The 42-year-old Bulgarian disappeared in 2017 after defrauding her victims of nearly $4 billion. All had invested in its “revolutionary” digital currency called OneCoin.
Placed on the list of the most wanted people in the United States, since June 30, Ruja Ignatova has become “public enemy number 1” of the FBI. In 2017, this 42-year-old Bulgarian, founder of a cryptocurrency project called OneCoin, flew to Greece, leaving behind millions of victims. Now, the domestic intelligence services are offering up to $100,000 to anyone who can locate the fugitive. His crazy story is even about to be adapted on the big screen, as Hollywood studio MGM recently announced, with actress Kate Winslet in the key role. Back to a financial disaster.
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The “Bitcoin Killer”
Her entry into the world of cyber money began in 2014. Holder of a doctorate in law from the University of Oxford and former advisor at McKinsey, an American consulting firm, Ruja Ignatova decided to go solo by creating OneCoin . At that time, the bitcoin has already won the hearts of many “geeks”, seeing in this new digital currency a way to get rich. With its competitor, OneCoin, the young woman promises her followers a profitability of 600% in just a few months, calling her currency a “Bitcoin Killer”.
“Join the financial revolution. The first transparent cryptocurrency for everyone. To improve the lives of people all over the planet, we provide immediate access to our financial services”, can we then read on its site – which has since been closed. Users want to believe it. From rural areas in Uganda to the suburbs of Glasgow, thousands of insiders are logging on to buy this new digital currency. At the end of 2016, the entrepreneur’s turnover amounted to 3.35 billion dollars.
Unfortunately, OneCoin only sells window dressing. As the BBC reports, the FBI explains that this financial value is not listed on any exchange platform, not based on the technology of the blockchain decentralized, the basis of cryptocurrency. Thus, between 2014 and 2016, many are those who, seeing the value of their virtual wallet climb, try to withdraw their due… in vain. And for good reason: their money does not appear on their personal space, but on the bank account of Ruja Ignatova and her biggest dealers.
The Ponzi Pyramid
Because the real masterstroke of the scammer is based on her pyramid scheme, like the Ponzi Pyramid – an illegal mechanism made famous by the Madoff affair. From 2014, when she launched her business, she promised a commission to her buyers, if they managed to recruit new members. In the words of Eileen Barker, an expert on sectarian movements at the London School of Economics, at the BBC, Ruja Ignatova takes on the air of an economics guru, speaks of “family” to designate her “club”, which some today assimilate to a “millenarian sect”. “People believe they are part of a major project and have invested in something that will change the world, and it is almost impossible to get them to admit that they were wrong,” explained the expert to the news channel on July 5.
But in 2017, when buyers want to withdraw their bids, Ruja Ignatova’s building cracks. Faced with the discontent of many buyers in the United Kingdom, the Scottish police are the first to take the file in hand. Nearly 25 countries will follow, including France, Germany and Bulgaria. As reported in the long investigation of the French media Street Press , the “OneCoin” club even ends up threatening its victims. “[Un recruteur haut placé] advised me to take care of my health and that of my son,” reports a witness to the site. An American explains that he received a photo of a hand with cut fingers. Another receives a snapshot of his home and loved ones, captioned with a simple: “Do you miss them?”
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Many then testify on condition of anonymity. When journalists are interested in “the scammer of the century”, OneCoin makes the headlines of the press. Ruja Ignatova, who finds herself cornered, sets up front companies to launder her money. Among them, the “IMS International Marketing Services GmbH”, based in Europe, but also in Singapore, England and even Tanzania. Despite everything, the noose is tightening around OneCoin. One day in February 2017, while the businesswoman attended a conference in Lisbon to give the spectacular results of her currency, Germany was the first country to ban its marketing.
Faced with the pressure, Ruja Ignatova decided to flee that same year and flew to Greece, heading for Athens. This is the last time we saw her. Since then, there is no shortage of theories to explain the disappearance of the scammer of the century. Sometimes, she is believed to have died, murdered by members of organized crime, with whom she would have forged links to launder her fraudulent money. Sometimes, we think of her on a paradise island, basking in the sun under a false identity. “Our best guess is that she is sailing in the Mediterranean basin, particularly in Bulgaria,” said Jamie Bartlett, investigative journalist and author of the book. The Missing Crypto Queenin the columns of the Belgian daily The Echo .
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Party to investigate the traces of Ruja Ignatova, Jamie Bartlett would have indeed succeeded in locating his yacht to 6.9 million dollars, located in Sozopol (Bulgaria). According to him, the scammer is also the owner of a luxury house in Dubai. If she still has not been found, her brother, Konstantin Ignatov, an active member of the OneCoin project, has meanwhile been arrested for fraud and money laundering. Risking several decades of imprisonment, he pleaded guilty and awaits his judgment next August.
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