Content Warning: This article touches on the topic of suicide which may be triggering for some readers.
Picture a drab London conference centre in July 2016 where finance industry workers in grey and brown suits were starting to wilt after a day of presentations. Then, a woman who looked like European royalty was beamed into the room to declare that a revolution was coming. With her winged eyeliner, voluminous hair and structured black couture, Dr Ruja Ignatova embodied the glamour and success she was promising to those who invested in her exciting new digital currency.
The delegates straightened up, their attention well and truly captured. The 36-year-old entrepreneur and self-proclaimed visionary glittered with jewels as she began to weave her golden lie. “OneCoin is actually a very interesting product. It is ethical. It is interest free, and it gives fair access [for] everyone out there to cryptocurrency,” she told the room in her gentle, hypnotic voice.
“OneCoin’s strategy always was to create a cryptocurrency for the people – people like you and me who don’t have a lot of IT knowledge, who don’t want to make huge investments in hardware to mine coins, but who want to participate in innovation, and who want to be part of something new and exciting.”
Her pitch was perfectly timed. The hype around a mysterious new form of currency known as crypto was approaching its nadir. Bitcoin’s value had gone from less than a cent in 2009 to US$1000 in 2014. Most people didn’t understand how this new digital money worked, but they had watched early adopters become millionaires overnight, and they wanted in on the next crypto boom.
“The most important thing is that fear of missing out. The FOMO kept investors pouring in their money,” says journalist and author of The Missing Cryptoqueen Jamie Bartlett. “They were so scared other people had gotten rich just by getting in early to Bitcoin and they wanted to change their lives.”
Many new and novel cryptocurrencies were entering the fray when Dr Ruja was establishing OneCoin. “A lot of these new companies were turning up, like OneCoin, saying: ‘We’ve created the next Amazon. We’ve created a new coin.’ There were a lot of people who were making bold promises,” Jamie says. There was even a token called “Dogecoin” based on an internet meme of a Japanese dog.
By comparison, OneCoin seemed like a trustworthy and legitimate contender. Dr Ruja had a PhD in comparative law from the German University of Konstanz and a master’s from Oxford. She had spent six years working for global business consulting firm McKinsey and had twice been named Bulgarian businesswoman of the year. She said OneCoin would not just compete with Bitcoin but defeat it. She called it the Bitcoin killer. And people believed her.
“The thing about cryptocurrency is it is very technical and a lot of the people who run the tech companies are nerds,” says Jamie. “They can’t explain things very well to ordinary people. So, the way that she could frame and pitch it was glamour. It was success. It was: Your life’s going to be changed. She didn’t worry about the technicalities.”
Dr Ruja attended conferences in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where she’d sweep onto the stage in ball gowns, dripping in diamonds, to rapturous applause. She called herself the “crypto-queen”, and her disciples lapped it up. OneCoin true believers even had their own hand-sign: a thumb and forefinger closed to make
a coin shape. Critics would later say the company was cult-like.
“She was telling people, ‘I understand it, so you don’t have to. I’ve got a PhD, a master’s degree. I wear amazing clothes. I’m obviously a real success myself, so you just need to trust me’,” says Jamie.
And it worked. “It was so successful. It exploded so quickly. She couldn’t and didn’t want to stop it. They were selling thousands upon thousands an hour. Some days they were probably selling millions of coins.”
On October 25, 2017, less than a year after making her pitch to that London finance conference, Dr Ruja boarded a Ryanair flight in Sofia, Bulgaria, bound for Athens. She was never seen again. The crypto-queen had vanished into thin air, along with an estimated US$4 billion dollars the FBI alleges she fleeced from ordinary people who had been drawn in by the promise of OneCoin.
She is presumed to be in hiding – probably with an armed entourage, and possibly with a new face, care of a discreet plastic surgeon. Just last month, her name was added to the FBI’s list of the 10 most wanted fugitives.
The speed with which the crypto-queen raised billions then vanished is staggering. But for her alleged victims the effects will be long lasting. Scottish woman Jen McAdam invested €12,000 she had inherited from her coalminer father into OneCoin. She appeared on Jamie’s BBC podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen, where she described first seeing Dr Ruja on a webinar hosted by The Economist.
“She gave a fantastic speech and she’s talking about OneCoin. She was slick at the time, you know. I thought, ‘she’s amazing’. Power of the woman!” Jen says. “By the time you come off that webinar, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my goodness’. I thought, I suppose I could try €1000 and see how it goes. And that’s what I did. I was so excited. We thought we would change our lives.”
When Dr Ruja appeared at seminars, she didn’t sell, she seduced. Her voice was almost a purr. She was letting her followers in on a secret. OneCoin was exclusive, and they were special. Her acolytes were eager to spread the news of OneCoin to their family and friends, which is exactly what Dr Ruja wanted. According to Jamie, Dr Ruja sold the first OneCoin ‘packages’ but once she started recruiting investors, her shiny new cryptocurrency sold itself.
The OneCoin sales structure was in fact a pyramid scheme or multi-level marketing organisation (MLM), where investors earned a commission on any OneCoin packages they sold to a new recruit. If the new investor sold a OneCoin package, they would earn a commission from that sale, as would the person who recruited them, and so on. Investors could all log into their OneCoin accounts and see the value of their coins, which kept going up and up.
“It was the perfect MLM product,” says Jamie. “The problem with traditional MLMs is you end up with a lot of stuff, like vitamins or shampoo, that you can’t shift. So, why would you sell shampoo and vitamins and get a little commission when you could sell something that would triple, quadruple in value within a week? Dr Ruja promised the price of OneCoin would just go up and up and up. So, people jumped from selling vitamins and shampoo to cryptocurrency. Because it’s sold through friends and family, everyone was trying to help everyone get onto this amazing opportunity.”
Investors couldn’t spend their OneCoin but they had the illusion of real returns because they were earning commissions, often from those closest to them. Jen tearfully admits that’s what happened to her. “I find it hard even to speak about it,” she tells The Missing Cryptoqueen. “My friend didn’t have any savings. I bought her first package and later on she decided to get a loan and buy more packages. That’s a lot of money she doesn’t have.”
Word of the opportunity “spread like wildfire … I think of all my friends and family … ” She breaks down in tears, revealing that she sold £250,000 worth of packages to people in her life. “And I gave it to OneCoin.”
Jamie says it’s easy to see why people believed Dr Ruja.
“I checked very carefully her academic credentials and her professional credentials and they’re all legitimate,” he says. “She did work at McKinsey, where she was brilliant. I spoke to former colleagues. A former teacher said she was the smartest student she had ever taught in her 30 years of teaching. She was top of every class. She was brilliant in every subject.”
She could have lived a very comfortable life with a legitimate career. But it wasn’t enough.
“The way I see her motive is she was always the smartest person in the room. She just, from a young age, seemed to be driven by this ambition. She’d tell friends at school she wanted to become a millionaire by 30 and she just hadn’t quite done it. I think she just so wanted to be rich and successful. She saw Bitcoin and thought: ‘This is it. This is how I’m going to do it’.”
The OneCoin wildfire took off in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, eventually crossing the ocean, and burning people in Australia.
The Red Beret is a large pub in Redlynch, Queensland, north of Cairns, where OneCoin seminars were held to recruit new investors. Each month, from around 2017 until 2019, people from as far as Townsville would gather to listen to the OneCoin promise. Photos of the seminars show they were attended by ordinary working people and retirees who were perhaps struggling a little and looking for a lifeline.
Cairns Real Estate agent and Bitcoin investor Jeff Rufino first heard about OneCoin in 2017 when a relative told him about the investment opportunity. “They were calling it the next Bitcoin,” he says. But he quickly realised something wasn’t right.
“They had packages of $500, $1500, $2000, $10,000,” he says. People bought the packages with the promise that their value would increase when the currency was officially “launched”, but the launch date never arrived.
“From a technical point of view,” Jeff says, “it was quite obvious [that OneCoin wasn’t real]. But if you weren’t in the Bitcoin game, you wouldn’t know. You’re just enticed, thinking you’re going to be rich one day. It was a complete shambles. It was just a fake thing.”
When he tried to warn the community, they told him he was a “hater” and ignored him. He even attended a OneCoin seminar in the hope of exposing the truth.
“They were quite agitated that I was there … They just said I’m not welcome here,” he says. “I’m like, ‘this is a public event. What do you mean I’m not welcome here?’ I was like, ‘I’m not trying to fight. I’m just trying to find out if you guys are merchants. I want to see what transfers are happening. Or can I buy something with this OneCoin thing?’ The whole motto of crypto is don’t trust, verify.
“A lot of [the victims] were close family members. A lot of them lost their super,” he adds. One of his relatives invested $100,000 of their savings. “That’s a lot of money. They just end up getting hurt.”
The Weekly does not allege any criminal conduct by Cairns locals.
In 2017, OneCoin attempted to address the criticism that there was no way to use its cryptocurrency by launching an online marketplace called ‘DealShaker’. People who held OneCoin were told they could finally use their digital coins to buy things.
The site is still live and offers items including dog food, trays of soil, a pink evening dress and an assortment of mismatched dinner plates. The listings are in different languages including Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese. Most vendors want traditional currency in addition to OneCoin.
There were physical DealShaker bazaars in Cairns that offered a similarly strange melange of products. Photos show vendors selling OneCoin T-shirts, costume jewellery, Chinese medicine and bread rolls from trestle tables. What’s meant to be the marketplace for a cutting-edge cryptocurrency looks like a flea-market, and a shabby one at that. Photos reveal DealShaker conferences happening in Cairns as late as November 2019, more than two years after Dr Ruja vanished. Jamie says the promise of OneCoin kept people hanging on.
“She was promising she was going to change people’s lives,” he says. “That’s why even when she disappeared they didn’t believe it was over. They thought she’d return triumphantly, like Jesus, and everything was going to be fixed by her.”
Jeff started working with Jen McAdam and another whistle-blower, Tim Curry, to provide investigators with as much information as they could and to support victims. They ran online support groups. “You’d hear stories of people selling their land for this OneCoin thing,” Jeff says. “You’d hear stories of … suicides and that sort of stuff.
“It was quite devastating. In Cairns alone there might have been $10 million that was taken away from the community.”
The Weekly reached out to one former leader in Cairns, but she didn’t respond. We understand she sees herself as a victim and the community doesn’t hold her responsible for what happened. Jeff confirms this. “She believed in her heart that it was legit,” he says.
Jamie has spent years trying to understand why a brilliant businesswoman would allegedly create a scam that would devastate lives and force her into hiding. His current theory is that Dr Ruja intended to create a relatively small-scale scam and became a victim of its success.
“I think she always knew deep down it wasn’t going to work but she thought she’d get away with it by saying it was an honest failure. If it stayed kind of small, let’s say $10 to $15 million, that’s a lot of money to make. But it got bigger and bigger.”
She did have some legitimate cryptocurrency technology. “She had designed the technology, so it was ‘mining’ coins at roughly 10,000 OneCoin every day.” But she was selling many more coins than that, so she had to create fake coins. By August 2015 she had sold a billion coins that didn’t actually exist.
At some point, Dr Ruja realised how precarious things had become. She sent an email to her co-founder which read: “A billion fake coins. We’re f***ed.”
“They’re her exact words,” says Jamie. “She couldn’t control the people selling the coins for her. So, she’s selling all these fake coins. Giving them a fake price. Pretending everything’s fine and just carrying on.”
At one point she tried to hire a blockchain specialist. She wanted him to help her figure it out. “But it was basically unfixable,” says Jamie. “I think she was probably quite scared by its growth.”
Certainly, he has heard reports that she seemed erratic and afraid in the weeks before she disappeared. There have been suggestions that OneCoin has links to the Bulgarian mafia, or Russian organised crime groups.
“There definitely were shadowy connections but you can’t really prove it,” Jamie says, then adds that it would be difficult to pull off a scam the size of OneCoin without getting dragged into the underworld.
“You’re taking a lot of money from people. Also, maybe the people who were protecting her have decided that she’s a liability now.”
There is a chance Dr Ruja has been killed, but Jamie says the fact the FBI, Europol and Interpol are searching for her indicates otherwise. The FBI has posted a $100,000 reward for information, which Jamie thinks is a bid to get one of her employees – a driver or chef – to give her up.
He adds: “I’ve received so many very credible sightings of her that often align in similar places [and that] makes me think she’s probably still alive.”
He believes she’s on a yacht in the Mediterranean or the Black Sea. “And she’s got a new face, new plastic surgery, a new name. She’s got new identity documents.
“You might think, wow, she’s gotten away with it. She’s living on a yacht, floating in the lap of luxury. But that’s just another form of prison. She’s trapped. Now she knows everyone is looking for her. So, she won’t be able to trust anyone. She’s a prisoner.
“It’s a real golden cage.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You can read this story and many others in the October issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.