Ruja Ignatova became the first cryptocurrency fugitive to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on Thursday. His cryptocurrency project – dubbed 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. Suspected of having organized the biggest scam in the history of cryptocurrency and one of the most expensive ever for victims, this 42-year-old Bulgarian who called herself the “queen of crypto” 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 help locate this woman. A month earlier, Europol had done the same, promising 5,000 euros for any information leading to his arrest.
The High Priestess of the OneCoin Cryptocurrency
“She is one of the biggest criminals still on the loose,” assured the Vice site Jamie Bartlett, a British journalist who spent several years trying to track down Ruja Ignatova and even hosted a podcast for a year for the BBC entirely devolved to the “queen of crypto”. He is even amazed that it took so long to place her on the world’s most wanted fugitive lists.
For him, she has little to envy to Bernard Madoff, the famous American financier-swindler who lost more than 60 billion dollars to the victims of his scam at the end of the 2000s. Ruja’s scam Ignatova cost at least $4 billion to millions of victims in nearly 70 countries.
If its story is not better known to the general public, it is mainly because it raged in the world of cryptocurrencies at a time when bitcoin and other dematerialized currencies were not yet so much in the media spotlight. . However, his crazy criminal epic, which began in 2014, features characters all more dubious than each other, even in the ranks of mafia groups in Eastern Europe.
Ruja Ignatova is the creator of OneCoin, one of countless cryptocurrencies that have sought to overshadow bitcoin over the past decade. But unlike 99% of other benchmark cryptocurrency competitors, OneCoin had managed to attract the interest of a wide audience, well 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 could fill prestigious halls like Wembley Arena in London to extol the supposed 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 to follow her – officially OneCoin had 3 million investors in 2016. She came across as reassuring, sure of herself, and knew how to highlight her law degree and the work she claimed to have done for the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey, says the Wall Street Journal.
Ruja Ignatova had also offered herself an infomercial in the Bulgarian version of Forbes magazine, and appeared as one of the main speakers at an event presented as sponsored by The Economist magazine, but which was, in fact, funded at 100 % by OneCoin.
A little sect, a lot of pyramid selling
It had also been able to attract specialists in multilevel sales to its fold, these pyramid selling systems which, in the end, only benefit financially those who are at the top of the pyramid.
And that was the real nature of OneCoin. Ruja Ignatova only sold “crypto-vent” to members of her community, essentially asking them to buy – with real currencies – this fake money which it was then impossible to exchange for cold hard cash.
As in any pyramid scheme, the “crypto queen” and her acolytes promised to compensate those who recruited new members into the “family”.
Because this is how Ruja Ignatova referred to all members of the OneCoin “club”. A system that had “similarities to millenarian sects”, assured the BBC Eileen Barker, a specialist in sectarian movements at the London School of Economics. “People believe they’re part of a major project and invested in something that’s going to change the world, and it’s nearly impossible to get them to admit they were wrong,” she explains.
And as in most cults, while the simple members pay, the leaders get rich. French journalist Maxime Grimbert spent months in 2018 following the financial trail to uncover hundreds of front companies that enabled Ruja Ignatova and her relatives to buy luxury real estate across Europe and lead the “beautiful life”.
But as the financial authorities of several countries such as Germany, Bulgaria or the United Kingdom issued warnings against the OneCoin business model, investors/victims began to demand accountability. In particular, they wanted to know why it was still not possible to convert their OneCoin into dollars or euros.
Ruja Ignatova assured, in fact, that the value of her cryptocurrency had skyrocketed thanks to the investments made… While in reality it was the leaders of the project who fixed the value of OneCoin as they pleased.
Lost to sight in Greece
In October 2017, she was to officially announce good financial news to increasingly impatient investors during a high mass planned in Lisbon. But she never appeared on stage and has never been seen since.
The FBI discovered that two weeks before the conference in Portugal, Ruja Ignatova had taken a flight to Athens where she seems to have vanished. She would have discovered by chance that her fiancé at the time, whom she had spied on for suspicion of infidelity, was collaborating with the FBI, tells the Wall Street Journal.
Which would have pushed him to take to their heels as quickly as possible. Since then, the craziest rumors circulate: she would have been assassinated by disgruntled investors or would always hide in Greece or even in Dubai; she would have returned to Germany, where she grew up, or would be protected in Bulgaria by mafia groups that she helped to enrich themselves.
But if we don’t know what happened to it, the fall of the OneCoin house of cards is well known. After the disappearance of “the queen of crypto”, her brother Konstantin Ignatov took over the business before handing it over to his mother, then to other more or less suspicious women and businessmen who were all either arrested , or have also disappeared from circulation.
No wonder then that this story interests Hollywood. The MGM studio announced, in 2020, the shooting of a film on OneCoin, called “Fake!” . The role of Ruja Ignatova should be played by Kate Winslet, the actress of Titanic or Contagion, and therefore accustomed to disaster films.