It’s not hard to draw similarities between Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy and Ruja Ignatova — the brilliant Bulgarian-German scam master behind the OneCoin swindle, history’s second biggest fraud after Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi con.
Both were charismatic star students with huge ambitions who used charm and good looks to convince people to throw fistfuls of money at their sketchy start-ups. Each also hooked up with a male lover who helped them rip off millions from dupes.
The one big difference: Holmes, who was recently convicted of defrauding investors, faces 20 years in jail and is reportedly flat broke, while the 42-year-old Ignatova remains on the lam after having vanished in 2017 with a fortune — leaving customers to eat some $4 billion in losses and her ex-partners to face jail time.
“The Missing Crypto Queen: The Billion Dollar Cryptocurrency Con and the Woman Who Got Way With It,” a new book out now from British investigative reporter Jamie Bartlett, chronicles Ignatova’s journey from a working-class family in the Bulgarian port town of Ruse to becoming a star at McKinsey & Company and, as of June, being named as the newest member of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
Those humble beginnings fueled her quest. As Bartlett writes: “She desperately wanted to be rich.”
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Ignatova family moved from Bulgaria to Schramberg, Germany, in 1990, when Ruja was 10. Her father found work in a tire shop and they lived in a small apartment above a butcher shop.
“Even by the standards of demanding parents, Ruja was exceptional,” Bartlett writes.
“In school she was top of every class, brilliant in every subject. One teacher in Schramberg said she was the smartest student he’d ever taught.”
Finding friends proved more challenging.
“Fellow students found her aloof and arrogant,” according to the book, as “16-year-old Ruja strutted around the corridors in high heels and bright-red lipstick like she was too good for the place. ‘Nobody got really close to her,’ one schoolmate later recalled.”
At 18, she won a prestigious scholarship to Konstanz University, considered the “Harvard of Germany,” earning a doctorate in law in 2005. She then added a masters degree in comparative European law from Oxford.
But, Bartlett writes, “It was always the same story: she stood out as painfully clever yet aloof. Always distant, always top.”
Ruja joined the McKinsey consulting office in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2008 and was soon repping some of the top banks in the world. Since she spoke fluent Russian, she often flew to Moscow to, as the book says, “help the Russian banks tap into the European markets.”
“She was one of those people you could email any time of day or night and receive a reply within minutes,” Bartlett writes. “‘I don’t want children,’ she used to tell co-workers in her slightly cold and matter-of-fact way. ‘I’m far too busy trying to change the world for anything like that!’”
But after the financial crisis in 2009, the office closed and Ruja was out of a job. She briefly worked for Bulgaria’s biggest investment firm, though she clearly wanted more. At one point, the books says, she considered launching a line of cosmetics, adding, “She was becoming a recognizable face within the city’s fashion, business and politics scene. And yet she still wasn’t rich.
“That same niggling fear of unrealized potential still stalked her. Although she now had a few business interests of her own, they weren’t making change-your-life money. Around this time, Ruja started researching Bitcoin.”
This was early in 2013. Bitcoin was gaining momentum — with its price surging past $500 — but also critics, who complained about it being used by drug dealers and money launderers.
Ruja was convinced she could “create her own less anarchic version,” Bartlett writes.
In November of that year, she attended a cryptocurrency seminar in Singapore, where she snagged a speaker’s slot and pitched an idea: a crypto-based pension plan. The concept “wasn’t especially memorable and she wasn’t a brilliant speaker either,” writes Bartlett. “But she clearly understood finance and banking.”
In attendance was the man who would soon become her partner, Sebastian Greenwood.
“Have you considered multi-level marketing?” he suggested, according to the book.
Together they hatched a plan to launch OneCoin, which Ruja dubbed the “Bitcoin killer,” and “the future of money.”
And she knew how to sell her product — by selling herself.
At an over-the-top pitch event at London’s Wembley Aren a in 2016, Ignatova took the stage in a ball gown as Alicia Keys’ “This Girl Is on Fire!” blasted from speakers. “She strode out confidently, her long black hair, the deep-red lipstick, the embellished red gown glittering under the spotlights, the diamond earrings – everything exhibited success and glamour,” Bartlett writes.
A team of MLM veterans also hyped her new currency, and as with other such firms, convinced buyers to rope in friends and family members to sell OneCoin to everyone they knew, according to the book.
Rather than peddling the currency, Ruja sold videos and pamphlets on how to invest in crypto — and gave away armfuls of OneCoin with every purchase. The educational content might have been of interest to some, but the currency was the real prize, particularly at the sky-high prices the company charged for packages. The top option, dubbed “Tycoon Trader,” cost €5,000.
And the feverish marketing campaign, feeding off greed and crypto FOMO, created a buying frenzy.
“Most OneCoin investors … said the same thing: they didn’t understand the technology, but they’d heard of Bitcoin and regretted having not invested,” Bartlett writes. “When Bitcoin went stratospheric in 2013, stories proliferated of ordinary people making life-changing money not because of any particular skill or specialized knowledge, but because they got in early.”
They should have been alarmed, he notes, by Ignatova’s decision to launch OneCoin as an MLM outfit. These firms — which range from legit operations to predatory pyramid schemes — typically hawk beauty, health or cleaning products, not financial commodities, which are subject to federal securities regulation.
To stave off doubts, Ignatova brought in compliance lawyers to monitor the operation. She also touted OneCoin’s very own fully transparent blockchain — the permanent, tamper-proof log of all sales that had made Bitcoin secure and its success possible. This exchange assured OneCoin investors that their stakes were safe.
But almost nothing Dr. Ruja claimed turned out to be real, per the book.
Her packets were plagiarized, with some content swiped wholesale, Bartlett writes. The legal team did nothing. And there was no blockchain, which meant the price of OneCoin was whatever Ignatova decided it would be.
“The price was fake, the auditing company was fake, the exchange was fake and the education packages were fake,” the author writes. “Everything was a lie.”
As the company’s coffers ballooned, Ruja and her people splurged on almost every conceivable luxury.
OneCoin execs pampered themselves with ritzy homes, yachts, sports cars, designer clothes and jewels. They certainly could afford it. The company’s “promoters” — essentially commission-based salespeople, many of whom were not official employees — at the top of the chain took home nearly a million Euros a month in commissions, says the book.
“When she stayed at her sparkling new Kensington penthouse on a two-week trip to London in December 2016, [Ruja] spent most days shopping — returning home each evening flanked by two exhausted-looking bodyguards carrying bags of designer dresses and jewelry,” Bartlett writes.
She also dropped about 7 million Euros on a “superyacht,” dubbed the Davina, featuring six rooms, an underwater observation lounge, bar and massage room.
OneCoin honcho Juha Parhiala purchased a private resort in Thailand and “splashed out on cars, notably a yellow Ferrari 488, Bentley and Lamborghini Huracán.” But the biggest spender was Igor Alberts, OneCoin’s top earner, who “bought an eight-story mansion in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam” and “filled his garden with fiberglass life-size animals and installed a 10-foot-high wrought-iron entrance gate with the slogan ‘What Dreams May Come.’ When groups of promoters turned up to train Igor would always give a small tour of the indoor swimming pool, the sauna, the billiards room, the Swarovski crystals, his 200 plus shoe collection, his expensive watches-in-boxes, his hand-painted Dolce & Gabbana bags.”
Meanwhile, Ignatova was also reportedly busy cheating on her husband.
She’d married Bjorn Strehl, a handsome real estate lawyer she met in law school, but allegedly had a fling with Greenwood, sources told Bartlett, who couldn’t confirm the rumor.
Then, in 2017 she fell for another executive, Gilbert Armenta, a Floridian financier and married “alpha male,” writes Bartlett, who “wore his black hair gelled back in the old-school way.” He acted as OneCoin’s bag man, setting up business accounts in his name to pay commissions and once wiring $85 million from one of Ruja’s Dubai banks to his own. Soon the two were privately talking about leaving their spouses.
“She was completely obsessed with Gilbert,” writes Bartlett, quoting a friend. But Ruja needed to know he was fully committed, so she sent a black-ops team to plant a bug in his home. The wire revealed that Gilbert had no plans to ditch his wife, and Ruja raged at him over the revelation.
What she didn’t realize was that Armenta was in the crosshairs of an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office — related to financial transactions from 2015, which soon was paired with a federal probe of OneCoin. When Armenta got arrested on extortion charges, he ratted her out.
After FBI agents grilled her younger brother, Konstantin, who worked as her personal assistant, Ruja realized the noose was tightening. She fled in 2017 on a flight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Athens, Greece, disappearing with riches she’d stashed across the globe, and leaving her lover, brother and business partners to face criminal prosecutions, according to the book.
While OneCoin continues to be sold, the company collapsed amid a litany of arrests.
Greenwood, now held in Brooklyn, faces trial on wire fraud, money laundering and securities fraud charges. Thai officials confiscated gold and other assets from him. Armenta took a cooperation deal and pleaded guilty to a similar set of charges — as did Konstantin, who testified against a OneCoin lawyer, Mark Scott, convicted of money laundering in New York. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are seeking to seize $400 million from Scott.
So far, however, there’s been no centralized claw-back effort by the feds to compensate victims, as was the case with the Madoff scandal.
Her worth could be in the billions, Bartlett surmises, due to a 2015 deal Ignatova made with an Emirati royal, Sheikh Saud bin Faisal al Qassimi. She’d traded him access to a frozen bank account with €50 million in exchange for 230,000 Bitcoins, which, if she kept them, would be worth €9 billion today.
“Enough to make Ruja one of the richest criminals in the world,” he writes.
If Ruja does have Bitcoin, she might be able access it without being tracked due to the anonymity of the currency’s transactions. She also successfully stashed funds around the globe, including in Russia and Dubai, according to the book.
In 2019, the Manhattan US Attorney’s office charged Ruja in absentia with wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering. She was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in June, and the bureau is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to her arrest.
If ever caught and brought to trial, Ruja could face 90 years in prison.
Bartlett reports rumors that Ruja underwent extensive plastic surgery and is using an alias, and he tracked her from Greece to Dubai to France to a yacht cruising around the Mediterranean. It wasn’t her own vessel, which was docked in Bulgaria. But with her wealth and fake passports, she could duck the law for years.
For now, with her victims dealing with ruin and heartbreak, writes Bartlett, “the Crypto Queen is floating somewhere on the high seas with a new name, a new face, and access to endless amounts of this strange new form of money.”