Often seen at public events in a full-length ballgown, diamond earrings and a slash of trademark red lipstick, Dr Ruja Ignatova has been described as “a cross between Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Steve Jobs”.
er unbridled glamour certainly belied her on-paper credentials: as one of the richest women in Europe, the consultant working in international finance had a degree from Oxford University, a PhD in law and a stint with the hallowed management consultancy McKinsey. If you were going to trust someone launching a cryptocurrency, it would be her.
At a sold-out event at Wembley Stadium in June 2016, Ignatova, then 36, promised that she would revolutionise digital currency with her cryptocurrency OneCoin. She called her creation the ‘Bitcoin killer’, referring to the world’s best-known cryptocurrency. Soon, she noted, its ‘users’ would be able cash in their coins in for real money on a public exchange.
Documents leaked to the BBC show that British people spent almost €30m on OneCoin in the first six months of 2016, €2m of it in a single week. Between August 2014 and March 2017, more than €4bn was handed over in dozens of countries, including Ireland. Analysts have estimated that between January and June 2016 €1.47m was spent on OneCoin from Irish-based users.
By late 2017, Ignatova had vanished, as had the money entrusted to her by one million ‘investors’.
Podcast producer Georgia Catt got wind of the astonishing story after a friend visited for dinner. “He had invested in OneCoin, and was just raving about this new cryptocurrency,” she says. “He was convinced it was going to change the world. He showed us that he had invested €7,000 and how it had somehow ‘grown’ to €30,000.”
On further investigation, Catt realised the full extent of the situation, and that she had the makings of a hit podcast. She enlisted tech author and journalist Jamie Bartlett, who already had a professional interest in cryptocurrency and cybersecurity.
“When we looked into Dr Ruja and saw the source of the showmanship and these crowds at Wembley going crazy, you realise the kind of hold she has over people,” he says. OneCoin, in his words, is “an old-fashioned pyramid scheme”.
The resulting BBC podcast, The Missing Cryptoqueen, has been downloaded almost 5 million times, and no wonder. The tale of what happened to Ignatova remains a mystery and, despite a lengthy investigation, she still remains at large.