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Ruja Ignatova called herself the Cryptoqueen. She told people she had invented a cryptocurrency to rival Bitcoin, and persuaded them to invest billions. Then, two years ago, she disappeared.
Jamie Bartlett spent months investigating how she did it for the Missing Cryptoqueen podcast and trying to figure out where she’s hiding. In early June 2016, a 36-year-old businesswoman called Dr. Ruja Ignatova walked on stage at Wembley Arena in front of thousands of adoring fans. She was dressed, as usual, in an expensive ballgown, wearing long diamond earrings and bright red lipstick.
She told the cheering crowd that OneCoin was on course to become the world’s biggest cryptocurrency “for everyone to make payments everywhere”. Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency and is still the biggest and best-known – its rise in value from a few cents to hundreds of dollars per coin by mid-2016 had given rise to a frenzy of excitement among investors. Cryptocurrency as an idea was just entering the mainstream. Lots of people were looking to get involved in this strange new opportunity.
OneCoin, Dr Ruja told the Wembley audience, was the “Bitcoin Killer”. “In two years, nobody will speak about Bitcoin anymore!” she shouted.
All over the world, people were already investing their savings into OneCoin, hoping to be part of this new revolution. 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 – and the rate of investment could have increased after the Wembley extravaganza. Between August 2014 and March 2017 more than €4bn was invested in dozens of countries. From Pakistan to Brazil, from Hong Kong to Norway, from Canada to Yemen… even Palestine.By the time the webinar had finished she had decided to invest €1,000. It was easy: you purchased OneCoin tokens, and these then generated coins, which went into your account. One day soon, she was told, she would be able to turn these coins back into euros or pounds. It seemed like easy money. Maybe €1,000 wasn’t enough? The promoters said it was the larger packages that were really life-changing. The smallest package cost €140, but they went all the way up to €118,000. One week later McAdam bought a “tycoon” package, for €5,000.
Before long, she had invested €10,000 of her own money – and persuaded friends and family to invest €250,000 of theirs. She watched excitedly on the OneCoin website as the value of her coins steadily rose. Before too long they had passed £100,000 – a 10-fold return. She started planning holidays and shopping trips.
Although Jen McAdam had now seen the light, few other OneCoin investors had. Dr Ruja was still traveling the world to sell her vision – hopping from Macau to Dubai to Singapore, filling out arenas, pulling in new investors. OneCoin was still growing fast, and Dr Ruja was starting to spend her new fortune: buying multi-million-dollar properties in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and the Black Sea resort of Sozopol. In her downtime, she would throw parties on her luxurious yacht.
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