A Bulgaria-born super-ambitious shrewd businesswoman who loves her flowy gowns, jewels and bright red lipstick, scams people, rich and poor, of billions of dollars, only to disappear into thin air as soon as law agencies narrow their claws. This makes for a perfect premise for an intriguing crime thriller. Only, in this case, the woman is real, and so are the thousands, spread across a hundred countries, she ended up scamming to build a fortune worth billions of dollars.
And how she pulled off the con, one of the biggest in the world and probably still running, is the premise of journalist-writer Jamie Bartlett’s latest book The Missing Cryptoqueen. Bulgarian-German Ruja Ignatova boasted of a remarkable resume, including an education from Oxford and a stint at McKinsey & Co. However, in her quest of “making change-your-life money”, she stumbled upon cryptocurrencies and by extension, Bitcoin. And in 2014, without any technical know-how whatsoever, she came up with OneCoin, the ‘Bitcoin Killer’. OneCoin was everything Bitcoin was not, given it did not even have a blockchain, the technology that enables the existence of cryptocurrencies. The “killer fact” is that “a billion-dollar cryptocurrency without a blockchain is impossible,” as the writer put it.
This rendered OneCoins literally worthless from the beginning. So what Ignatova was selling was literally nothing from the very beginning. Still, in revenue, “what took Facebook six years, OneCoin had managed in 15 months”.
If a fake cryptocurrency was not enough, here is where a second scam came into play: a pyramid. People paid to join the OneCoin programme and were promised commissions to recruit others. Such profound were the promises that people from the UK, Bulgaria, and the UAE to China, southeast Asia, and Uganda went all out to invest in OneCoin, in a quest to earn big.
The company was a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid scheme and fake crypto, all boiled into one. So why did people turn a blind eye to the several red flags? Apart from earning some quick bucks, it was also FOMO or fear of missing out. “They’d missed out on Bitcoin and didn’t want to miss out a second time,” writes Bartlett. To keep up the enthusiasm, the company announces a bigger blockchain, even though none existed at all in the first place, announces IPO several times but never goes public, and the creator of this all buys ads in top business magazines only to popularise it as a token of her success.
The first 20 of the 35 chapters in the book deal with Ignatova’s and her fake crypto’s meteoric rise. Insight into her personal life along with that of her associates and notable OneCoin investors adds flair to the story. The fiction kind of writing style enhances the overall read. Some parts can feel dragging and repetitive at times. However, one must give it to Bartlett who spent about three years researching and travelling through much of the world to piece together this multi-billion dollar scam until it started to make sense.
The book largely gains momentum in the second half when things start to unravel, as the top law enforcement agencies in the world start pursuing her case. But before they could get to her, she vanished in thin air, to Dubai, to Greece, who knows?
She somehow had contemplated the end and devised an “exit strategy” at the start to “take the money and run and blame someone else”. Only the person here who ended up taking the blame was Ignatova’s younger brother Konstantin, who was arrested and pleaded guilty to several charges before a court in New York.
Here, too, the sneak peeks into Ignatova’s life add depth, especially the one concerning her boyfriend who ends up cooperating with the FBI and eventually leads to her disappearance.
The writing is smooth and intriguing. With the fiction-kind writing style that the writer adopts, some parts read like a crime thriller, which keeps you hooked till the end. However, some parts can be difficult especially for those not well-versed with the tech and business part of things, although the writer goes to great lengths to explain each tiny nuance.
The writer efficiently builds the momentum by charting OneCoin’s rise until its eventual fall like a pack of cards, and you do not feel that any pieces of the puzzle are missing, apart from the cryptoqueen herself.
So where is Ruja Ignatova? Towards the closing of the book, the writer delves into that too. Her disappearance trail takes one through Greece, Bulgaria, Dubai, and the Mediterranean Sea which is under no man’s jurisdiction. However, it is just a possibility with no clear trail of her whereabouts. She even used plastic surgery to change her appearance over the years. “Cryptoqueen is floating somewhere on the high seas with a new name, a new face, and access to endless amounts of this strange new form of money,” Bartlett writes.
In the end, one cannot help but feel disgusted at what she pulled off, while marvelling at her ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude. One must also give it to Bartlett for popularising the case worldwide first through his podcast with BBC and now this book.
The Missing Cryptoqueen
Penguin Random House
Pp 320, Rs 799