12 Nov 2019
With flames leaping from the stage, ear-splitting music pumping from loudspeakers and a screaming crowd, the sell-out event at London’s Wembley Arena seemed more like a rock concert than a financial sales conference.
But as Alicia Key’s Girl On Fire began to fade, an electrified silence swept across the auditorium and Dr Ruja Ignatova took to the stage dressed in a flowing silk ballgown, and with bright red lipstick and spectacular diamond drop earrings.
Then, with thousands of eyes locked on her, the glamorous German-Bulgarian began to spell out an extraordinary vision.
The future, she said, belonged to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which had made millions for some small investors and were free of rules, regulations and the costly fees of traditional banks.
True, Bitcoin was complex and cumbersome for ordinary people.
But Dr Ruja, as she styled herself, was offering a radical new alternative that warm June evening in 2016 – a perfectly safe cryptocurrency of her own devising called OneCoin.
The charismatic 36-year-old told the crowd that it was not too late to join a financial revolution that would become bigger than Bitcoin within just a couple of years.
She urged them to invest. And the audience lapped it up, as they did at similar events in Dubai, Macau and Singapore. OneCoin promoters were hard at work in seminars and computer chatrooms around the world, in fact, and the reward was spectacular.
By March 2017, more than £3.5 billion had been invested in the OneCoin system from 175 countries. It is thought around £100 million of that came from the UK.
Yet within just a few months, the mysterious Bulgarian would be a fugitive from the FBI, accused of conducting one of the biggest individual frauds in financial history.
Today, her victims number more than a million, many facing financial ruin. Dr Ruja, meanwhile, has vanished.
Just as promised, OneCoin was simple to understand. Investors could sign up to buy the currency which would then appear in their account.
Because more and more people would join, said Dr Ruja, the value of the currency would go up and, sure enough, early investors soon saw the value of their holdings rise.
One day very soon, these coins could be traded for real money, they were assured. And before long, shops and restaurants would accept OneCoin as payment too.
Supporters described Dr Ruja as the next Mark Zuckerberg. She was said to have an IQ of more than 200.
The Bulgarian was pictured on the cover of Forbes magazine, which specialises in wealthy individuals.
Social media was awash with pictures and clips of Dr Ruja, including a dazzling performance at a European conference organised by The Economist.
Blessed with a magnetic personality and good looks, she wielded a cult-like influence, according to disillusioned former followers.
Investors developed their own hand-sign – making an ‘O’ with the thumb and index finger – and referred to each other as ‘family’.
There was a life-size cardboard cut-out of Dr Ruja in the company’s office, which adoring staff used to touch as a ritual before making the OneCoin sign –until it eventually fell to pieces.
With interest rates at rock-bottom levels, the appeal of cryptocurrencies and the rapid gains they were making seemed obvious to ordinary savers. Where else could they put their money?
Early doubts were expressed about OneCoin in Finland, Sweden and Belgium, where the authorities issued investor warnings. Readers of specialist financial websites were told that OneCoin bore the hallmarks of a pyramid-selling scheme.
But such criticism did nothing to stop the money pouring in. Dr Ruja’s supporters dismissed the sceptics as ‘haters’, either afraid of the revolution or unable to comprehend it.
After all, what was there to doubt? OneCoin was going from strength to strength. There was still no sign of being able to sell OneCoin for dollars or pounds, but money was being made.
In 2016, when Dr Ruja spoke in London, plenty of people were making sizeable cash commissions by selling OneCoin to friends and family.
And how could Dr Ruja be anything other than trustworthy? She obtained a law degree from Oxford, followed by a stint working for McKinsey & Company, the respected global asset management firm.
The Bulgarian herself was reassuringly rich, throwing expensive parties on her luxury yacht moored in the Black Sea. She based herself in a rented penthouse in London’s Kensington, where she celebrated her 36th birthday.
A video posted on YouTube shows guests enjoying pink champagne, vodka and sushi at the V&A museum, where hundreds of revellers, all in ballgowns or black tie, danced to a live performance by Tom Jones.
By the autumn of 2017, the self-styled ‘cryptoqueen’ seemed unstoppable. But in October, she failed to appear at a OneCoin event in Portugal.
Frantic phone calls, emails and messages went unanswered. No one had heard anything at OneCoin’s head office in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.
And it was then, for the first time, that most of Dr Ruja’s millions of victims began to realise something was seriously wrong.
By Jamie Bartlett, The Mail on Sunday, 9 November 2019
Read more at The Mail on Sunday
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