Investigator who spent years hunting Cryptoqueen reveals his theory
Why I believe the Cryptoqueen fraudster who vanished with £3.3billion is hiding on a luxury yacht in the Med: BBC investigator who spent years hunting glamourous Bulgarian Ruja Ignatova reveals his theory as she becomes only woman on FBI’s most wanted list
- When she vanished in Athens in 2017, Ignatova was being hunted by international crime-fighting agencies
- In 2019 she was charged on five counts, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering
- And on Thursday, she was placed on the FBI’s ‘10 Most Wanted’ list – becoming the only woman on it
It is a mystery more perplexing than any airport thriller: how the woman behind one of the biggest and most blatant frauds in history could step off a plane in Greece and simply vanish. To those on the trail of Ruja Ignatova, the glamorous Bulgarian businesswoman known as the ‘Cryptoqueen’, it was as if she had simply disappeared into thin air – just like the £3.3 billion she stole from the estimated one million people worldwide who sunk money into OneCoin, her fake cryptocurrency.
When she vanished in Athens in 2017, Ignatova was being hunted by international crime-fighting agencies which said she had used OneCoin to pull off the financial scam of the century – a pyramid fraud matched only by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme for its scale and audacity.
In 2019 she was charged on five counts, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. And on Thursday, she was placed on the FBI’s ‘10 Most Wanted’ list – becoming the only woman on it – with a $100,000 (£83,000) reward on offer for any information leading to her arrest.
It is by far the biggest escalation in the case. Asked why the hunt has suddenly been stepped up, an FBI spokesman said: ‘We think the public is in the best position to provide information about her whereabouts and activities.’
While rumours abound, the truth is that, since that October morning five years ago, no one has known for sure where Ignatova has been – or even whether she is still alive.
To those on the trail of Ruja Ignatova, the glamorous Bulgarian businesswoman known as the ‘Cryptoqueen’, it was as if she had simply disappeared into thin air
My theory is that she is living the high life on board a private superyacht bobbing around in the Mediterranean
However, following my four-year international investigation with BBC producer Georgia Catt, the story of what happened to the missing Cryptoqueen can be pieced together for the first time.
Based on hundreds of sources, including insiders in the world of luxury yachts and penthouses that Ignatova inhabited, my theory is that she had been living in her native Bulgaria, then later Dubai, where she has been linked to a multi-million-pound mansion in a high-security complex.
And when the Gulf state, at first a welcoming haven, became too hot to handle, I believe Ignatova set off again – for international waters. My theory is that she is living the high life on board a private superyacht bobbing around in the Mediterranean.
NOT that you would recognise her from the infamous photo in the Bulgarian edition of Forbes magazine that lent her credibility as she lured in victims – including many in Britain – to OneCoin, billing it as a more user-friendly, and far more lucrative, alternative to Bitcoin.
For Ignatova, 42, is believed to have undergone plastic surgery to alter her appearance, as well as dyeing her dark hair blonde and losing weight. Having become mixed up with some rather unsavoury associates, including influential Russians and Bulgarian crime syndicates, there is, of course, the possibility that Ignatova is dead, dispatched in a hit job ordered by a disgruntled investor.
But multiple sightings – some as recently as last summer – suggest otherwise. Armed with a new face, a new name, and access to endless amounts of money, the astonishing theory is that the Cryptoqueen is floating on the high seas where no police force has the power to arrest her, while those who helped her get away with her scam face serious jail time.
On Thursday, she was placed on the FBI’s ‘10 Most Wanted’ list – becoming the only woman on it – with a $100,000 (£83,000) reward on offer for any information leading to her arrest
Ignatova was last seen publicly in 2017 after arriving incognito on the 7am Ryanair flight to Athens from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her escape plan had been hatched in advance, as she realised that the crypto empire she founded in 2014 was about to implode, having sold more than a billion fake coins.
By 2017, not only had investors started to ask questions about why OneCoin had no ‘blockchain’ computer technology that gave it a legitimacy as a trading currency, but the FBI was sniffing around what they suspected was a giant pyramid scheme based on smoke and mirrors. As the net closed in, colleagues found Ignatova increasingly nervous and unusually agitated. She started to juggle several mobile phones and became paranoid about being kidnapped by angry investors. One close friend recalls she was even afraid for her life.
Sensing one day her house of cards would collapse, Ignatova had already emailed her co-founder, Sebastian Greenwood, with a plan. ‘Exit strategy,’ she had written. ‘Take the money and run, and let someone else take the blame.’
In the first three years following Ignatova’s disappearance, Georgia and I travelled all over the world to track down the charismatic criminal. Our search took us to the OneCoin HQ in Sofia, to the Black Sea resort of Sozopol, where her £6 million yacht the Davina was anchored, and to Amsterdam, Scotland, Romania, Germany and Uganda. At first, our hunt was frustrating, blocked by false leads and dead ends. Ignatova was everywhere and nowhere; it was always rumour and speculation – and, infuriatingly, no one would go on the record.
Our task was made even harder because Ignatova had started having plastic surgery from 2015 and, by the time she absconded, looked very different to the woman who had set up OneCoin the previous year. A top London surgeon explained to us how someone with her vast wealth could easily buy new cheeks, a new jawline, a new nose and new lips. Although she would still be recognisable on close inspection, at a quick glance she could pass for anyone, he said.
For Ignatova, 42, is believed to have undergone plastic surgery to alter her appearance, as well as dyeing her dark hair blonde and losing weight
But gradually, Georgia and I were able to piece together Ignatova’s movements and, by late 2020, we had a ‘best guess’.
After she stepped off her Ryanair flight on October 25, 2017, she travelled to Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, where she part-owned a tobacco factory. Then, after a couple of days, she did the last thing anyone expected – doubled back and returned to her native Bulgaria.
One plausible theory is that a notorious Bulgarian drug smuggler, Hristoforos ‘Taki’ Amanatidis, aka ‘the Cocaine King’, helped arrange safe passage by car on a smuggling route between the two countries. However, the German police raid on OneCoin’s Sofia HQ in January 2018 persuaded her that Bulgaria was not the safe haven she thought it was. Over the next few months, sightings of Ignatova were reported multiple times in Dubai: in a luxury shopping mall, at a restaurant, and on a private yacht. Sources told us that Ignatova, who held a residency permit, was living quite openly in Dubai at that time.
She was confident that, even if the Germans or Americans did know where she was, the chances of extradition were practically zero. An Instagram post from early 2018 by her brother, Konstantin Ignatov, suggested she was lying low at a secretive Dubai mansion.
Forensic analysis of Konstantin’s social media selfie showed it had been taken in the back garden of an address in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers waterfront district.
This tallied with rumours we had heard that Ignatova owned a luxury home in the city inside a private compound, backed up by property documents that had been leaked on the dark web. In a later court appearance, her brother also mentioned a ‘Dubai mansion’ that cost around £4.5 million.
As further corroboration, the FBI later found a document on his laptop that had been signed by Ignatova at around the same time the photo had been taken, weeks after she had vanished.
Ignatova was last seen publicly in 2017 after arriving incognito on the 7am Ryanair flight to Athens from Sofia, Bulgaria
If it had been the UK, we would have staked the property out, monitored comings and goings and, in the end, simply knocked on the door. But you can’t show up in Dubai with a microphone and doorstep people. The UAE ranks 131st in the world for press freedom, and journalists who know the region told us wisely, but firmly, not to go.
If Ignatova was in cahoots with the authorities, they said, the police would find a trumped-up charge to arrest us before we cleared customs. Besides, a trip would be pointless given the compound’s large security detail.
But protection in Dubai is only temporary.
Back in 2015, as OneCoin was growing fast, Ignatova is alleged to have made a deal with an influential Emirati royal, Sheikh Saud bin Faisal al Qassimi for 230,000 Bitcoin in exchange for ownership of one of her companies. Representatives for the sheik dispute this, but it seems the relationship later soured.
One tantalising possibility is that the Dubai authorities threw Ignatova in prison the moment they saw her brother’s FBI arrest warrant in 2019, and she’s sitting there now while they decide whether it’s in their interests to extradite her.
Maybe she’s refusing to hand over the password for the Bitcoin – and that’s what keeps her useful.
That doesn’t rule out the secret Dubai mansion, but it makes the Gulf less likely to be the safe haven it was in 2018.
Sensing one day her house of cards would collapse, Ignatova had already emailed her co-founder, Sebastian Greenwood, with a plan. ‘Exit strategy,’ she had written
That left us with one final, incredible, possibility – that Ignatova has abandoned land altogether for a life at sea, on board a private yacht.
If you stay 12 nautical miles – about 13.8 miles – from a coastline, you are on the high seas. No country has jurisdiction over you and no police force has the legal authority to arrest you.
In early 2021, an anonymous source got in touch claiming that someone he knew had spotted Ignatova in 2019 on a boat in the Med. Then further sightings followed.
When private investigators visited top-end restaurants in Athens with photos of the missing Cryptoqueen, incredibly, staff in one said she had been there with an entourage that spring. Soon after, another well-placed source said she had been spotted more than once in summer 2019 near Saint-Tropez in France. They said she had been moored somewhere out at sea in a large yacht, occasionally visiting land by speedboat. Was it really possible she could be living at sea?
Her own yacht was still docked in Sozopol on the Black Sea and, to make a life on the waves, she would need access to another yacht that would cost at least £80,000 a week to rent. They are typically equipped with swimming pools, helicopter pads, speedboats, bars and chefs. That kind of life would only be possible if she was richer than anyone thought – and it’s possible she was.
Back in 2015, when Ignatova struck her alleged Bitcoin deal with Sheikh al Qassimi, those 230,000 Bitcoin were worth around £43 million.
By the time she vanished in 2017, the price of a single Bitcoin had rocketed, making that holding worth around £1 billion.
In the first three years following Ignatova’s disappearance, Georgia and I travelled all over the world to track down the charismatic criminal
Then in 2020, when the pandemic ground the world economy to a halt, it continued its stratospheric rise as Bitcoin exploded into the mainstream. By mid-2021, the price had rocketed so high that Ignatova’s 230,000 coins were worth almost £8 billion. Enough to make her one of the world’s richest criminals.
We tried to track her coins down on the Bitcoin blockchain – but it proved impossible. Perhaps she’d spent them years ago. But Ignatova, an Oxford University graduate with an IQ reputed to be more than 200, was too smart to move Bitcoin around in one or two chunks. So we asked Rob Byrne, an investigative journalist, to help us investigate the ‘Med boat’ theory. He posted several pictures of Ignatova on private Facebook groups that cater to yacht crew, asking if anyone recognised her – although adding that she might look a little different these days.
One day, he got a reply out of the blue. ‘Hi Rob. She is on the yacht I work on right now. Why are you looking for her?’
‘Hey,’ Rob replied. ‘Are you 100 per cent sure?’
‘Yes, she’s here, right now… she talk[s] about crypto all day… She use[s] three computers in her room but never in saloon.’
‘OK, whereabouts are you?’
‘We are in Greece right now. Anchored.’
‘If there is any way you can verify she’s on the boat, it would be really important. Or the boat name or where you are going next?’
‘I’m sorry I don’t want to get her into trouble.’
Our search took us to the OneCoin HQ in Sofia, to the Black Sea resort of Sozopol, where her £6 million yacht the Davina was anchored, and to Amsterdam, Scotland, Romania, Germany and Uganda
And then, like so often, the line went dead: the mysterious boat woman vanished.
The six-figure sum now on offer from the FBI for information about her whereabouts seems aimed not at the super-rich, in whose circles she once moved freely; but, rather, the entourage she depends on in exile. Could this sizeable reward – coupled with the promise of immunity from prosecution and the security of witness protection – be enough to persuade, say, a cook or a driver to finally blow her cover?
And new information that comes to light could flip everything on its head again. With Ignatova, anything is possible.
But the most plausible theory is also the most unbelievable. That as her countless victims who believed her promise of a financial revolution face ruin and heartbreak, the missing Cryptoqueen is floating somewhere on the high seas with access to endless amounts of this strange new form of money.
One possibility is that she’s trapped somehow – in exchange for her safety, she’s forced to use her cryptocurrency knowledge to help criminals move money around.
Either way, she returns to land periodically and carefully, meeting with close family and friends for dinner, where she reminisces about her crazy life. It’s risky – but so was everything she’s ever done.
And no one would look twice at the wealthy well-dressed woman as she hops on her speedboat and heads back out to sea.
She could be anyone.
© Jamie Bartlett, 2022
- The Missing Cryptoqueen by Jamie Bartlett is published by WH Allen, priced £16.99. To order a copy for £15.29, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before July 10. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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