Ruja Ignatova: The FBI’s Most Wanted Cryptoqueen
Let's investigate Ruja Ignatova, the missing crypto queen who scammed the world!Money
There’s no doubt that pretty much everyone wants to be a millionaire. But unfortunately money can’t be summoned out of thin air. However, in 2014, the unknown Dr Ruja Ignatova came out of nowhere with promises that everyone could make millions with a fabulous new invention of her very own creation.
Dr Ruja may not be a household name, but she subsequently reached a level of fame and fortune that most of us can only dream of. That is, until, on October 7th, 2017, something happened that nobody could explain: Ruja disappeared without a trace.
But what happened? Where did she go? And why did all this land her on the FBI’s most wanted list? This is a story of glamor, greed, and a global scam worth $15 billion. So, grab your detective hats as we follow the trail to investigate the world’s most wanted scammer that nobody can find.
Before we get into Ruja’s story, we need a little understanding of the thing that made her rich: the whacky world of cryptocurrency. By now, everyone has heard of Bitcoin, but you may not know how it all started.
Not long after the global financial crisis of 2008, the term bitcoin was used for the first time on an online forum by a mysterious user under the name of Satoshi Nakamoto.
Satoshi’s view was that banks had too much power and he’d come up with a solution: a new currency system that wasn’t controlled by governments, made legitimate by the use of blockchain technology, which we’ll discuss more later.
Nakamoto began building the coding framework for his cryptocurrency, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bitcoin remains the largest cryptocurrency in the world as of 2022. Though, intriguingly, the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, which is thought to be a pseudonym, as well as the other coders behind the creation of Bitcoin, remain largely unknown. But that’s another story.
Soon after the introduction of Bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies began to emerge from the woodwork. In 2014, another one blasted onto the scene, a cryptocurrency known as OneCoin, created Dr Ruja Ignatova. Ruja declared that the crypto revolution was coming faster than ever, and if people didn’t get onboard, they’d get left behind. OneCoin, she claimed, was headed for the number one spot.
It was hard not to be impressed by Ruja and her achievements spoke for themselves. Born in the Bulgarian city of Ruse on May 30th, 1980, Ruja was the ultimate highflying achiever. An Oxford University graduate who spoke several different languages, Dr Ruja earned a PhD in law and spent time working for the globally-renowned management consulting company McKinsey and Co.
With all of that under her belt, coupled with a sparkling personality, Ruja’s claims that OneCoin was going to be the ‘Bitcoin killer’ were lapped up by investors the world over but little did they know things were far from how they appeared.
So what exactly was OneCoin? And how did it work? It wasn’t quite as straightforward as simply buying pieces of the cryptocurrency. Instead, Ruja’s concept encouraged investors to purchase educational membership packages that claimed to teach financial freedom.
As well as financial educational resources, these packages contained virtual tokens that could be used to redeem OneCoins, which could be traded for Euros with other OneCoin investors on a specially-designed exchange platform.
The cost of these packages ranged from $100 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, meaning people from all economic backgrounds could invest in OneCoin and set themselves up for life.
Because cryptocurrencies are quite technical, a lot of people are put off from investing, but Dr Ruja’s genius was to take all of the complicated jargon around cryptocurrency and make it accessible to the masses.
Similarly, like Bitcoin, Ruja promoted OneCoin on the back of the economic meltdown of 2008, blaming banks and governments for the world’s financial woes, playing on people’s emotions to garner interest in this new alternative.
Opening in 2014, in its first month, OneCoin had 3,000 paying members, and by the end of December 2014 that number had reached 30,000. By 2016, OneCoin had grown larger than anyone could have imagined, with more than two million members in the OneLife network.
By 2016, Ruja claimed that a single OneCoin was worth $7.56. So, let’s see just how much she was claiming investors could make if they sold the coins accumulated by purchasing the educational packages.
The main educational package Ruja was pushing in 2016 was called the ‘ultimate package’, which came with 1,311,111 OneCoin tokens for the price of $130,600. This meant that ploughing $130,600 into OneCoin could result in high-tier investors making $9,911,999 after their OneCoins had been converted and eventually sold, that’s a profit of more than 7400%!
This was part of the appeal of getting in early before the coins became mainstream; once everyone knew about OneCoin, the demand and value would only increase! As the years rolled on, Ruja gained an almost cult-like status among her members, while OneCoin became more and more valuable.
By 2019, a single OneCoin was supposedly worth $28.81. Members became addicted to watching the OneCoin they’d purchased going up and up in value, but it’d soon become apparent that something about all of this wasn’t adding up.
As the coins rolled in, Ruja was reveling in her newfound wealth, and fittingly, everything about OneCoin screamed excess. The company hosted webinars, public speeches and epic stage events topped off with over-the-top pyrotechnics shooting into the sky.
Thanks to these showstopping events, it wasn’t long before Dr Ruja became known as the Cryptoqueen, and people all over the world were in awe of her. This success led to big bucks for Ruja, and with billions reportedly in the bank, the Cryptoqueen splurged on all the big-ticket items enjoyed by the rich and famous.
Ruja decked herself out in designer ballgowns and expensive jewelry which she wore for every occasion. Glamourous events became synonymous with the OneCoin brand, and Ruja was always front and center, the face of this new financial revolution.
In May 2016, she even hosted her 36th birthday party at the famous Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where the guest list included not only OneCoin’s top buyers and execs, but also the likes of superstar singer, Sir Tom Jones.
Truth be told, with the level of success and wealth Ruja was enjoying, everyday must have felt like her birthday. When away from all the partying, Ruja could be found relaxing in her very own $15 million penthouse in London’s lavish borough of Kensington. Inside was a collection of artwork amounting to $600,000, as well as the staple of any celebrity home, a pool.
At the height of her success, the concierge of the apartment complex Ruja called home said he remembered seeing her returning from a shopping trip with her two bodyguards carrying at least 20 bags packed with designer-label goods.
And it seemed that Ruja’s wardrobe wasn’t the only thing constantly getting made-over. It’s hard not to notice the difference in her facial appearance from before she started OneCoin, to the height of its success, and it’s likely that a bit of cosmetic surgery has been added to the bill.
The cherry on the cake of Ruja’s wealth was her 145-foot, $7.5 million superyacht, as well as her $2.1 million coastal mansion in Bulgaria. This specially built mega-mansion was yet another stage for many large parties, one of which saw Ruja and her guests enjoying a special performance from popstar Bebe Rexha.
It was clear that Ruja was reveling in her new role as the ultimate Belle of the ball, and while she certainly played the part of beauty well in her fairy-tale ballgowns, there were warning signs of a beast hidden within.
Crypto Ponzi Scheme
OneCoin’s success was all tied to hype, generating perceived value, and Ruja had recruited some of the best and most convincing hype-men around to help her sell the OneLife dream.
These expert sellers had zero expertise in cryptocurrencies, but were maxed out with experience in selling dreams. That’s because many of OneCoin’s top employees were recruited for their experience among the world’s highest earning multi-level-marketing sellers.
OneCoin utilized multi-level marketing, or MLM, a business model that involves unsalaried sales teams that sell products directly to consumers, usually purchasing their inventories with their own money, as well as recruiting those consumers to become sellers themselves.
This chain of recruited sellers is known as a downline. New sellers enter in at the bottom of the chain, with the person who recruited them above, and the person who recruited them above, and so on.
When a seller at the bottom of the downline makes a sale, each person above them also earns a portion of the income, and the person at the very top makes a cut on everything, in this case: Ruja.
MLM is considered controversial because usually only a tiny number of people at the top make almost all the money, but they are not illegal aside from in a handful of countries including China and Saudi Arabia.
However, when a business has nothing of actual value to sell, and all the money is made by recruiting other people, it is illegal in most places, and is known by another name: not multi-level marketing, but a pyramid scheme.
OneCoin attempted to evade being branded as a pyramid scheme through the marketing of the online education packages we talked about earlier. But here’s the kicker: legal proceedings would later reveal that the content of these educational packages consisted of plagiarized work from other sources, and OneCoin was claiming ownership of them illegally.
Which of course meant, with OneCoin’s only source of legitimate money being people recruiting other people to join the OneLife network, it was indeed an illegal pyramid scheme, just waiting to be exposed!
With investors effectively earning nothing as they patiently waited for the coin’s value to increase before they’d be happy to sell, only those at the top were making any serious dough. And right at the peak of the pyramid, pulling all the strings was the crypto puppet master herself, Dr Ruja.
At its peak, OneCoin was earning well over $2.5 billion in annual profits, and had over three million investors who’d been taken in by Ruja’s many promises. Once they were locked in as sellers, they felt compelled to influence friends and family to join too.
Despite this rapid growth, alarm bells had been ringing as early as September 2015, when Bulgaria’s Financial Supervision Commission issued a public warning about the risk of investing in new cryptocurrencies.
They warned that OneCoin had not been regulated by European legislations on capital markets and if Ruja’s company were to fall into bankruptcy, investors would not be owed any compensation for their lost investments.
Despite a small number of media reports beginning to arouse suspicion around OneCoin, in May 2015, Ruja shared the exciting news that she had been featured on the cover of Forbes Magazine, the ultimate crowning achievement in the world of business.
According to OneCoin’s Facebook page, their beloved founder had been interviewed in the prestigious magazine’s May issue. But this was all completely untrue. The supposed cover was actually an advertisement that OneCoin paid to have made, and was actually only featured on the inside cover of Forbes Bulgaria edition of the magazine.
It was shared on OneCoin’s social media conveniently without those little caveats, to mislead people into thinking that Ruja was more of a highly-regarded global name in business than she actually was.
OneCoin was already becoming known for its relentless, over-the-top marketing and convinced its followers that any negativity came from ‘haters’ and those who were jealous of Ruja’s business prowess. Their ‘us versus them’ mentality, as well as the hand symbol OneCoin members were encouraged to use to greet each other made them look as some sort of cult.
Breaking The Blockchain
Now, aside from the pyramid-scheme structure of the OneCoin company, there was an even bigger glaring issue that’d ultimately spell absolute disaster for investors: the coin itself.
Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin work because of a highly-sophisticated software system called a blockchain, which operates as a shared record of every transaction made with a specific crypto-currency. This allows all the digital information about a cryptocurrency’s transactions to be recorded and distributed, without fakery.
The fact that blockchain technology doesn’t allow information to be edited is a big reason for people’s widespread interest in cryptocurrencies because no corrupt banks or higher authorities can alter or hack the system.
Seeing as cryptocurrencies need blockchains to operate on a legitimate basis, Ruja soon began receiving a lot of questions from both her adoring followers and suspicious critics about OneCoin’s blockchain technology.
But here’s the twist in the tale of OneCoin that would change everything. Unbeknownst to Ruja’s followers was one small, yet hugely significant fact: OneCoin didn’t use a blockchain at all. The cryptocurrency Ruja had created was completely fake!
Because Ruja had roped in ordinary people who knew nothing about cryptocurrency, it was all too easy for her to convince them that OneCoin’s blockchain was far too complicated for even crypto experts to understand. But the reality was that OneCoin was using a regular database to manage their cryptocurrency, which could be manipulated and edited on a whim.
Ruja could simply pluck a number out of thin air, log it into the database and claim that a sale had been made, or that OneCoin had gone up in value. She could even, and did, create more OneCoins at the drop of a hat, which is generally a no-go with cryptos given that it can seriously mess with their value.
But, of course, much of her customer network was fairly ill-informed on this matter. So, rather than suspicious, they were simply overjoyed when in June 2016, Ruja promised a crowd at London’s Wembley Arena that she was magically doubling their coins as a thank you for their support. Little did they know, it wouldn’t be long before joy and excitement turned to devastation and outrage.
It was clear that Ruja had an enormous number of people hooked, line and sinker for her crypto coins, and the cryptoqueen could make them believe pretty much anything she wanted.
So, on March 1st, 2016, when OneCoin abruptly announced that their digital exchange marketplace, known as ‘X Coin X’, would be halted for two weeks for ‘maintenance’, very few investors batted an eye.
While X Coin X did reopen two weeks later as promised, there didn’t seem to be any discernible modifications, save for one: the interface had canceled countless user’s pending transactions. An odd occurrence, but not completely unacceptable, and things were soon running as usual.
But it was a taste of what eventually came in January 2017, when OneCoin suddenly closed down the X Coin X exchange again, without notice. This time, however, was permanent. The exchange would never reopen, meaning investors could not cash out for their coins.
The company asked investors to sit tight, claiming they would be able to cash in their coins as soon as the company went public on the stock exchange a few months down the line. They suggested that, in the meantime, members could trade their coins for certificates entitling them to those shares once they became available.
Trading tokens for tokens for tokens; seems legit, right? However, despite the cult-like loyalty of the member network, as weeks turned into months, the signs that OneCoin wasn’t legit quickly became overwhelming.
Countries started issuing bans, fines, and even arrest warrants, for OneCoin officials. Slowly but surely, many within the OneLife network were finally beginning to realize they’d been scammed, and their invested money was lost forever.
In October 2017, Dr Ruja was scheduled to deliver one of her magnificent speeches at yet another OneCoin convention in Lisbon, Portugal. But as the time for her stage appearance grew closer, there was no sign of the beloved OneCoin leader.
Ruja had been known to cancel meetings on the spot if attendees were a mere minute late, so it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t show up at her own event. Concern among her followers was growing, and as the event date came and went, it was declared that Ruja had gone missing.
Just a year earlier, she had been living the high life, addressing a crowd of 90,000 people at London’s Wembley stadium. Now, she was gone. Craziest of all, on October 12th, the United States District Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Dr Ruja Ignatova.
The Cryptoqueen’s promises about OneCoin had been one big con, and she’d fled with, presumably, a boatload of cash accumulated over the previous years. But the authorities were hot on her trail.
Despite still being on the missing persons list, she was charged in her absence with five damning crimes: conspiracy to commit wire fraud, committing wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and committing securities fraud.
It’s likely no coincidence that Ruja’s disappearance coincided with her newly wanted status. Some theorize she caught wind of the fact that she was about to become a wanted woman, so made a swift exit from public life.
Ruja’s last confirmed movements show records of her boarding a Ryan Air flight from Sofia, Bulgaria bound to Athens, Greece on October 25th, 2017, over two weeks after she failed to show up at the OneCoin convention in Lisbon.
Once the coveted crypto-queen, Ruja had turned out in fact to be the ultimate scam queen, with a special talent for disappearing into thin air. It’s unclear exactly how much money total people poured into the OneCoin scam, but various sources claim it could be between 4 and $15 billion.
Konstantin Ignatova, Ruja's Brother
Remaining OneCoiners weren’t ready to let the dream die, despite Ruja’s disappearance. Some chalked up her vanishing to a kidnapping, or the work of malicious haters of the OneCoin operation. So, with a notable number of cult-like followers still on board, OneCoin was able to remain very much in operation.
Seeing as it was Ruja’s persona that had been behind OneCoin’s success, it seemed only natural to keep things in the family and it was time to welcome a new crypto prince, Ruja’s very own brother.
Konstantin Ignatova had been working behind the scenes at OneCoin from the start and like Ruja, he was very preoccupied with his image. The glitz and glamor of his sister’s OneCoin legacy found its way into his regime and in 2019, Konstantin announced OneCoin’s most bizarre event yet.
The Miss OneLife beauty pageant would see 30 contestants from 30 countries come together in honor of the missing OneCoin leader. The pageant itself is what can only be described as the most outdated, crass beauty pageant you can imagine, with the winning prize consisting of a $20,000 voucher for plastic surgery procedures, or that same amount in OneCoin.
There’s no doubt that the idea of a cryptocurrency company hosting a beauty pageant is very peculiar, but some believe the Miss OneLife event was an elaborate cover for a meeting between the top conspirators at OneCoin, including the missing Ruja in disguise.
Ironically, some, including the FBI, even believe Ruja had undergone further plastic surgery since her disappearance to make her undetectable, making the contest’s grand prize all the more fitting.
As his plans to re-establish OneCoin continued, Konstantin organized a promotional event in Las Vegas. But on March 6th, 2019, 18 months after taking the helm of OneCoin, Konstantin was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on his way back to Bulgaria. He was charged with alleged wire fraud and his role as the leader of the OneCoin pyramid scheme.
This all happened a few weeks before the Miss OneLife pageant, casting that event in an even more bizarre light, given that both previous leaders were now officially charged by the FBI.
In exchange for a plea deal, Konstantin agreed to testify against his missing sister and admitted that OneCoin really had been nothing but one big con. He confirmed that Dr Ruja had charmed the masses, only to flee when things got hairy. But where in the world did Ruja the Master Scammer flee to?
The Missing Crypto Queen
While the law caught up with Konstantin, Ruja remained missing, and theories about her whereabouts continued to roll in thick and fast.
Some remaining faithful OneCoiners believed the brilliant Ruja had been forced into hiding by governments and banks, who were fearful of the ‘financial revolution’ she was trying to start. Some question if she’s even still alive, while skeptics assume she’s off somewhere basking in all her stolen cash. Either way, the $15 billion hunt is definitely still on.
Once the glamourous Cryptoqueen, Dr Ruja Ignatova had become the most wanted woman in the world. She became the eleventh woman to ever appear on the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitive list, and information leading to her arrest could fetch informants up to $100,000.
While the question of where Ruja is remains unanswered, there are plenty of theories as to how she’s staying hidden. We’ve already heard the theory that she may have surgically altered her face for anonymity, but when it comes to where she’s hiding, the world is her cryptocurrency-coated oyster.
Ruja has connections all over the world, from her home country of Bulgaria to Germany, to Dubai, where she is rumored to have once received $50 million worth of Bitcoin from a member of an Emirati royal family. But rather than one single location, some believe that Ruja is now living her life on the high seas.
Journalists and investigators have suggested Ruja may be living out her days on a luxury yacht, in international waters where no police force has the power to arrest her. But that’s just one theory, with very little evidence to support it. Meanwhile, theories resurfaced online that she might have been murdered on her yacht in Greece.
Another theory based on the recent listing of her London penthouse suggests that she might still be alive. But will the crypto queen ever be found? While Ruja’s super-rich friends may be helping to conceal her, there are likely a whole lot of other people within her entourage that have a part to play.
The $100,000 on offer for information clearly isn’t aimed at the super-rich, but it might be enough to tempt a cook, or yacht crewmate to finally blow her cover. Until then, however, the location of the world’s most wanted scam queen remains a true mystery.
So, if you find yourself on the high seas, or at a party at a luxury mansion, and a woman approaches you asking you to invest in her brand new cryptocurrency that’s going to change the world, you have a choice. You can either say yes and risk losing everything, or you can turn her in and bag a tidy $100,000. I’ll leave that choice up to you.