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'CryptoQueen' Ruja Ignatova's international scheme landed her on FBI's Most Wanted

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is a new name on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list - Ruja Ignatova, known as the Cryptoqueen. It is a story of international fraud at a scale rarely seen. Here's Amanda Aronczyk from our Planet Money podcast.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: The FBI's Ten Most Wanted list is a very big deal. It's basically a giant publicity stunt, a way to get people like me, who work in the media, to file stories like this one. Here's the FBI.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DRISCOLL: Our hope is that naming her to the Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list will draw attention to her and her alleged crimes.

JAMIE BARTLETT: I was as surprised as anybody.

ARONCZYK: Jamie Bartlett has been trying to find Ignatova for the past 3 1/2 years. He's the author of "The Missing Cryptoqueen" podcast and book. He's also been wondering, why is the FBI making this announcement now? The fraud itself began years ago.

BARTLETT: Ruja Ignatova is a German-Bulgarian businesswoman who arrived in 2014 out of nowhere, really, and told the world she'd created the next bitcoin.

ARONCZYK: She called it OneCoin. Her team made slick videos promising that buying OneCoin was a way to ride the crypto wave for people who didn't understand crypto. Word spread, reaching people in 175 countries. In 2016, Ignatova could pack a stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's give a warm applause for our creator, our founder, our lovely Dr. Ruja. Applause, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) This girl is on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ruja, where are you?

ARONCZYK: Actual fire shoots up from the stage. Then out walks this woman. She's wearing a floor-length red ball gown. At the time, she had full lips, dark brown eyes and long, flowing black hair. She makes her pitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUJA IGNATOVA: OneCoin is easy to use. OneCoin is for everyone. Make payments everywhere, everyone, globally.

ARONCZYK: OneCoin spread using multilevel marketing tactics, where friends tell friends who tell friends about exciting new products to invest in.

LAYLA BEGUM ALI: I first heard about OneCoin in 2016, and that was through an introduction of a family friend who was very close to me.

ARONCZYK: Layla Begum Ali lives in London, and she's part of the Bangladeshi community there. This family friend invited her to a OneCoin networking event at a hotel.

BEGUM ALI: By going there, I saw so many other people, very professional-looking, lots of Muslims, lots of women like me.

ARONCZYK: And she thought, here are my people, talking about the second homes they'd bought, the money they'd made. So she invested her savings, around $70,000 worth. Within months, things did not seem right. On the OneCoin website, she couldn't see her investment. No one would answer her questions. She went back to the family friend.

BEGUM ALI: I started making noises and approaching him and saying, look, this is a scam. You need to give me my money back. That's my 20 years' life saving. Give me my money back.

ARONCZYK: But her money was gone, along with the investments of around a million other people. Author Jamie Bartlett calculates that only about 1- to 5% of the very top tier of the OneCoin scheme made any money. And the rest, the 95% of everybody else, they lost billions of dollars.

BARTLETT: The whole thing is essentially an old-fashioned pyramid scheme with a cryptocurrency cherry on the top.

ARONCZYK: OneCoin wasn't a cryptocurrency at all. It didn't even have a functioning blockchain. Since that was revealed, some of Ignatova's associates have been arrested, including her brother. But in 2017, Ruja Ignatova apparently got a lot of plastic surgery done. She boarded a flight from Bulgaria to Greece and disappeared, which is why the FBI has added her to their famous list. And they're offering $100,000 if you do happen to see her.

Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Aronczyk
Amanda Aronczyk (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in October 2019.