The callers pretended to be young relatives in dire straits, calling their grandmothers for money.
Fooled by their fictional stories about legal troubles or auto accidents, the grandmothers purchased virtual money orders to help — unaware of being victims of a complex international scheme extending from Canada to South Florida to the Caribbean, according to authorities.
The accused mastermind behind this alleged multimillion-dollar racket: Stephan Moskwyn, 33, of Montreal, Canada, who is being held as a flight risk in the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami while he awaits arraignment on fraud and money laundering charges on Wednesday.
After Moskwyn allegedly ripped off $833,000 — and likely more — from various grandmothers in the United States, a magistrate judge appointed the federal public defender's office to represent him because he claims to have no money or other assets.
Here’s how Homeland Security investigators say he pulled off the so-called grandmother scam: Moskwyn ran call centers in Canada with operators who posed as relatives of the targeted grandmothers and lied about their desperate need for money. They 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.
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 an 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 of 2014, according to the affidavit filed by prosecutor Michael Berger with a criminal complaint. 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.
Moskwyn told the witnesses that the victims were instructed to purchase virtual money orders to help the “kid,” and he would then forward the MoneyPak orders to them for conversion to Bitcoin.
During another meeting with the witnesses, Moskwyn explained that in the past the “kids” had instructed the elderly victims to send money the old-fashioned way, via Western Union, to Latin American countries, including the Dominican Republic and Chile. He said runners accepted the money orders in exchange for a small fee.
In late February, Moskwyn was captured on a video camera at Publix, where he used a pre-paid debit card loaded with illicit funds to purchase virtual money orders, the affidavit said. He then sent a text message to the cooperating witnesses with three Reloadit numbers, indicating that each was for $500.
In March, Moskwyn flew from Miami to Puerto Plata, in the Dominican Republic. In October, when he left the Dominican Republic for Miami on a layover to Chile, Moskwyn was arrested at Miami International Airport.