Why I imagine Cryptoqueen fraudster who vanished with £3.3billion is hiding on luxurious yacht in Med

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It’s a thriller extra perplexing than any airport thriller: how the lady behind one of many greatest and most blatant frauds in historical past may step off a aircraft in Greece and easily vanish. To these on the path of Ruja Ignatova, the glamorous Bulgarian businesswoman generally known as the ‘Cryptoqueen’, it was as if she had merely disappeared into skinny air – identical to the £3.3 billion she stole from the estimated a million folks worldwide who sunk cash into OneCoin, her pretend cryptocurrency.

When she vanished in Athens in 2017, Ignatova was being hunted by worldwide crime-fighting companies which mentioned she had used OneCoin to tug off the monetary rip-off of the century – a pyramid fraud matched solely by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme for its scale and audacity.

In 2019 she was charged on 5 counts, together with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and cash laundering. And on Thursday, she was positioned on the FBI’s ‘10 Most Wished’ listing – changing into the one girl on it – with a $100,000 (£83,000) reward on supply for any info resulting in her arrest.

It’s by far the largest escalation within the case. Requested why the hunt has all of the sudden been stepped up, an FBI spokesman mentioned: ‘We predict the general public is in the very best place to offer details about her whereabouts and actions.’

Whereas rumours abound, the reality is that, since that October morning 5 years in the past, nobody has identified for positive the place Ignatova has been – and even whether or not she continues to be alive.

To these on the path of Ruja Ignatova, the glamorous Bulgarian businesswoman generally known as the ‘Cryptoqueen’, it was as if she had merely disappeared into skinny air

My theory is that she is living the high life on board a private superyacht bobbing around in the Mediterranean

My idea is that she resides the excessive life on board a non-public superyacht bobbing round within the Mediterranean

Nonetheless, following my four-year worldwide investigation with BBC producer Georgia Catt, the story of what occurred to the lacking Cryptoqueen could be pieced collectively for the primary time.

Primarily based on lots of of sources, together with insiders on the earth of luxurious yachts and penthouses that Ignatova inhabited, my idea is that she had been dwelling in her native Bulgaria, then later Dubai, the place she has been linked to a multi-million-pound mansion in a high-security advanced.

And when the Gulf state, at first a welcoming haven, grew to become too scorching to deal with, I imagine Ignatova set off once more – for worldwide waters. My idea is that she resides the excessive life on board a non-public superyacht bobbing round within the Mediterranean.

NOT that you’d recognise her from the notorious photograph within the Bulgarian version of Forbes journal that lent her credibility as she lured in victims – together with many in Britain – to OneCoin, billing it as a extra user-friendly, and way more profitable, various to Bitcoin.

For Ignatova, 42, is believed to have undergone cosmetic surgery to change her look, in addition to dyeing her darkish hair blonde and dropping pounds. Having turn into combined up with some fairly unsavoury associates, together with influential Russians and Bulgarian crime syndicates, there’s, after all, the chance that Ignatova is lifeless, dispatched in successful job ordered by a disgruntled investor.

However a number of sightings – some as not too long ago as final summer season – counsel in any other case. Armed with a brand new face, a brand new identify, and entry to countless quantities of cash, the astonishing idea is that the Cryptoqueen is floating on the excessive seas the place no police drive has the facility to arrest her, whereas those that helped her get away along with her rip-off face critical jail time.

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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

On Thursday, she was positioned on the FBI’s ‘10 Most Wished’ listing – changing into the one girl on it – with a $100,000 (£83,000) reward on supply for any info resulting in her arrest

Ignatova was final seen publicly in 2017 after arriving incognito on the 7am Ryanair flight to Athens from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her escape plan had been hatched upfront, as she realised that the crypto empire she based in 2014 was about to implode, having offered greater than a billion pretend cash.

By 2017, not solely had buyers began to ask questions on why OneCoin had no ‘blockchain’ pc expertise that gave it a legitimacy as a buying and selling forex, however the FBI was sniffing round what they suspected was a large pyramid scheme primarily based on smoke and mirrors. As the web closed in, colleagues discovered Ignatova more and more nervous and unusually agitated. She began to juggle a number of cellphones and have become paranoid about being kidnapped by indignant buyers. One shut good friend recollects she was even afraid for her life.

Sensing in the future her home of playing cards would collapse, Ignatova had already emailed her co-founder, Sebastian Greenwood, with a plan. ‘Exit technique,’ she had written. ‘Take the cash and run, and let another person take the blame.’

Within the first three years following Ignatova’s disappearance, Georgia and I travelled all around the world to trace down the charismatic prison. Our search took us to the OneCoin HQ in Sofia, to the Black Sea resort of Sozopol, the place her £6 million yacht the Davina was anchored, and to Amsterdam, Scotland, Romania, Germany and Uganda. At first, our hunt was irritating, blocked by false leads and lifeless ends. Ignatova was all over the place and nowhere; it was all the time hearsay and hypothesis – and, infuriatingly, nobody would go on the document.

Our process was made even tougher as a result of Ignatova had began having cosmetic surgery from 2015 and, by the point she absconded, appeared very completely different to the lady who had arrange OneCoin the earlier 12 months. A high London surgeon defined to us how somebody along with her huge wealth may simply purchase new cheeks, a brand new jawline, a brand new nostril and new lips. Though she would nonetheless be recognisable on shut inspection, at a fast look she may go for anybody, he mentioned.

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

For Ignatova, 42, is believed to have undergone cosmetic surgery to change her look, in addition to dyeing her darkish hair blonde and dropping pounds

However step by step, Georgia and I have been capable of piece collectively Ignatova’s actions and, by late 2020, we had a ‘finest guess’.

After she stepped off her Ryanair flight on October 25, 2017, she travelled to Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, the place she part-owned a tobacco manufacturing unit. Then, after a few days, she did the very last thing anybody anticipated – doubled again and returned to her native Bulgaria.

One believable idea is {that a} infamous Bulgarian drug smuggler, Hristoforos ‘Taki’ Amanatidis, aka ‘the Cocaine King’, helped organize secure passage by automobile on a smuggling route between the 2 nations. Nonetheless, the German police raid on OneCoin’s Sofia HQ in January 2018 persuaded her that Bulgaria was not the secure haven she thought it was. Over the subsequent few months, sightings of Ignatova have been reported a number of occasions in Dubai: in a luxurious shopping center, at a restaurant, and on a non-public yacht. Sources instructed us that Ignatova, who held a residency allow, was dwelling fairly brazenly in Dubai at the moment.

She was assured that, even when the Germans or People did know the place she was, the probabilities of extradition have been virtually zero. An Instagram publish from early 2018 by her brother, Konstantin Ignatov, advised she was mendacity low at a secretive Dubai mansion.

Forensic evaluation of Konstantin’s social media selfie confirmed it had been taken within the again backyard of an handle in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers waterfront district.

This tallied with rumours we had heard that Ignatova owned a luxurious dwelling within the metropolis inside a non-public compound, backed up by property paperwork that had been leaked on the darkish internet. In a later court docket look, her brother additionally talked about a ‘Dubai mansion’ that price round £4.5 million.

As additional corroboration, the FBI later discovered a doc on his laptop computer that had been signed by Ignatova at across the identical time the photograph 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

Ignatova was final seen publicly in 2017 after arriving incognito on the 7am Ryanair flight to Athens from Sofia, Bulgaria

If it had been the UK, we might have staked the property out, monitored comings and goings and, in the long run, merely knocked on the door. However you possibly can’t present up in Dubai with a microphone and doorstep folks. The UAE ranks 131st on the earth for press freedom, and journalists who know the area instructed us correctly, however firmly, to not go.

If Ignatova was in cahoots with the authorities, they mentioned, the police would discover a trumped-up cost to arrest us earlier than we cleared customs. In addition to, a visit could be pointless given the compound’s massive safety element.

However safety in Dubai is barely short-term.

Again in 2015, as OneCoin was rising quick, Ignatova is alleged to have made a cope with an influential Emirati royal, Sheikh Saud bin Faisal al Qassimi for 230,000 Bitcoin in alternate for possession of one in all her firms. Representatives for the sheik dispute this, however it appears the connection later soured.

One tantalising chance is that the Dubai authorities threw Ignatova in jail the second they noticed her brother’s FBI arrest warrant in 2019, and he or she’s sitting there now whereas they determine whether or not it’s of their pursuits to extradite her.

Possibly she’s refusing at hand over the password for the Bitcoin – and that’s what retains her helpful.

That doesn’t rule out the key Dubai mansion, however it makes the Gulf much less more likely to be the secure 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

Sensing in the future her home of playing cards would collapse, Ignatova had already emailed her co-founder, Sebastian Greenwood, with a plan. ‘Exit technique,’ she had written

That left us with one closing, unimaginable, chance – that Ignatova has deserted land altogether for a life at sea, on board a non-public yacht.

In the event you keep 12 nautical miles – about 13.8 miles – from a shoreline, you might be on the excessive seas. No nation has jurisdiction over you and no police drive has the authorized authority to arrest you.

In early 2021, an nameless supply acquired in contact claiming that somebody he knew had noticed Ignatova in 2019 on a ship within the Med. Then additional sightings adopted.

When non-public investigators visited top-end eating places in Athens with photographs of the lacking Cryptoqueen, extremely, employees in a single mentioned she had been there with an entourage that spring. Quickly after, one other well-placed supply mentioned she had been noticed greater than as soon as in summer season 2019 close to Saint-Tropez in France. They mentioned she had been moored someplace out at sea in a big yacht, often visiting land by speedboat. Was it actually attainable she could possibly be dwelling at sea?

Her personal yacht was nonetheless docked in Sozopol on the Black Sea and, to make a life on the waves, she would want entry to a different yacht that might price not less than £80,000 every week to lease. They’re sometimes geared up with swimming swimming pools, helicopter pads, speedboats, bars and cooks. That form of life would solely be attainable if she was richer than anybody thought – and it’s attainable she was.

Again in 2015, when Ignatova struck her alleged Bitcoin cope with Sheikh al Qassimi, these 230,000 Bitcoin have been price round £43 million.

By the point she vanished in 2017, the value of a single Bitcoin had rocketed, making that holding price round £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

Within the first three years following Ignatova’s disappearance, Georgia and I travelled all around the world to trace down the charismatic prison

Then in 2020, when the pandemic floor the world economic system to a halt, it continued its stratospheric rise as Bitcoin exploded into the mainstream. By mid-2021, the value had rocketed so excessive that Ignatova’s 230,000 cash have been price virtually £8 billion. Sufficient to make her one of many world’s richest criminals.

We tried to trace her cash down on the Bitcoin blockchain – however it proved inconceivable. Maybe she’d spent them years in the past. However Ignatova, an Oxford College graduate with an IQ reputed to be greater than 200, was too good to maneuver Bitcoin round in a single or two chunks. So we requested Rob Byrne, an investigative journalist, to assist us examine the ‘Med boat’ idea. He posted a number of footage of Ignatova on non-public Fb teams that cater to yacht crew, asking if anybody recognised her – though including that she would possibly look slightly completely different as of late.

Sooner or later, he acquired a reply out of the blue. ‘Hello Rob. She is on the yacht I work on proper now. Why are you searching for her?’

‘Hey,’ Rob replied. ‘Are you 100 per cent positive?’

‘Sure, she’s right here, proper now… she discuss[s] about crypto all day… She use[s] three computer systems in her room however by no means in saloon.’

‘OK, whereabouts are you?’

‘We’re in Greece proper now. Anchored.’

‘If there’s any means you possibly can confirm she’s on the boat, it will be actually vital. Or the boat identify or the place you’re going subsequent?’

‘I’m sorry I don’t wish to get her into hassle.’

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

Our search took us to the OneCoin HQ in Sofia, to the Black Sea resort of Sozopol, the place her £6 million yacht the Davina was anchored, and to Amsterdam, Scotland, Romania, Germany and Uganda

After which, like so typically, the road went lifeless: the mysterious boat girl vanished.

The six-figure sum now on supply from the FBI for details about her whereabouts appears aimed not on the super-rich, in whose circles she as soon as moved freely; however, fairly, the entourage she relies on in exile. May this sizeable reward – coupled with the promise of immunity from prosecution and the safety of witness safety – be sufficient to steer, say, a cook dinner or a driver to lastly blow her cowl?

And new info that involves mild may flip all the things on its head once more. With Ignatova, something is feasible.

However essentially the most believable idea can be essentially the most unbelievable. That as her numerous victims who believed her promise of a monetary revolution face break and heartbreak, the lacking Cryptoqueen is floating someplace on the excessive seas with entry to countless quantities of this unusual new type of cash.

One chance is that she’s trapped by some means – in alternate for her security, she’s pressured to make use of her cryptocurrency information to assist criminals transfer cash round.

Both means, she returns to land periodically and thoroughly, assembly with shut household and buddies for dinner, the place she reminisces about her loopy life. It’s dangerous – however so was all the things she’s ever executed.

And nobody would look twice on the rich well-dressed girl as she hops on her speedboat and heads again out to sea.

She could possibly be anybody.

© Jamie Bartlett, 2022

  • The Lacking Cryptoqueen by Jamie Bartlett is revealed by WH Allen, priced £16.99. To order a duplicate for £15.29, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or name 020 3176 2937 earlier than July 10. Free UK supply on orders over £20.
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