A Canadian con man who specialized in a “grandma scam” that tricked elderly victims into turning over hundreds of thousands of dollars to him and his South Florida accomplices has pleaded guilty and faces several years in prison at his sentencing this spring.
Stephan Moskwyn, 33, of Montreal was arrested in October at Miami International Airport. Last week, he pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to one money laundering offense that carries up to 20 years in prison, though his punishment at sentencing in April is expected to be considerably lighter because he cut a plea deal.
In the plea, Moskwyn admitted running call centers in Canada with operators who posed as relatives of targeted grandmothers and lied about their desperate need for money to dupe them into sending virtual money orders totaling at least $833,000. The callers instructed the victims to send funds 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.
After the Miami Herald published a story about the scam, three elderly South Florida residents called the newsroom and said they believed they were victims of his or similar alleged predatory schemes.
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“He just preyed on my emotions,” said a Coral Gables grandmother, who in August 2014 day received a call from someone pretending to be her grandson. The caller told her that he had just been arrested after a fight at a McDonald’s and needed $4,000 to make bail and pay his lawyer.
She said that before she sent the money order — $2,000 instead of the original request — to the caller’s purported attorney, she had tried to reach her grandson, a student at the University of Miami. When she finally reached him after sending the money, she asked him if he was in jail. She said he laughed. “I realized then what a terrible mistake I had made,” she said.
Homeland Security cracked Moskwyn’s scheme by tapping two accomplices-turned-cooperating witnesses who owned accounts on localbitcoins.com in Miami and Denver. According to the defendant’s plea statement, they converted MoneyPaks for a person with a screen name “alevine843,” who texted them. The person, referred to as Levine and later exposed as Moskwyn, said he was from Canada.
The witnesses converted more than $833,000 into Bitcoin for Levine from May to November 2014, prosecutor Michael Berger noted. The two said Levine had other trading partners, and estimated he “likely converted several million dollars’ worth of MoneyPaks,” according to an affidavit.
The witnesses arranged to meet with Levine in Miami last February to discuss a new virtual money order. Tags on Levine’s rental 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.