Konstantin Ignatov pled guilty to wire fraud in a US court earlier this month. Konstantin – arrested in March at LA Airport – had headed OneCoin since the disappearance of its former leader, his sister Ruja Ignatova, in the autumn of 2017. The trial in the USA and the recent wildly successful podcast series The Missing Cryptoqueen by British tech reporter Jamie Bartlett have helped reveal a fraud committed on a staggering scale sucking in money everywhere from the UK to China to rural Uganda and beyond. In 2017 alone some estimate OneCoin had revenues of some €17 billion. But what was OneCoin?
In simple terms – a vast pyramid scheme. Purportedly OneCoin was a blockchain based cryptocurrency. Blockchain is the supposedly revolutionary technology which advocates say will transform finance and business. Critics say it has been wildly overhyped for years. In essence, it is supposed to create a decentralised distribution chain – creating simultaneous copies of batches of data or transactions. The theory is that this eliminates fraud and allows companies and individuals to create more secure ways of doing business with each other that need not involve conventional banks.
OneCoin’s inventors used the usual cryptocurrency jargon, proclaiming it would empower ordinary consumers and let them take on big banks and governments. Other cryptocurrencies supposedly paled in comparison with OneCoin which called itself “the Bitcoin killer,” Bitcoin being the first and most famous cryptocurrency.
In the poorly regulated and poorly understood world of cryptocurrency grandiose claims and dubious returns are common. However, OneCoin was not just another example of this phenomenon. Its blockchain system, vital to any cryptocurrency, does not and never has existed and there were essentially no means to convert OneCoins into any other currency. The product was not just worthless, it lacked even virtual existence.
Despite this OneCoin managed to suck in millions of persons who paid billions of Euros for its non-existent product. This incredible fraud appears to have been started by Dr Ruja Ignatova, who was born in Bulgaria in 1980 and grew up in Germany before studying at Oxford and working at McKinsey. However, the scandal seems to have outpaced her and now two years after her disappearance, she faces further charges against her in the USA.