards for that amount. She bought them and called the officer with the debit card numbers.
The caller, pretending to be her granddaughter, got back to her and said she received the card numbers and would be returning to Tennessee. A few days later, the grandmother said she reached her actual granddaughter, a college student who is getting married, and realized she had been taken.
“I felt like a damn fool,” said the 90-year-old, who filed a complaint with the Miramar Police Department. “I’d hate to see anybody else get scammed like this.”