Europol adds Ruja Ignatova to most wanted list, offers €5,000 reward

A surprisingly modest reward for a mastermind behind a Ponzi scheme worth $5 billion, isn’t it?

Dr. Ruja Ignatova speaking at the Wembley Arena.
Dr. Ruja Ignatova speaking at the Wembley Arena. Source: OneCoin YouTube channel

A self-proclaimed Cryptoqueen launched OneCoin in 2014, advertising it as a “Bitcoin killer.” A native of Bulgaria, she emigrated to Germany with her family at the age of ten. There she earned her law Ph.D. at the University of Konstanz, which earned her the nickname Dr. Ruja from her fans. Her self-reported Oxford background and partnership with McKinsey & Company created an image of a credible professional and a crypto visionary, which, sadly, persuaded many to invest in a OneCoin pyramid.

OneCoin operated by selling its members so-called “educational packages” for trading, with prices ranging from €100 to €225,500. Each package included tokens that could “mine” OneCoins on servers said to be located in Bulgaria and Hong Kong. Those who purchased packages could recruit new victims and receive a share of their investments.

When OneCoin was launched, Bitcoin was a revolutionary concept, expected to become “the money of the Internet” and disrupt the old financial system. Those who missed the opportunity to buy Bitcoin viewed OneCoin as a rivaling alternative that would provide them with the same or even higher returns.

According to the team of investigators behind the BBC podcast “The Missing Cryptoqueen,” British national alone spent almost €30m on OneCoin. Over $4b was invested from dozens of countries, including China, Brazil, Canada, Yemen, Uganda, Germany, Hong Kong, and even Palestine. It’s still unclear how much exactly Dr. Ruja’s scheme brought, with investigators giving numbers from $4b to $15b. OneCoin is believed to be the second-largest Ponzi scheme in history after Bernie Madoff’s fraud.

BBC chart featuring OneCoin investments from selected countries.
Source: BBC

Known for her taste in expensive ball dresses and red lipstick, Dr. Ruja promised the cheering crowd that OneCoin is on its track to overtake Bitcoin during her appearance at London’s Wembley Arena in 2016. Cryptoqueen continued to sell her vision traveling from country to country across the world until she completely vanished from the public space one day. In October 2017, she was expected to deliver a peach during the European OneCoin conference in Lisbon, Portugal, but didn’t show up. Two weeks after the conference, she boarded a flight from Sofia to Athens, where her trail went cold.

Ruja Ignatova on Europol's wanted list.

On May 12, Europol finally listed Dr. Ruja on its most wanted list. “Dr. Ruja Ignatova, Doctor of Law, is suspected of having, as the driving force and intellectual inventor of the alleged cryptocurrency ‘OneCoin,’ induced investors all over the world to invest in this actually worthless ‘currency,’” the wanted site reads.

In his interview with Vice, Jamie Bartlett, a BBC journalist behind “The Missing Cryptoqueen’ podcast, said that he’s surprised it took so long to get Dr. Ruja on the list. He also voiced his skepticism regarding the sum of the reward Europol offers for information that can lead to Ruja’s arrest.

“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.”