To paraphrase Doctor Heinz Doofenshmirtz: if we had a nickel for every time a cryptocurrency turned out to be a Ponzi scheme ending with one of the ringleaders disappearing off the face of the earth, we’d have two nickels – which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice.
Last time, it was Quadriga – if you have a spare few hours to lose down a rabbit hole on that one, have at it. Now, it’s Dr Ruja Ignatova, the so-called “missing Cryptoqueen,” now placed on the FBI's top ten most wanted list for her alleged role in running the OneCoin cryptocurrency scam.
“She timed her scheme perfectly, capitalizing on the frenzied speculation of the early days of cryptocurrency,” reportedly said Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, describing OneCoin as “one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history.”
Ignatova went missing back in 2017 after discovering that her American boyfriend was working with the FBI by bugging his apartment, according to Williams. Three years prior, she had allegedly started running OneCoin, supposedly a cryptocurrency where buyers could earn a “commission” if they sold the currency on to more people.
If that sounds suspiciously like a scam to you, that’s because it was: the FBI alleges that OneCoin was worthless, and never safeguarded by the blockchain technology that gives some level of safety to more traditional cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. It was, according to prosecutors, little more than a Ponzi scheme dressed up as a cryptocurrency.
It was incredibly profitable. In total, Ignatova is alleged to have raked in over four billion dollars from her scheme. Then, as investigators closed in and arrest warrants were signed, she boarded a plane to Greece… and was never seen again.
“She left with a tremendous amount of cash,” Michael Driscoll, the FBI’s assistant director-in-charge in New York, told reporters. “Money can buy a lot of friends, and I would imagine she’s taking advantage of that.”
By adding Ignatova to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the Bureau is signaling that it believes the public may be able to help find her. However, that may be difficult, according to Jamie Bartlett, whose BBC podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen first brought global attention to the crypto scam.
“This is probably the biggest development in the case since Dr Ruja disappeared in October 2017,” he told the BBC. But, he added, “we also believe she has high quality fake identity documents and has changed her appearance” – that’s if she’s even still alive.
Look: maybe it’s the wacky schemes to build libertarian utopias on the open ocean; maybe it’s the fact that investors at the top of their game can be outperformed by a hamster; perhaps it’s just the endless parade of brazen crypto scams that we’re now used to seeing; either way, crypto is increasingly being seen as something of a high-risk investment.
With Ignatova’s addition to the Most Wanted list – the only woman of the ten – those taken in by the OneCoin scam have been given something near-unique: a chance to get some of the money back. The FBI has announced a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of Ignatova – a mere fraction of what she’s alleged to have stolen, but more than most crypto victims ever see.