Ruja Ignatova promised her cryptocurrency, OneCoin, would become the next Bitcoin. The only problem: It didn’t exist.
The FBI today added the Bulgarian-born Ignatova—accused of defrauding investors out of approximately $4.1 billion in a fake cryptocurrency scheme—to its most-wanted list. The 41-year-old has been on the lam since October 2017, just days after a warrant was issued for her arrest in the U.S.
In a press release, the FBI called OneCoin a “massive fraud scheme” and offered up to $100,000 for information leading to Ignatova’s arrest.
“There are so many victims all over the world who were financially devastated by this,” Special Agent Ronald Shimko said. “We want to bring her to justice.”
According to federal prosecutors, Ignatova—a German citizen with a Ph.D in private international law—founded OneCoin in 2014 and began promoting it around the world as a “Bitcoin Killer.” She is believed to have attracted billions of dollars in investments from more than 3 million people in 175 countries. But the coin she was hawking never existed on a public blockchain—only in the minds of its creators, prosecutors said.
Indicting Ignatova and her business partners in 2019, federal prosecutors in Manhattan called OneCoin a “pyramid scheme based on smoke and mirrors, more than zeroes and ones.” They alleged that Ignatova, her brother, and others who worked for the company advertised the cryptocurrency as being mined on computers and priced based on market demand. In fact, the prosecutors claimed, the creators never mined a single coin, and founded the company “fully intending to use it to defraud investors.”
In an email to her co-founder, the prosecutors said, Ignatova described her OneCoin exit strategy as such: “Take the money and run and blame someone else for this.”
For a time, Ignatova lived large off of the OneCoin earnings, purchasing in 2016 a 7,000-square-foot apartment in a ritzy London neighborhood that was previously owned by British singer Duffy. She filled the apartment with an estimated £500,000 worth of art, including two original Warhols, according to the BBC, and threw a luxurious 36th birthday party at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But Ignatova’s lavish public life ceased on October 25, 2017, when she hopped a flight to Athens, Greece and disappeared. She is wanted by both Interpol and Europol, and was the subject of the BBC podcast “The Missing Cryptoqueen.” German investigators warned earlier this year that she may have changed her appearance with plastic surgery to avoid detection.
While Ignatova stayed under the radar, her co-founder, lawyer, and brother have been arrested and prosecuted in connection with the scheme. Her brother, Konstantin Ignatov, even gave evidence against her as part of a plea deal in 2019. Her lawyer, Mark Scott, was convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering and bank fraud that same year.
An indictment against Ignatova was unsealed in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2019, charging her with one count each of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, securities fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“Eventually I’m confident we’ll find her,” Mike Driscoll, FBI assistant director in charge of the New York office, said at a press conference Thursday.