The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former ‘Cryptoqueen’ is now one of 10 most-wanted fugitives

Ruja Ignatova, a founder of OneCoin, is accused of running a $4 billion pyramid scheme

Ruja Ignatova speaks at a 2016 conference at Wembley Arena in London. (Department of Justice)
Comment

In London’s Wembley Arena, there were stage lights flashing, pyrotechnics bursting and even flames going off to a cacophony of cheering as Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” came on over the speakers. That’s when Ruja Ignatova, dubbed the “Cryptoqueen,” walked onto the stage in a long, sparkly red dress, promising her cryptocurrency, OneCoin, would take over the world and become “the bitcoin killer.”

The audience at the 2016 event went wild. Amid a crypto boom, OneCoin’s status was surging in the United States and across the globe. But the company’s meteoric rise would eventually meet a swift end.

Just one year later, Ignatova disappeared without a trace, and authorities in Europe and the United States have tried to catch her ever since. The FBI on Thursday added Ignatova to its list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives — a notoriety normally bestowed on suspected cartel leaders, terrorists and killers. Ignatova, meanwhile, is accused of spearheading a pyramid scheme that defrauded investors of over $4 billion, one considered to be among the largest in history.

“Today’s announcement is a pledge to redouble our efforts to capture Ignatova, to seek justice for her victims and to hold her accountable for her crimes,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a Thursday news conference.

Before her face was splashed across a wanted poster, Ignatova, a German citizen with Bulgarian ties, had a “sterling résumé” showcasing a law degree from the University of Oxford and a consulting job at McKinsey & Company, Williams said. How Ignatova, the only woman on the most-wanted fugitives list, came to join a docket of alleged murderers and gang leaders is a tale that dates back to 2014, when OneCoin was born.

The flashy idea pitched to investors and promoted across marketing materials was a revolutionary currency “for everyone to make payments everywhere, [to] everyone, globally,” as Ignatova quipped at Wembley Arena. OneCoin promised a cryptocurrency that would surpass any other and make early users see their investments yield a “fivefold or tenfold” return, according to a criminal complaint.

But the story, as outlined in court documents, isn’t one of overhyped promises that its founders couldn’t deliver upon — like the case of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Instead, OneCoin was meant to be a Ponzi scheme from the get-go, investigators allege.

Six signs crypto investment is a classic Ponzi scheme

Despite supposedly being a form of crypto, OneCoin didn’t actually have a payment system or a blockchain model, the crucial technology that underpins cryptocurrencies — thus rendering OneCoin’s tokens essentially worthless. Ignatova and the company’s founders are accused of knowing as much. (In a statement to the BBC in 2019, OneCoin denied any wrongdoing.)

According to internal emails obtained by investigators, the point of creating OneCoin was to create a “trashy coin” that would fuse the frenzy surrounding crypto with multilevel marketing.

OneCoin relied on its users to bring in more participants by offering a slew of rewards, commissions and “trading packages” at different price points, according to federal investigators. In the end, the network of investors spanned over a hundred countries. More than 3 million people are believed to have been duped, Williams, the prosecutor, said Thursday.

Ignatova “appealed to people’s humanity, promising that OneCoin would transform the lives of unbanked people,” Williams said. “And she timed her scheme, perfectly capitalizing on the frenzied speculation in the early days of cryptocurrency.”

Meet the ‘Crocodile of Wall Street’ rapper accused of laundering billions of dollars in crypto

The plan, however, was to “take the money and run and blame someone else for this,” Ignatova wrote to a co-founder in 2014, according to court documents.

The cracks around OneCoin started to show around 2016, Insider reported, when Sweden, Latvia, Norway, Croatia, Italy and Bulgaria — where OneCoin was headquartered — began adding OneCoin to lists warning about fraudulent operations. Lawsuits soon began to pour in.

Ignatova began fearing that law enforcement would catch up with her and even bugged her American boyfriend’s apartment after she grew suspicious of him, Williams said. The recordings eventually alerted her that he was cooperating with the FBI and precipitated her plan to flee, he added.

“She immediately boarded a flight from Bulgaria to Greece with a security guard. Not one piece of luggage. The security guard came back, but Ignatova didn’t. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since,” Williams said.

Despite her disappearance in October 2017, Ignatova was indicted by a federal grand jury that month and a warrant for her arrest was issued. She’s been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. The first four counts each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, while the last is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Crypto scams are on the rise, draining more than $1 billion in last year

OneCoin’s fate eventually came to mirror its founder’s. Left to Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin Ignatov, the company faltered after he was arrested by the FBI in 2019. He pleaded guilty to a slew of felonies and entered a plea deal to cooperate with authorities — which suggested he may enter the witness protection program and assume a new identity, according to court documents.

The FBI is now making a bid for the public to help with the investigation and offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ignatova’s arrest.

At the 2016 event in London, she said that “I’ve been called a lot of things and probably the best thing that the press called me was … the ‘bitcoin killer.’ ”

Now, she can add “most wanted fugitive” to the list.

Loading...