The crowd at the 2016 event went wild. Amid a crypto boom, OneCoin’s status soared in the United States and around the world. But the meteoric rise of the company soon came to an end.
Just a year later, Ignatova disappeared without a trace, and authorities in Europe and the USA have been trying to catch her ever since. The FBI on Thursday included Ignatova on its list of the ten most wanted fugitives — notoriety normally accorded to suspected cartel leaders, terrorists and murderers. Ignatova, meanwhile, is accused of leading a pyramid scheme that defrauded investors of over $4 billion, one believed to be one of the largest in history.
“Today’s announcement is a pledge to redouble our efforts to apprehend Ignatova, seek justice for her victims, and hold her accountable for her crimes,” said Damian Williams, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a press conference on Thursday.
Ruja Ignatova, pictured on the wanted poster above, speaking at the OneCoin event for investors at Wembley Arena pic.twitter.com/ggx5NazryM
— US Attorney SDNY (@SDNYnews) June 30, 2022
Before her face was spattered on a wanted poster, Ignatova, a German national with Bulgarian ties, had a “sterling vita” with a law degree from Oxford University and a consulting job at McKinsey & Company, Williams said. How Ignatova, the only woman on the most wanted fugitive list, ended up joining a list of suspected killers and gang leaders is a story that dates back to 2014, when OneCoin was born.
The eye-catching idea, presented to investors and promoted in marketing materials, was a revolutionary currency “that anyone, anywhere can make payments for, [to] everyone, worldwide,” Ignatova quipped at Wembley Arena. OneCoin promised a cryptocurrency that would outperform all others and let early adopters see their investments yield a “five or 10 times” return, according to a criminal complaint.
But the story as set forth in court documents, is not one of the exaggerated promises its founders failed to deliver – as in the cases of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Instead, OneCoin was intended to be a Ponzi scheme from the start, investigators claim.
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Despite being ostensibly a form of crypto, OneCoin did not feature a payment system or blockchain model, the crucial technology underlying cryptocurrencies — essentially rendering OneCoin’s tokens worthless. Ignatova and the company’s founders are accused of knowing this. (In a statement to the BBC in 2019, OneCoin denied any wrongdoing.)
According to internal emails obtained by investigators, the purpose of creating OneCoin was to create a “trashy coin” that would fuse the frenzy around crypto with multi-level marketing.
According to federal investigators, OneCoin relied on its users to attract more participants by offering a range of rewards, commissions, and “trading packages” at different prices. In the end, the network of investors covered over a hundred countries. More than 3 million people are believed to have been scammed, prosecutor Williams said Thursday.
Ignatova “appealed to people’s humanity and promised that OneCoin would transform the lives of the unbanked,” Williams said. “And she timed her plan, perfectly capitalizing on the wild speculation in the early days of cryptocurrency.”
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However, the plan was to “take the money and blame someone else for it,” Ignatova wrote to a co-founder in 2014, according to court filings.
Cracks surrounding OneCoin began to show around 2016, Insider reported, when Sweden, Latvia, Norway, Croatia, Italy, and Bulgaria — where OneCoin was headquartered — began adding OneCoin to lists warning of fraudulent operations. Complaints soon began to mount.
Ignatova began to worry that law enforcement would catch up with her and even bugged her American boyfriend’s home after becoming suspicious of him, Williams said. The recordings eventually alerted them to his cooperation with the FBI and expedited their escape plan, he added.
“She immediately boarded a flight from Bulgaria to Greece with a security guard. Not a single piece of luggage. The guard came back, but Ignatova didn’t. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since then,” Williams said.
Despite her disappearance in October 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Ignatova that month and issued an arrest warrant for her. She is 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 carry up to 20 years in prison each, while the last carries up to five years in prison.
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The fate of OneCoin eventually mirrored that of its founder. The company, left to Ignatova’s brother Konstantin Ignatov, stalled after he was arrested by the FBI in 2019. He pleaded guilty to a series of crimes and completed a plea deal for cooperation with authorities – suggesting he could enter the witness protection program and adopt a new identity, according to court records.
The FBI is now asking the public to help with the investigation and is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ignatova’s arrest.
Speaking at the 2016 event in London, she said: “I’ve been called many times, and probably the best thing the press has called me was… the ‘bitcoin killer.’ ”
Now she can add the “most wanted fugitive” to the list.