In 2017 Ruja Ignatova – the self-proclaimed ‘Cryptoqueen’ – boarded a plane in Bulgaria bound for Athens. The fugitive, who is wanted by the FBI, hasn’t been seen since.
Ignatova is on the bureau’s ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ list for “alleged leadership of a massive fraud scheme that affected millions of investors worldwide”. A co-founder of Bulgarian-based cryptocurrency company OneCoin Ltd, she is said to have defrauded investors out of more than $4 billion.
It comes after her co-founder, Karl Sebastian Greenwood, plead guilty to wire fraud and money laundering charges in Manhattan federal court last month.
As well as Greenwood, Ignatova brought in her younger brother Konstantin Ignatov to help lead the “international pyramid scheme that involved the marketing of a fraudulent cryptocurrency”.
The net began closing in when Konstantin was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport following an investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney in 2019.
Konstantin plead guilty to a range of charges including money laundering and fraud in 2019, according to the BBC.
‘Cryptoqueen’ still on the run
However, his older sister is still at large, with a federal warrant for Ignatova’s arrest issued on October 12, 2017. It was later superseded by a charge in February of 2018 with counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and securities fraud.
Court and public documents allege that Ignatova and her sibling held various positions at the top of the company which was founded in 2014.
As of his arrest, Konstantin Ignatov was described as the “top leader” of the company, having taken over from his sister who had occupied the position until she disappeared in October 2017.
In the course of authorities’ investigations into OneCoin, records showed that between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the third quarter of 2016, OneCoin generated €3.353 billion in sales revenue and earned “profits” of €2.232 billion.
How did she do it?
A video shown on the FBI’s website gives some insight into how Ignatova swindled investors into putting their hands in their pockets.
At a OneCoin event in London, speaking “one and a half years after launching [their] cryptocurrency” Ignatova said: “I strongly believe [OneCoin] will be the number one cryptocurrency worldwide.”
Accepting applause from the crowd, she continues: “In the last two years I’ve been called a lot of things. The best thing the press called me was: ‘OneCoin, who is supposed to be the BitCoin killer’. I must say I like it. You all know since we mined our first coin our growth exploded.” She then claims her company had two million active users which “no other cryptocurrency has”.
Speaking after Konstantin Ignatov’s arrest, the FBI’s assistant director-in-charge at the time, William Sweeney Jr., said: “As we allege, OneCoin was a cryptocurrency existing only in the minds of its creators and their co-conspirators. Unlike authentic cryptocurrencies, which maintain records of their investors’ transaction history, OneCoin had no real value.
“It offered investors no method of tracing their money, and it could not be used to purchase anything. In fact, the only ones who stood to benefit from its existence were its founders and co-conspirators. Whether you’re dealing with virtual currency or cold, hard cash, we urge the public to exercise due diligence with any investment.”
According to a release from the Office of the United States Attorneys, Ignatova had listed an exit strategy out of OneCoin as “take the money and run and blame someone else for this”.
In emails also sent in 2014, Greenwood apparently refers to OneCoin investors as “idiots” with Ignatov replying: “As you told me, the network would not work with intelligent people.”
Where is she now?
And so began an international game of cat and mouse with IRS special agent in charge, John R. Tafur, pledging to “bring cryptocurrency crooks to justice”.
The FBI is offering $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the fugitive.
Her profile on the FBI website adds that she is “believed to travel with armed guards and/or associates” and may have had plastic surgery to alter her appearance.
Able to speak German, English and Bulgarian, it is believed Ignatova may have used a German passport to fly to the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Germany, Russia, Greece and/or Eastern Europe.
When approached by CNN, the bureau declined to provide additional details beyond court documents from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The FBI poster adds that Ignatova has various aliases, including Dr. Ruja Ignatova, Ruja Plamenova Ignatova, Ruja P. Ignatova and “CryptoQueen”.
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