Ruja Ignatova called herself the “cryptoqueen”, the queen of cryptocurrencies.
He told people that he had invented a cryptocurrency that was going to compete with Bitcoin and managed to persuade many to invest billions of dollars in his supposed creation.
But in 2017 it disappeared overnight without a trace.
British journalist Jamie Bartlett spent months investigating how this woman managed to run such a massive podcast scam. Missing Cryptoqueen from the BBC and tried to find out where he is hiding.
It was June 2016, when Bulgarian Ruja Ignatova, a 36-year-old businesswoman, took the stage at Wembley Arena, an indoor arena in London, in front of thousands of cheering fans.
As usual, she was wearing a pompous ball gown, long diamond earrings and her signature red lipstick.
Without stammering, he promised the crowd that OneCoin was about to become the most important cryptocurrency in the world and that everyone could pay with it “everywhere”.
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency created in the world and is still the best known and most widely used.
In mid-2016, its value increased from a few cents to hundreds of dollars per coin, causing a frenzy of enthusiasm among investors.
Cryptocurrency as an idea was just getting into the crowd. Many people were looking to get involved in what seemed like a strange new opportunity.
Ruja promised his audience at Wembley Arena that OneCoin was going to kill Bitcoin.
“In two years, Nobody will talk about Bitcoin anymore!”, scream.
In all corners of the world, people had already started investing their savings in OneCoin, hoping to be part of this new revolution.
A series of documents leaked to the BBC show that the British invested more than $30 million in OneCoin in the first six months of 2016, more than $2 million in a single week, and the amount invested may have increased after Ruja’s great show at Wembley.
Ruja was presented as a woman with a brilliant career: she had supposedly studied at the prestigious University of Oxford, had a Ph.D. from the University of Konstanz, and had spent time at the respected management consultancy, McKinsey and Company.
Between August 2014 and March 2017, more than $4 billion was invested in dozens of countries.
From Pakistan to Brazil, from Hong Kong to Norway, from Canada to Yemen… there were even investors in the Palestinian territories.
A cryptocurrency without a blockchain
But there was something very important that investors did not suspect. Something was wrong.
In early October 2016, four months after Ruja’s appearance in London, a recruitment agent called a blockchain expert named Bjorn Bjercke, with a curious job offer.
A cryptocurrency startup from Bulgaria was looking for a CTO. Bjercke was promised an apartment and a car, and a handsome annual salary of about $300,000.
“I thought, ‘What will my job be? What things will I have to do for this company?’” she remembers asking.
“And he said to me, ‘Well, first of all, they need a blockchain (blockchains). They don’t have a blockchain.”
“I replied: ‘What? You told me it was a cryptocurrency company.’”
The agent replied that this was correct.
It was a cryptocurrency company and had been going for a while, but did not have a blockchain. “So we need you to build a blockchain,” he continued.
“What is the name of the company?” Bjerke asked.
“It is OneCoin“.
He did not accept the job.
Cryptocurrencies rely on a special type of database called a blockchain, which is like a huge book.
Bitcoin owners have independent copies but identical to this book.
Every time a Bitcoin is sent to someone else, that transaction is recorded in the ledger.
No oneneither banks, nor governments, nor the person who invents the cryptocurrency, can modify it.
There’s some very clever math behind all of this, but all of this means that Bitcoins can’t be counterfeited, they can’t be hacked, and they can’t be double-spent.
After her successful conference in London, Ruja spent months traveling the world selling her vision.
A few days in Macau, then in Dubai, before flying to Singapore… he was filling stadiums and attracting new investors. OneCoin still was growing fastand Ruja was already starting to spend her newfound fortune.
He bought multimillion-dollar properties in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol.
In his free time he organized parties on his luxurious yacht TheDavina. At one of the parties, in July 2017, American pop star Bebe Rexha gave a private concert.
Despite the pompous and seemingly successful façade, problems were already brewing.
OneCoin continued to delay the opening of the promised exchange that would allow the cryptocurrency to be converted into cash.
And investors were increasingly worried.
But this would be resolved in October 2017, at a large meeting of European OneCoin promoters in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.
The day came and Ruja, who was famousa for his punctualitydid not appear.
“She was already on her way. No one knew why she hadn’t arrived,” one delegate recalls.
There were calls and many frantic messages that went unanswered. The OneCoin head office in Sofia also knew nothing.
Dr. Ruja had also disappeared. Some feared that the banks had killed or kidnapped. She had warned that banks had much to fear from the cryptocurrency revolution.
But the truth is that Ruja had gone underground.
FBI records presented in court documents in early 2019 indicate that on October 25, 2017, just two weeks after failing to show up in Lisbon, he boarded a Ryanair flight from Sofia to Athens.
Then it completely disappeared from radar. That was the last time anyone saw or heard from her.
Assets still exist
It is difficult to know how much money was invested in OneCoin.
Documents leaked to the BBC ensure that more than $4 billion between August 2014 and March 2017.
More than one person also told the podcast team The Missing Cryptoqueen from the BBC that the figure could exceed $15 billion.
Oliver Bullough, an expert in what he calls money landthe shadowy parallel world where criminals and the super-rich hide their wealth, explains that following the money is not as easy as it seems, because criminals structure their companies and bank accounts in such a way that their assets appear to disappear.
“They still exist. You can still use them to buy things, to buy political influence and nice houses and yachts,” she told The Missing Cryptoqueen team.
“But to someone trying to find them, whether it’s a journalist or a police officer, they are invisible.”
Rumors about his whereabouts
It was in early 2019 that US authorities revealed that Ruja had flown to Athens on October 25, 2017.
But the question remained, where did he go next?
There was rumorsof course, many.
It has been suggested that she is protected by powerful people in her native Bulgaria, and that she leads an almost normal life due to several plastic surgeries that made her unrecognizable.
It has even been said that he could be in London.
others have saying that she was deadwhich is still a possibility.
Ruja identified various weak points in society and exploited them.
I knew there would be enough people desperate enough, greedy enough or confused enough how to bet on OneCoin.
He understood that truths and lies are getting harder to tell apart when there is so much conflicting information online.
Most frustrating of all, he correctly assumed that by the time we knew it, she would be gone, along with the money.
*With reporting from the BBC’s The Missing Cryptoqueen podcast.
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