Ruja Ignatova on Thursday became the first cryptocurrency fugitive to appear on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. His cryptocurrency project – called OneCoin – has emerged as one of the biggest financial scams since Bernard Madoff.
She disappeared five years ago. The FBI decided on Thursday, June 30, to make Ruja Ignatova one of its priority targets. Calling herself the “Queen of Crypto,” this 42-year-old Bulgarian was suspected of organizing the biggest scam in cryptocurrency history and one of the most expensive ever for victims. He was placed on the famous list of the ten most wanted criminals. in the United States.
The FBI is offering up to $100,000 to locate this woman. A month earlier, Europol had done the same, promising €5,000 for any information leading to his arrest.
The High Priestess of the OneCoin Cryptocurrency
“She is one of the biggest criminals still at large,” assured the Vice site Jamie Bartlett, a British journalist who spent his last years tracking down Ruja Ignatova and even hosted a podcast for the BBC for a year. “queen of crypto”. In fact, he is surprised that it has taken so long to put her on the list of the world’s most wanted fugitives.
For him, she has little to envy to Bernard Madoff, the famous American financier-conman who lost more than $60 billion to the victims of his scam in the late 2000s. Ruja’s Ignatova scam cost at least $4 billion to millions of victims in nearly 70 countries.
If his story isn’t better known to the general public, it’s mostly because it raged in the world of cryptocurrencies at a time when bitcoin and other dematerialized currencies weren’t all that much in the media. † However, his frenzied criminal epic, which began in 2014, features characters who are all more questionable than each other, even in the ranks of mafia groups in Eastern Europe.
Ruja Ignatova is the creator of OneCoin, one of the countless cryptocurrencies that have tried to eclipse bitcoin over the past decade. But unlike 99% of other cryptocurrency benchmark competitors, OneCoin had managed to capture the interest of a wide audience, far beyond the traditional circle of insiders. There is a vast literature of press articles devoted to the portraits of victims ranging from the suburbs of Glasgow to rural areas in Uganda or even on the Franco-Belgian border.
At the height of her fame, in 2016, Ruja Ignatova was able to fill prestigious venues such as London’s Wembley Arena to praise the purported virtues of her OneCoin, which was supposed to “replace bitcoin in less than two years”.
It was not so much the “qualities” of her cryptocurrency as the personality of Ruja Ignatova that convinced so many people – officially OneCoin had 3 million investors in 2016 – to follow her. She seemed reassuring, sure of herself, and knew how to highlight her law degree and the work she claimed to have done for the prestigious McKinsey consulting firm, the Wall Street Journal says.
Ruja Ignatova had also offered herself an infomercial in the Bulgarian version of Forbes magazine and appeared as one of the keynote speakers at an event presented as sponsored by The Economist magazine, but which was in fact 100% funded by OneCoin.
A small cult, a lot of pyramid sales
It would also have been able to attract specialists in multi-level sales, these pyramid schemes that ultimately yield financial benefits only to those at the top of the pyramid.
And that was the true nature of OneCoin. Ruja Ignatova was only selling “crypto guy” to members of her community and essentially asking them to buy – with real currency – this fake money that was then impossible to exchange into real hard currency.
As in any pyramid scheme, the “crypto queen” and her acolytes promised to compensate those who recruited new members of the “family”.
Because that’s how Ruja Ignatova referred to all the members of the OneCoin “club”. A system that “had similarities to millenarian sects,” assured the BBC’s Eileen Barker, a specialist in sectarian movements at the London School of Economics. “People believe they are part of a big project and have invested in something that is going to change the world, and it’s almost impossible to get them to admit they were wrong,” she explains.
And as in most sects, while the simple members pay, the leaders get rich. French journalist Maxime Grimbert spent months in 2018 following the financial trail to discover hundreds of front companies that enabled Ruja Ignatova and her family members to buy luxury real estate across Europe and live the “beautiful life”.
But when financial authorities in multiple countries – be it Germany, Bulgaria or the UK – warned about OneCoin’s business model, investors/victims started demanding accountability. Most of all, they wanted to know why it was still not possible to convert their OneCoin into dollars or euros.
Ruja Ignatova basically assured that the value of her cryptocurrency had skyrocketed thanks to the investments made… While in reality it was the leaders of the project who determined the value of OneCoin as they saw fit.
Lost sight in Greece
In October 2017, she would officially announce good financial news to increasingly impatient investors at a planned high mass in Lisbon. But she never appeared on stage and has not been seen since.
The FBI discovered that she had taken a flight to Athens two weeks before the conference in Portugal, where she appears to have disappeared. She allegedly discovered by chance that her then-fiancé – whom she had spied on because she suspected him of cheating on him – was collaborating with the FBI, the Wall Street Journal says.
A discovery that would have prompted him to chase them as soon as possible. Since then, the craziest rumors have been circulating: she would have been murdered by disgruntled investors, or would still be hiding in Greece or even Dubai, she would have returned to Germany where she grew up or she would be protected in Bulgaria by group mafia that she helped. to enrich.
But if we don’t know what became of it, the fall of the OneCoin house of cards is known. After the disappearance of “the queen of crypto”, it was her brother Konstantin Ignatov who took over the company before handing it over to his mother, then to other more or less suspicious businesswomen and men who have all either been arrested or also disappeared from circulation. .
No wonder this story interested Hollywood. The MGM studio announced in 2020 the shooting of a movie on OneCoin called “Fake!” † The role of Ruja Ignatova should be played by Kate Winslet, an actress who is used to disaster movies like Titanic or Contagion.