Where the Hell Is the Cryptoqueen?
Ruja Ignatova has vanished since her multi-billion-dollar scam
Ruja Ignatova, OneCoin: two names that mean very little to ordinary people, unless they are cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Ruja Ignatova was recently added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, for a good reason: she was at the heart of a large-scale scam amounting to at least $4 billion, and even up to $15 billion, according to some sources.
The fraud came to light in 2019, but many events have occurred since then. Here are the major highlights of a case that is far from being settled.
The “Guru” of Cryptocurrency
They were 5,000 on June 11, 2016, at Wembley Arena, London, to cheer Ruja Ignatova, the head of a highly sought-after company at the time: OneCoin. Ignatova looked great with her elegant ball gown and long diamond earrings. She told the Wembley audience that OneCoin would become the “Bitcoin Killer”. “In two years, no one will be talking about Bitcoin anymore!”, she shouted to the crowd, which had succumbed to euphoria. A crowd that seemed unaware that a year before, information had already pointed to potential fraud from OneCoin’s management.
The craze for OneCoin that was sweeping over London was not superficial. Documents leaked by the BBC network show that the British alone spent nearly 30 million euros on this cryptocurrency in the first six months of 2016, including 2 million in a single week.
OneCoin was founded in Bulgaria in 2014 by Ruja Ignatova and another notorious con artist: Sebastian Greenwood. Two unpredictable characters who, along with trusted men and women, created a company with a pyramid-like structure that consisted of investing in the “future” of cryptocurrency while recruiting other investors.
Ignatova was taught the tricks of the trade at an early age. Along with her father, she once ran a metalworking company in Waltenhofen, Germany, which she quickly drove into bankruptcy. According to the company’s employees’ union, Ignatova allegedly swindled them out of six million euros. Prosecuted for misappropriation of funds, she got away with a simple promise to repay some of the parties affected by the losses, the French website StreetPress reported. The latter also revealed that the businesswoman had been charged with ripping off her suppliers to the tune of 120 000 euros.
OneCoin’s cofounder, Sebastian Greenwood, had a similar track record, as he was involved, among other things, in a pyramid scheme called Unaico.
A Gold Mine That Reeks of Fraud
Just three months after the infamous June 11 convention at London’s Wembley Arena, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which is responsible for regulating financial markets, issued a warning on its website. “We believe consumers should be wary of dealing with OneCoin”, the FCA said. “We are concerned about the potential risk this poses to UK consumers”.
Surprisingly, the FCA removed the warning from its website less than a year later. OneCoin’s promoters then interpreted this U-turn as a free pass from the British authorities, proof that they considered their company a legitimate investment.
Yet, on May 27, 2015, a leading news website on crypto technology, Cointelegraph, published an article about the Bulgarian company. The tone was set: OneCoin, it was written, “is suspected to be a pyramid scheme with no verifiable evidence to back up any of its business claims”. In fact, it was in 2015 that things started to go wrong for the company, which saw a few financial institutions closing its bank accounts.
Why these suspicions? The answer came from an expert who almost fell into the scam himself. At the beginning of October 2016, Bjorn Bjercke had been approached by a recruitment agent who had piqued his curiosity. A Bulgarian cryptocurrency start-up, the man told Bjercke, was looking for a chief technical officer. Bjercke would get an apartment, a car and an annual salary of around £250,000. But the latter refused to join the project.
It turns out that Bjercke is a blockchain specialist. Blockchain? It is a technology that collects information in groups, also known as blocks, that hold sets of information. Without blockchains, there is no cryptocurrency. And Bjorn Bjercke knew from the outset that OneCoin did not have any. The numbers that were displayed on the intranet of the company’s website made no sense at all. They were manipulated by employees who simply did what they were ordered to do.
The Noose Tightens
OneCoin aroused suspicion among experts as early as May 2015, one year only after its creation. But this was just the beginning of a movement that would lead to the disappearance of its co-founder. In 2016, Ignatova’s business was investigated by German financial authorities. Despite all, OneCoin’s activities continued at maximum speed.
Because if OneCoin’s capital inflows had dried up at the end of 2017 in Europe, the situation was quite different in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where the populations had heard little about the company’s major drift.
Meanwhile, Ruja Ignatova was blowing her fortune, buying multi-million dollar properties in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and the resort town of Sozopol on the Black Sea. In her spare time, she threw parties on her luxurious yacht, the Davina, where American pop star Bebe Rexha performed in July 2017.
But everything eventually collapsed. OneCoin’s cofounder Sebastian Greenwood was arrested in Thailand in 2018 and extradited to the United States. In China, authorities went on the offensive against the company while investigations were opened in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, and elsewhere. On January 17, 2018, the Bulgarian and German judicial police, assisted by Europol, raided the offices and servers of OneCoin in Sofia.
Where the Hell Is the Cryptoqueen?
By the end of summer 2017, investors were already worried about the state of mind surrounding OneCoin. Many, with growing impatience, expected answers to their concerns at a large gathering of European promoters in Lisbon, Portugal, in October 2017. But when the day came, Ignatova, renowned for her punctuality, never showed up. According to the FBI, on October 25, 2017, the former CEO of OneCoin took a Ryanair flight from Sofia to Athens. That is when she went off the radar.
Strangely enough, on August 7, 2019, she posted a cover photo dated October 2015 on her now-deleted Facebook page. The previous messages were from January 2, 2017. Did she change the picture herself? Or was the operation done by someone who had access to her identification codes?
Since that day in October 2017 when she vanished, the con woman has been quite discreet. Igor Alberts, a former investor who lost a fortune in the debacle, said that rumors began to circulate that Ignatova was traveling back and forth between Russia and Dubai using Russian and Ukrainian passports. It was also suggested that the businesswoman had undergone plastic surgery and was hiding somewhere, possibly in Bulgaria.
Private investigators claimed that she had been seen regularly at a restaurant in Athens until the first quarter of 2019. Some told BBC reporters that she was living in Bucharest, others in Frankfurt. Another rumor slipped between the branches, this one more disturbing: Ignatova would have been murdered by powerful people who were obviously not very happy to have lost their shirts.
Business as Usual
Such a fraud mill draws its share of characters from the underworld. Ruja Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin Ignatov, himself partnered with “significant players in Eastern European organized crime”. After the disappearance of his sister, Ignatov took over OneCoin’s management. But without knowing it, he only had a year and a half of reprieve.
Because on March 6, 2019, the man was arrested at Los Angeles airport as he was about to board his plane for a return flight to Bulgaria. At around the same time, his sister was charged in absentia by U.S. authorities with fraud and money laundering.
But even after these legal proceedings, OneCoin remained active, its coffers receiving funds from naive investors. How is it possible? Simple: last we heard, OneCoin’s fate is in the hands of one Veska Ignatova, the mother of Konstantin and Ruja.
It is Veska’s signature that was most often seen on official documents, even before the vanishing of Ruja Ignatova. Those documents clearly showed a complex structure involving many companies established in tax havens. OneCoin, therefore, represented only the facade of an imposing building.
Veska Ignatova first appeared in public in the summer of 2020 at a promotional event for OneCoin. And like her daughter a few years earlier, she made a series of promises in front of an audience ready to take her at her word.