The Missing Cryptoqueen: Hundreds of Countries. Billions of Dollars. One Lie Jamie Bartlett Penguin €16.99
Cryptocurrencies are generating headlines at the moment because they are crashing. The value of Bitcoin, the best known cryptocurrency, has fallen from a high of $68,000 per coin last year to $20,000 earlier this month.
This book tells the tale of another, lesser-known cryptocurrency, OneCoin. However volatile Bitcoin may be, it is built on novel and sophisticated technology called blockchain. OneCoin, in contrast, was based on something simpler but much more terrifying – thin air.
The founder of OneCoin was a Bulgarian woman in her thirties called Dr Ruja Ignatova; a flamboyant figure, whose face was routinely adorned by dark red lipstick and framed by jet-black hair.
She had incredible credentials and a perfect bio: Ignatova was a former McKinsey consultant who held a Master’s in law from Oxford and a PhD from Germany’s University of Konstanz. An expert in self-presentation, she became a darling of the conference circuit.
Close watchers of the woman later known as the ‘cryptoqueen’ noticed that her look changed over time, from fresh-faced enthusiast to glamour mag seductress (a transition aided by plastic surgery, they say).
Just as Bitcoin’s value increased – by eight billion per cent between 2010 and 2021, according to one financial website – so did that of OneCoin, and at an even giddier rate.
Ignatova acquired an army of salespeople who earned commission on every OneCoin sold. The business created thousands of millionaires – on paper.
The catch? Those OneCoins could not be exchanged for real cash. The company repeatedly claimed investors would be able to translate their funds into standard currency “really soon”.
And the famous blockchain technology – a complex piece of coding that underpins the security of Bitcoin? Despite the statements of the currency’s founders, a OneCoin blockchain did not exist.
The reality was that few people understood what a blockchain was or how it worked. As long as things went smoothly, such technical details seemed irrelevant.
This book recounts the genesis of one of the greatest financial scandals since Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. It was a roller-coaster ride that fed upon the growing interest in cryptocurrencies – money held in the ether far away from governmental control – and people’s fear of missing out on a good thing.
Jamie Bartlett, author of several books on cryptocurrency and the dark web, races through this compelling tale of corruption, ambition and intrigue.
He presented a podcast called The Missing Cryptoqueen, a popular BBC series, in 2019. In this account, Bartlett attempts to find an ending to the story, recounting the verdicts of various court cases relating to OneCoin, which were held in Germany and the US.
For some reason the tales of investors do not feature in as much depth as on the podcast, where the recorded voices of people who put all their savings into OneCoin, and encouraged their loved ones to do so as well, were poignant evidence of the scam’s real impact.
That’s what made OneCoin different from Madoff’s get-rich scheme, which catered mainly to upper middle-class people who wanted higher returns on their investments. With OneCoin, the people at the top made millions, and sometimes billions; those on the bottom who lost out were ordinary and even poor. The currency took off in China, in Pakistan and Uganda, as across the world unlucky individuals invested their hard-earned savings.
One Chinese man had received a million yuan in compensation after being wrongfully jailed for 23 years; he put the entire amount into OneCoin. A Pakistani man tried to sell his kidney for OneCoin.
Such loss was not Ignatova’s fate, however. She lodged her own wealth in an array of labyrinthine financial instruments, often registered under other people’s names.
Incidentally, Ireland played a glancing role in these arrangements as Ignatova invested in struggling European tech firms, “mostly in the UK and Ireland”. In 2017, her investment fund sent €185m to accounts in Dubai, “via the Bank of Ireland” Bartlett says.
What’s most shocking about the rise and fall of OneCoin is the fact that, according to Bartlett, it is still being traded. And although some members of her team are in prison, Ignatova herself disappeared without trace, owing her investors something in the region of €100bn — possibly supported by her extensive network of criminal contacts.
“The uncomfortable truth is that hundreds of criminals evade justice every year and go on the run just like Ruja,” Bartlett writes. “Some vanish to faraway countries, while others take up new identities and fade into obscurity closer to home.”
For would-be investors and crypto-enthusiasts, The Missing Cryptoqueen is a cautionary tale, but not for Ignatova herself. She sits alongside Madoff, and Theranos’ founder Elizabeth Holmes, as one of the arch scamsters of our age.
The difference is that she got away with it, and although her whereabouts are unknown, she may be whiling away her days (Bartlett hypothesises) on a lavish yacht, luxuriously sailing the high seas.