There was a time when Dr Ruja Ignatova was like a rock star, with fans flocking to Wembley Arena to hear her talk about OneCoin, her cryptocurrency she said would kill Bitcoin.
Known as the Cryptoqueen, she’s now on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, accused of defrauding billions of dollars out of unsuspecting investors all over the world, including New Zealand.
By the time the FBI sent out its notice, the case had taken over Bartlett’s life for four years, he tells Jesse Mulligan.
“I suspect there’s two possibilities in my mind. One is that the FBI is basically all out of ideas. They’ve kind of run out of options. The leads have gone dead and they have decided to throw it open to the public.
“But they’ve offered $100,000 for information that could lead to her arrest, and I think that’s smart because I think it’s targeted at her let’s say driver, her bodyguard, her cook, the people that she’s with.
“The other option is they know exactly where she’s holed up in some mansion in Dubai or in Russia or something like that and they’re just basically trying to lean on the government to extradite her, you know, political pressure, let’s put it that way.”
He and his producer Georgia Catt first started digging into the story when a friend of his friend pitched OneCoin as an investment opportunity.
They found out Ignatova is an Oxford graduate, who was noted as being incredibly clever, and worked at a top consulting law firm.
“Then around 2012, I think she’s motivated by this desire to be rich, to be successful,” Bartlett says.
“She’s always the smartest person in the room, and yet she isn’t a massively wealthy person and she hears about Bitcoin and thinks this is it, this is my chance.
“[She] tells the world she’s created the next Bitcoin, the next crypto that’s going to make everyone rich, it’s the future of money, it’s going to go up in value just like Bitcoin has been doing.”
By 2016, about a million people in 175 countries, including New Zealand, had invested close to €4 billion in OneCoin, he says.
“The whole thing is essentially fabricated. There’s no real technology behind it. The price of the coins, that she’s been telling people they have, is all made-up by her.”
Like Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, there was great excitement that a woman was climbing the ranks in a male-dominated world, he says.
“Some investors, I think, were really taken in by that, they were really inspired by it all.
“It definitely helped her, but that is also an indictment maybe on the industry, because if it hadn’t been so male dominated, maybe she wouldn’t have been able to sort of sneak through and avoid the scrutiny.”
Some people were also swept up in the supposed financial revolution that this could bring about and genuinely believed this was the next Bitcoin, he says.
“She was saying that Bitcoin was complicated, it was for tech nerds but this is for normal people, ordinary people like you, so she was targeting people that didn’t really understand crypto.
“Although these weren’t sophisticated investors and most real crypto specialists knew something was up, they were driven by the same thing that a lot of us are driven by, which is this irrational behavior that comes when you fear that someone else is getting quite rich and you are not.”
In 2019, Ignatova disappeared with at least $500 million and the façade fell to unveil an old-fashioned pyramid scheme, he says.
“This truly is Hollywood stuff. She’s married but she has an affair with someone that was running some of her money – a financier called Gilbert Armenta, an American guy who says to her that he’s going to leave his wife and shack up with her.
“But she doesn’t really believe him. So she pays for someone to bug his apartment, but while bugging the apartment she learns that he in fact may be working for the FBI, and that they might be on to her.”
The FBI had also sent out a sealed indictment to get Bulgarian authorities to arrest her, he says.
“Rumors are that she was paying off a Bulgarian government official, she learns about this and within a few days … she leaves with just a purse and a passport and a bodyguard. And she boards a Ryanair flight, sort of budget airline flight, from Bulgaria to Greece and then vanishes.”
He believes it’s quite likely she has radically altered her appearance now with blonde hair and lots of plastic surgery, as one source told him.
“We went to a OneCoin event, a huge OneCoin beauty pageant event in Romania, pretty scary actually, and one well-placed source told us that she was there in the room, watching us, looking totally different, we never would have known or recognized her, but she was there.”
It’s not just the FBI on her case, angry investors are involved too, he says.
“She dropped [her brother] right in it; he was just a guy who liked going on Instagram and working out in the gym and she made him become her PA and then boss of the company and now he’s basically found himself in the US in prison for running this thing.
“I mean the Hells Angels pulled a gun on him, demanding money back.”
Despite all the indictments and admissions of people involved, there are still some investors who believe in OneCoin, he says.
“It was very hard for people who invested, and it still is today, to admit what had happened because the nature of the scam is that people would buy the OneCoin and then they would recruit their friends and family.
“So to admit that this is a scam, you’re also admitting that you have scanned your nearest and dearest and there’s a shame and embarrassment to that, of course.
“And I think that’s one reason why so many people still believe, because they just can’t admit what they’ve done.”