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.”
“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 Arena 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.