Sun. Jun 4th, 2023


Ruja Ignatova strode onto the stage in a flowing burgundy ball robe adorned with black sparkles. Beams of sunshine flashed, fireballs erupted and Alicia Keys’ “Woman on Hearth” blared via the audio system.

“Appears to be like like a woman, however she’s a flame. So brilliant, she will burn your eyes – higher look the opposite means,” the track crooned as a beaming Ignatova thanked the cheering crowd at London’s Wembley Enviornment.

That was in June 2016, when cryptocurrency was an rising buzzword and buyers have been scrambling to money in. Ignatova known as herself the “Cryptoqueen” and touted her firm, OneCoin, as a profitable rival to Bitcoin within the rising cryptocurrency market.

“In two years, no person will talk about Bitcoin anymore,” she mentioned, as buyers applauded and whistled.

Sixteen months later, Ignatova boarded a aircraft in Sofia, Bulgaria, and vanished. She hasn’t been seen since.

Authorities say OneCoin was a pyramid scheme that defrauded folks out of greater than $4 billion as Ignatova satisfied buyers within the US and across the globe to throw fistfuls of money at her firm. Federal prosecutors describe OneCoin as one of many largest worldwide fraud schemes ever perpetrated.

She is now one of many FBI’s 10 most-wanted fugitives, alongside accused gang leaders and murderers, and is the one girl at the moment on that record. Of the 529 fugitives on the FBI’s record because it launched in 1950, she’s one among simply 11 ladies.

Ignatova and her companions “conned unsuspecting victims out of billions of {dollars}, claiming that OneCoin can be the ‘Bitcoin killer,’” US Legal professional Damian Williams, New York’s prime prosecutor, mentioned in an announcement final month.

“In reality, OneCoins have been fully nugatory … (Their) lies have been designed with one aim, to get on a regular basis folks all around the world to half with their hard-earned cash.”

Since Ignatova disappeared in October 2017, her face has been plastered on the FBI web site and throughout main information retailers worldwide. She’s additionally one of the crucial wished fugitives in Europe.

On the backside of her FBI wished poster is a observe: “Ignatova is believed to journey with armed guards and/or associates. Ignatova might have had cosmetic surgery or in any other case altered her look.”

The FBI says it picks fugitives for the record based mostly on the size of their prison information and the way harmful they could be. It additionally favors fugitives who aren’t well-known to maximise the advantage of this system’s nationwide publicity.

The bureau declined to supply further particulars to CNN past court docket paperwork from the US Division of Justice, which didn’t record an legal professional for Ignatova. “This case is an ongoing investigation. We’re unable to remark past what has already been launched publicly,” mentioned Daniel Crifo, a spokesperson for the FBI workplace in New York.

However court docket paperwork element a mind-blowing narrative: how Ignatova and her OneCoin co-founder, Karl Sebastian Greenwood, have been allegedly conscious from the beginning that their formidable enterprise was a Ponzi scheme.

“The cryptocurrency OneCoin was established for the only function of defrauding buyers,” IRS Particular Agent John R. Tafur mentioned in an announcement.

Whereas Greenwood and Ignatova have been engaged on the idea for OneCoin, they referred to it in emails as a “trashy coin,” federal officers mentioned in court docket paperwork. The paperwork present Greenwood described their buyers as “idiots” and “loopy” in an e-mail to Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin Ignatov, who additionally took half within the rip-off and assumed OneCoin management after his sister vanished, in accordance with prosecutors.

“It won’t be (one thing) actually clear or that I usually work on and even may be pleased with (besides with you in personal once we make the cash),” Ignatova wrote to Greenwood in 2014.

She additionally proposed an exit technique ought to the corporate fail, saying in a 2014 e-mail to Greenwood that they need to “take the cash and run and blame anyone else for this.”

Ruja Ignatova, 42, is a German citizen however was born in Bulgaria, the place her father was an engineer and her mom was a instructor.

In his e book, “The Lacking Crypto Queen,” creator Jamie Bartlett detailed her rise from modest beginnings to entrepreneurial stardom.

When she was a woman, her household moved to Germany, the place Ignatova excelled as a scholar and spent her free time finding out and taking part in chess, Bartlett wrote. Classmates described her as sensible, pushed and aloof.

Ignatova gained a scholarship to a college in Konstanz, Germany, the place she met and married a fellow regulation scholar. She maintained she didn’t need kids, Bartlett wrote, as a result of they might get in the way in which of her buying wealth.

She additionally informed folks she wished to be a millionaire by age 30.

“She desperately wished to be wealthy, even devouring books within the early hours about the best way to earn cash,” Bartlett wrote.

After finding out European regulation at Oxford College, Ignatova landed a job in Sofia as a marketing consultant for McKinsey & Firm, the worldwide administration consulting agency.

Shoppers trusted her and associated to her rise from humble beginnings and fierce want to be wealthy, Bartlett wrote. Her fluency in languages, together with Russian, German, English and Bulgarian, additionally helped.

Appearances mattered to Ignatova, who usually attended occasions in night robes and brilliant purple lipstick, with diamonds dangling from her ears.

“All the things exhibited success and glamor,” Bartlett wrote. “She was obsessive about fashion and picture.”

Cryptocurrencies corresponding to bitcoin are digital belongings created and managed by a world, decentralized community of computer systems as a substitute of a financial institution or authorities. Bitcoin, for instance, is “mined,” or created, by skilled crypto miners utilizing armies of servers in knowledge facilities.

It’s a largely unregulated and extremely risky business, and skilled opinions on the viability of crypto run the gamut. Advocates broadly envision a future wherein economies run on digital currencies validated by the neighborhood of customers somewhat by a central financial institution. Critics dismiss it as a Ponzi scheme or, at minimal, a extremely dangerous funding.

In 2014, Ignatova and Greenwood, her co-founder, began pitching OneCoin to buyers in Europe, New York and around the globe. They hosted on-line webinars and conferences the place they urged potential buyers to deposit funds in an account that might allow the acquisition of OneCoin packages, in accordance with a federal indictment.

OneCoin operated as a multilevel advertising community wherein buyers acquired commissions for recruiting others to purchase cryptocurrency packages, federal prosecutors mentioned. The packages catered to varied earnings ranges, from “starter” to “tycoon dealer.”

Ignatova and her companions promised consumers a fivefold and even tenfold return on their funding, in accordance with court docket paperwork.

A shopping for frenzy ensued. Between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the fourth quarter of 2016 alone, buyers gave OneCoin greater than $4 billion, federal prosecutors mentioned, citing information obtained in the midst of their investigation. Some $50 million got here from buyers within the US, in accordance with court docket paperwork.

“She timed her scheme completely, capitalizing on the frenzied hypothesis of the early days of cryptocurrency,” mentioned Williams, the highest federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

OneCoins weren’t mined like different cryptocurrencies, federal investigators mentioned. As a substitute of armies of highly effective servers, OneCoin was generated by a bit of software program, court docket paperwork mentioned.

Federal prosecutors mentioned that in an e-mail to Greenwood in August 2014, Ignatova wrote, “We aren’t mining really however telling folks sh*t.”

OneCoin’s worth was not based mostly on market provide and demand like different cryptocurrency, prosecutors mentioned, however merely manipulated privately by OneCoin itself.

The facade began cracking in 2016 when buyers had a tough time promoting their OneCoins to recoup their authentic investments, court docket paperwork say.

Phrase started to unfold on-line that the enterprise was a rip-off. Media retailers began asking questions. Worldwide and US federal investigators obtained concerned.

It’s not clear what occurred to Ignatova’s marriage. However the FBI mentioned she realized OneCoin was being investigated after she bugged an condominium belonging to her American boyfriend and came upon he was cooperating with a federal probe into her firm’s practices.

In October 2017, the US Division of Justice charged Ignatova with one rely every of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, securities fraud, and conspiracy to commit cash laundering, every of which carries a most sentence of 20 years in jail. She additionally was charged with one rely of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, which carries a most five-year sentence. A federal choose in New York issued a warrant for her arrest.

Lower than two weeks later, on October 25, 2017, she boarded a industrial flight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Athens, Greece, court docket paperwork mentioned.

Then she disappeared, leaving her enterprise companions to take the autumn for the failing firm.

The FBI mentioned it believes she might have traveled on a German passport from Athens, presumably to the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Russia, Japanese Europe and even again to Bulgaria. It’s providing a $100,000 reward for info resulting in her arrest.

“She left with an incredible amount of money,” Michael Driscoll, the FBI’s assistant director-in-charge in New York, informed reporters. “Cash can purchase a whole lot of mates, and I’d think about she’s profiting from that.”

Her companions weren’t so fortunate. Greenwood was arrested in July 2018 at his dwelling in Koh Samui, Thailand, and extradited to the US. He pleaded responsible in December to wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to launder cash. He’s in jail and faces 20 years in jail for every of the three counts when he’s sentenced in April.

Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin Ignatov, was arrested in March 2019 at Los Angeles Worldwide Airport. He’d traveled to the US on enterprise and was making ready to board his return flight to Bulgaria when 5 massive males in fits handcuffed him and took him to an interrogation room, the place they peppered him with questions on his lacking sister, Bartlett wrote.

Ignatov pleaded responsible to wire fraud conspiracy, cash laundering and fraud fees, and is scheduled to be sentenced in February.

OneCoin has shut down and its web site is now not energetic.

However its founder, the lady within the lengthy robes and flashy jewellery, has eluded authorities. Greater than 5 years after the Cryptoqueen obtained off a aircraft in Greece, her whereabouts stay a thriller.

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