A woman who allegedly made billions of pounds by conning hundreds of thousands of people from around the world in a crypto coin scam has been put on Europol’s most-wanted list.
Five years after going on the run, police have appealed for the arrest of Dr Ruja Ignatova, founder of OneCoin, a cryptocurrency that sold itself as an alternative to Bitcoin but was instead a pyramid-style scam which relieved people from 175 countries of at least £4 billion.
The scam, one of the biggest frauds in history, which could have reaped as much as £12.7 billion from investors, was the subject of the BBC’s “The Missing Cryptoqueen” podcast.
Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, has put up a €5,000 (around $5,300 or £4,300) reward for information that leads to her arrest. It said Ignatova was “the driving force and intellectual inventor” of OneCoin and “is suspected of having prompted investors worldwide to invest in this worthless currency.”
So far most of Ignatova’s key alleged collaborators have either been arrested or jailed, including OneCoin’s co-founder Karl Sebastian Greenwood, Ignatova’s brother Konstantin, her corporate lawyer Mark Scott and her lover, Gilbert Armenta.
Journalist Jamie Bartlett has been trying to hunt down Ignatova, a 41-year-old from Bulgaria, since making the Missing Cryptoqueen podcast in 2019. She has been stripped of her Bulgarian citizenship but still has German nationality.
Bartlett, who has a book on the case of the same name out in June, told VICE World News he was surprised it had taken so long to put Ignatova on Europol’s most-wanted list.
“She is one of the biggest criminals in the world,” said Bartlett, who puts the size of her fraudulent scheme as second only to that of Bernie Madoff, architect of the largest ever Ponzi scheme in the 2000s. “White-collar crime is sometimes not seen as serious as violent crime. But this scam involved at least several billion pounds of people’s money, resulting in people going bankrupt and families destroyed in every corner of the world.
“I don't understand why it took them so long to get her on the list. But I think it means they think she is still alive.”
However, although Bartlett said the “net is closing on her”, he described the €5,000 reward money as “derisory” due to her immense wealth and the protection she will be able to afford.
“They won't find her by offering that sort of money. The people who will have information about her whereabouts will not be tempted to risk being harmed or killed for €5,000 and I really don’t think it’s enough to tempt those who might be protecting her either.”
He believes Ignatova will be travelling on a fake passport under a fake name with a different face, and claims the chances of her being arrested at an airport due to Europol’s appeal were “extremely unlikely”.
Bartlett told VICE World News that, despite huge publicity around the case over the last three years, the company originally behind the OneCoin scam is still holding events to attract investors in Latin America – where two promoters were murdered – parts of Asia and in Romania.
“It’s still going. There are still people promoting it and making money,” said Bartlett. “I don't think she's still making money out of the scam, but I think people are still losing money. They've been able to carry on because she’s not been arrested, so they can keep it going.”
Bartlett said that when Ignatova is caught, and he believes she will eventually be found, her trial will deal a powerful blow in the war against crypto scams like OneCoin.
“There are dozens of spin-off scams just like OneCoin with people selling fake crypto currency. Former promoters of OneCoin have even launched their own copycat scams. All over the world, hundreds of thousands of people are still investing every day.
“Her arrest and conviction is the one thing that might actually stop crypto scams because it would send out a powerful warning to people to be wary.”