“Missing Cryptoqueen” hits the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list

Security

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) famously maintains a Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Currently, nine of them are men, suspected of 22 different offences between them:

  • Accessory After the Fact
  • Aiding and Abetting
  • Armed Robbery
  • Cocaine Importation Conspiracy
  • Conspiracy to Commit Murder-for-Hire
  • Conspiracy to Commit Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering
  • Conspiracy to Kidnap a Federal Agent
  • Conspiracy to Possess Machine Guns
  • Dangerous Weapon with Intent to Injure
  • Felony Murder of a Federal Agent
  • First Degree Assault
  • First Degree Murder
  • Interstate Stalking
  • Kidnapping
  • Kidnapping of a Federal Agent
  • Murder
  • Possession of Machine Guns
  • Racketeering Conspiracy
  • Second Degree Assault
  • Second Degree Murder
  • Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution
  • Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering

One of them, however, newly added and the only woman on the list, breaks the mould.

She’s wanted for:

  • Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering
  • Conspiracy to Commit Securities Fraud
  • Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud
  • Securities Fraud
  • Wire Fraud

According to the FBI, Ruja Ignatova, widely known as the Cryptoqueen, and famously dubbed the “Missing Cryptoqueen” by the makers of a popular BBC podcast series:

…is wanted for her alleged participation in a large-scale fraud scheme. Beginning in approximately 2014, Ignatova and others are alleged to have defrauded billions of dollars from investors all over the world. Ignatova was the founder of OneCoin Ltd., a Bulgaria-based company that marketed a purported cryptocurrency. In order to execute the scheme, Ignatova allegedly made false statements and representations to individuals in order to solicit investments in OneCoin. She allegedly instructed victims to transmit investment funds to OneCoin accounts in order to purchase OneCoin packages, causing victims to send wire transfers representing these investments. Throughout the scheme, OneCoin is believed to have defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion.

Do not adjust your screen

You read that correctly.

OneCoin, supposedly a BitCoin-like cryptocurrency, is said to have attracted more than $4,000,000,000 that was paid in by investors who were seduced by the chance of getting in on the ground floor of another Bitcoin-like value surge.

For all that the media is currently full of “Bitcoin and its crypto-friends are in meltdown” stories, anyone who still has a bunch of bitcoins left over from the early 2010s is nevertheless sitting on a fortune.

Back in 2010, for example, a user going by the name SmokeTooMuch allegedly owned 10,000 bitcoins.

If SmokeTooMuch never did sell those coins, and still has them today, he would have lost close to half-a-BILLION dollars between November 2021 and today, given that Bitcoin has lost more than two-thirds if its value in the past eight months.

But he’d still be worth close to $200 million, given that BTC 1 is currently worth about $19,000. [2022-07-01T15:40Z]

Yet when he tried to sell those bitcoins back in 2010, he wanted $50 for them, thus valuing them at just half a US cent each, but couldn’t find a buyer willing to meet his price.

Heck, bitcoins could plunge to as low as $100 each, and someone with BTC 10,000 that they’d held onto from the early days, when they were worth fractions of a cent each, would, on paper at least, still be a millionaire.

In on the ground floor

With stories like that doing the rounds, you can see why many people are desperate to buy into new cryptocurrency schemes, despite the regular and dispiriting stories of cryptocoin schemes that failed completely, costing their investors everything they’d paid in.

Cryptocurrencies scammers have even found credible ways to trick iPhone users into installing unofficial “test” apps, which aren’t vetted by Apple as keenly as software in the App Store itself.

The crooks seek you out on social network sites, notably on dating sites, work their way into a friendly relationship with you, and then pitch the fact that the app is still “in beta” as evidence that they’re giving you a “unique” chance to get in right at the start.

When everyone else joins the club, and the value of their “cryptocurrency” really takes off, then everyone is going to make lots of money, they’ll tell you…

…but those who got in really early will be extra-super-duper rich, just like the people who were into Bitcoin when it first began.

Thus the scammers lure you into trusting an app that looks just like a trading app; that accepts your deposits just like a trading the app; and that shows you the value of your “investment” steadily rising.

You may get regular “deposits” added to your account under the guise of dividends, bonuses and interest payments, and the crooks may offer you the chance to bring your close friends and family in on the “deal”, perhaps with a “commission” you can “earn” for doing so.

You may even be able to cash out modest amounts of your “investment” along the way, or get “payouts” and “spot bonuses” in a cash form, intended to convince you that the system is genuine, and not just a one-way street that never pays out.

In reality, those “payouts” come either from the money you’ve already put in yourself, or from the funds paid in by victims who joined after you.

That sort of scam is known to this day as a Ponzi scheme, after an early perpetrator of the scam called Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi, better known as Charles.

All a pack of lies

Sadly, the whole thing is a pack of lies, as you’ll find if you decide to cash out your “investment”.

What happens next depends on the scammers, but typical outcomes include:

  • The crooks pretend to initiate a withdrawal, to allay your suspicions, only to convince you to “reinvest” because of a fantastic new development that they urge you to hang around for.
  • The crooks pay you back some of your funds, typically keeping 25%, claiming that it’s a compulsory government witholding tax or some other regulatory necessity that’s beyond their control.
  • You never hear from them again.

Missing Cryptoqueen

The Missing Cryptoqueen is accused of running a scam along those sort of lines, albeit without an iPhone app, allegedly operating what the FBI refers to above as “a purported cryptocurrency”.

The reward for information leading to her arrest is listed as “up to $100,000”.

Some of the henchpeople in the OneCoin crew have already been convicted of scam-related offences, including Mark Scott, a former equity partner at the law firm Locke Lord LLP, who was convicted in Manhattan Federal Court in 2019 for laundering about $400 million out of the scheme.

And Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin Ignatov, who allegedly took over the reins of the OneCoin empire when his sister dropped out of sight in 2017, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in March 2019, and subsequently admitted guilt on money-laundering and fraud charges.

What to do?

  • Beware any online schemes that make promises that a properly regulated investment would not be allowed to do. Investment regulations generally exist to keep the lid on wild and unachievable claims, so be sceptical of any scheme that sets out to sidestep that sort of control and expects you to invest without any regulatory protection at all.
  • Don’t be taken in by cryptocoin jargon and a smart-looking website or app. Anyone can set up a believable-looking website or build an app to show what look like upbeat real-time graphs and online comments that seem to be awash with upvotes and positivity. Open source website and blogging tools make it cheap and easy to create professional-looking content. But those tools can’t stop a crook filling a website with fake data.
  • Consider asking someone with an IT background whom you know and trust for advice. Find someone who isn’t already part of the scheme and doesn’t show any particular interest in it. Be wary of advice or endorsement from people who are (or claim to be) part of the scheme already. They could be paid shills, or fake personas, or they could be early winners who’ve been paid out with money Ponzied from later investors, and thus lured into promoting the scam themselves.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That advice applies whether it’s a new cryptocurrency, a special online offer, a new online service, a survey to win a prize, or even just the good old lure of “free stuff”. Take your time to understand what you’re signing up for.

If in doubt, don’t give it out, and that definitely includes your money!


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