Ruja Ignatova: the crooked cryptoqueen

Ruja Ignatova’s charm and guile, honed in the dark markets of post-Soviet Bulgaria, persuaded millions to invest in OneCoin, her Ponzi scheme. Then she disappeared.

In the summer of 2016, Ruja Ignatova walked on stage at Wembley Arena to greet thousands of fans. “She was dressed as usual in an expensive ballgown”, says The Sunday Times. But her message was modern: OneCoin, “Dr Ruja” told the cheering audience, was the “bitcoin killer” set to become the world’s largest digital currency. Scarcely a year later, she had vanished, leaving behind a trail of destruction.

The missing “cryptoqueen” has never been seen since. It transpired that OneCoin was essentially a Ponzi scheme disguised as a cryptocurrency – there was no blockchain base, and buyers were offered commission to sell the currency on to others. Several made multi-million-dollar fortunes themselves from an asset whose “price” Ignatova effectively fabricated.

Although OneCoin’s “suckers” were offered seemingly absurd returns – sometimes running to “hundreds of percent a year” – the timing of the scam, which ran from 2014 to 2017, was perfect since it capitalised on the frenzied speculation taking off elsewhere in the crypto world.

The victims, around one million people in 175 countries, collectively lost “somewhere between €3bn and €10bn euros” of their savings, says The Sunday Telegraph. When Bulgarian-born Ignatova disappeared in October 2017 – having quietly boarded a Ryanair flight from Sofia to Athens – she took $500m of investors’ cash with her, according to her brother, who was arrested in 2019.

Last week, the FBI belatedly added her to its “Most Wanted” list. “This is probably the biggest development in the case since Dr Ruja disappeared,” says Jamie Bartlett, author of the hit podcast and book The Missing Cryptoqueen. It isn’t clear why the FBI has acted now – it may have hit a dead end.

Ignatova’s convincing CV

How did Ignatova manage to persuade so many people to entrust their savings to OneCoin? As with the most effective scams, it was partly because some of her claims – not least her “glittering” academic and professional background – were true.

Born to a Romani family in Ruse, Bulgaria in 1980, Ignatova emigrated to Baden-Württemberg in Germany when she was ten. Academically exceptional, she won a place at Oxford University and later studied for a PhD in private international law at the University of Konstanz. A stint in management consultancy with McKinsey & Co followed.

That CV was enough to persuade The Economist to include her at one of its conferences – a speech she re-ran to good effect at recruitment presentations. Would-be investors were also shown copies of Forbes magazine with her portrait on the front cover, says the BBC. “It was actually... a paid-for advertisement from Forbes Bulgaria.”

Once people were hooked, Ignatova’s charisma did the rest. “Dr Ruja” came across as visionary, even messianic, force. Ignatova also made good use of lawyers, sending threatening letters to anyone questioning OneCoin’s veracity. In more developed markets the supine attitude of regulators helped.

Had the authorities delved deeper, the red flags would have been self-evident. In 2012, Ignatova was convicted of fraud in Germany in connection with a company acquired with her father. A year later, she was involved with a multi-level marketing scam call BigCoin.

Behind her respectable façade lay a murky background in the “dark markets” of post-Soviet Bulgaria, says Bitrate.com. Much of the money that flowed in from OneCoin was invested in the country, “siphoned into property deals and to a host of questionable individuals and companies”. Ignatova may have disappeared because she was in too deep, and feared for her life. Notwithstanding a possible 80-year sentence if convicted, she might be better off if the FBI catches up with her first.

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