Elizabeth Knighton isn't crystal clear on all the details. But she won't easily forget that first phone call in late March - the one that eventually cost her nearly $10,000.

At the other end was a young man's voice, sounding shaken. As Knighton recalls, he said, "Grandma, it's your favorite grandson," and she replied, "Is that you, Nick?"

That was all it took to make Knighton, a Mount Airy book editor, the latest victim of an ugly and growing scam - "grandparent fraud."

Now "Nick" had a name to call himself and a tool that cut straight to Knighton's heart.

He told Knighton he was in jail in England, where he was visiting for his friend Andrew's wedding. "Everybody has a friend Andrew," Knighton says, laughing at herself in hindsight.

"Nick" said he had been stopped driving "with alcohol on my breath." The real Nick is 22 and works at a Mount Airy restaurant, so Knighton, recalling her own youth, didn't completely question that aspect of the story, either.

Then Nick-the-impostor pounded in the final nail of the scam: the just-between-us part, which hooked a devoted grandmother of 13 who knows firsthand that life can take tricky, embarrassing turns.

" 'Please don't tell my parents,' " he begged her. " 'I'll explain everything to them later. Just help get me out of here.' "

So Knighton did just that: She wired the first $6,800 via a MoneyGram, per her bogus grandson's helpful hint that "You can send that from any Wal-Mart." She paid with an advance on her credit card.

The next day, "Nick" called back, again pleading with Knighton to not tell his parents and saying he needed an extra $2,450 to pay fees. Again, Knighton succumbed.

Her card company refused additional advances, but Knighton withdrew $2,000 from a savings account and scraped together the rest. This time, "Nick" told her to use Western Union, which she did from a Chestnut Hill Pathmark.

Only when "Nick" called back a third time - this time confessing that he had "hit someone" and saying he needed $2,000 - did Knighton finally get suspicious.

"I said, 'You're going to have to call your father or your friend Andrew,' " she recalls. "In a dire emergency I could have come up with the money. But something was telling me to stop."

Knighton shared her story, at risk of embarrassment, because she wants to be that "something" for other potential victims of this ugly fraud - a scam that preys on victims' best impulses.

"The worst thing is to realize how stupid I was," says Knighton, who declines to give her age except to say "way over 60."

"I've always prided myself in being somewhat savvy," she says. "But it was as if I was under hypnosis when this was happening."

That reaction is common, according to Steven Baker, who directs the Midwest office of the Federal Trade Commission. Although Baker can't cite statistics, he says "grandparent fraud" - also known as a "person-in-need" or "emergency" scam - is an old con that has suddenly taken on new life.

"The complaint numbers on this have just been skyrocketing over the last six months or year," he told me.

Baker says the fraud succeeds in part because many people believe wrongly that they can gauge the honesty of someone at the other end of a phone. Nor does it help that many end up too ashamed to report falling victim.

"People think, 'I'm smart, I'm sharp. This would never happen to me.' But it can happen to anybody," Baker says.

Baker says Knighton, who complained to Philadelphia police, the FBI, the FTC, and even to Canada's phone-fraud agency, PhoneBusters, should have added two more recipients to her list: MoneyGram and Western Union.

These wire-transfer businesses provide a useful service for travelers and expatriates, but they are also crucial components in some phone scams and, increasingly, Internet and e-mail frauds. And investigators say that sometimes, some of their agents have played more than a passive role.

"It's important that people not just complain to us, but also to MoneyGram or Western Union," Baker says. "We think there may be some corrupt outlets, so they need to see the pattern, too."

In fact, last month the FTC settled a case against MoneyGram International Inc., in which it agreed to pay nearly $18 million in redress - in checks averaging $520 - to more than 34,000 victims of international scams. The victims were lured into wiring money after being told they'd won a lottery, been hired as a "secret shopper," or were guaranteed a loan. (For details, go to http://go.philly.com/moneygram.)

Knighton didn't expect anything in return for the money she sent. Since the fraud occurred, she has received a little compensation from the city's victim-assistance program and her homeowner's insurer. But she figures the rest of her money is simply gone, and can't help but note all the ways she could have averted her loss. "The case is closed. Nobody was hurt," she says.

Still, Granny Frauds like this are hurtful beyond the stolen cash - as Knighton's daughter, Laura Bellel, pointed out better than I could:

"It's a very cruel thing because it preys on the heart and emotions of people. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. There was no monetary benefit - she just did it out of love."

Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.