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What is The Missing Cryptoqueen and who makes it?
The Missing Cyptoqueen is a BBC Sounds podcast launched in September 2019. Hosted by technology expert and author Jamie Bartlett, it’s co-written and produced by Georgia Catt. Jamie’s background is in writing about terrorist groups and their use of the internet. He also wrote a book in 2015 about The Dark Net – so knows plenty about the murkier corners of the web (in fact, here he is doing a TED Talk about it). Georgia Catt is a radio and podcast producer who’s worked with the likes of Jarvis Cocker in the past, and also on Radio 4 series The Untold. The Missing Cryptoqueen investigates the gripping real-life story of “cryptocurrency” OneCoin and the disappearance of its founder and figurehead Dr Ruja Ignatova.
Right, so what’s the story with OneCoin?
Launched in 2014, OneCoin was the latest in a line of cryptocurrencies that promised to revolutionise the way we do banking online, and make early investors rich. It branded itself “the Bitcoin killer”. Founded and led by Dr Ruja Ignatova, a Bulgarian law PHD graduate and businesswoman, it grew quickly, often driven by hyperbolic public events. Like this one at Wembley Arena in London in 2016.
Ok, so you’ve got a bunch of people buying OneCoin, so what?
To cut a long story short, it was a scam. A fake. Fraud. A really big one. A multi-level marketing system with the same sort of structure as an old fashioned Pyramid scheme. You still can’t actively trade OneCoin like other cryptocurrencies. Thousands of people invested in OneCoin from more than 175 countries. The scale of it is mind-boggling: as part of their investigations The Missing Cryptoqueen team uncovered data that suggested the total “investments” were worth up to £4 billion worldwide. It’s possibly the biggest cryptocurrency scam of all time. A lot of people have lost a lot of money. The podcast interviews victims of the scheme, including Jen McAdam who bought thousands of OneCoin and, like many others, urged her friends and family to do the same. She’s now a passionate activist for uncovering the truth about the company, and bringing those responsible to justice.
Um, this story seems like kind of a big deal. Why haven’t I heard about it before?
A fair point. It’s been a story largely overlooked by mainstream media. Speaking to NME Jamie Bartlett offered an explanation: “I think a lot of mainstream journalists thought ‘oh, that’s a cryptocurrency story that’s for your crypto experts, I won’t touch that’ and the cryptocurrency journalists thought ‘that’s not really a cryptocurrency thing that’s a multi-level marketing scam, I won’t touch that’. It kind of fell through the gaps, which meant, amazingly, despite its size and its reach, no-one had really covered it.”
And what happened to Dr Ruja?
Good question. No-one knows. Or rather, we don’t currently know. And that’s exactly what The Missing Cryptoqueen is attempting to resolve. Dr Ruja was due to board a plane in 2017 to attend a conference. She never arrived, and has not been seen since. In the series, Jamie and Georgia pick through the story stage-by-stage in their attempt to track her down. It’s seen them travel all over: from Germany to meet workers at a factory Ruja once owned, to the wealthy suburbs of Amsterdam to speak to senior ex-OneCoin employees, like the larger-the-life Igor Alberts. Early in the series, they find themselves at a OneCoin event in Bucharest, Romania; a beauty pageant of sorts (Miss OneLife), where afterwards they’re led to believe Dr Ruja might have been in attendance.
Ok then – *SPOILER ALERT* – do they find her?
The final episode of the eight-part series was published on Monday 4 November 2019, and their was still no sign of Dr Ruja. In an interview before it aired Jamie revealed to NME that much of that episode takes place in Uganda. “I think people are going to be quite surprised by what they hear and what we find,” he said. “But I don’t think the story is going to be quite over.”
It’s a difficult listen: the episode followed Jamie and Georgia’s journey to Uganda where they met Daniel, a OneCoin investor, who had convinced his mother (a farmer) to part with her savings instead of building a maze store to house her crops. They also visited a church where the preaching pastor was also a OneCoin team leader. One contributor told them they thought 50,000 people had pledged their cash to OneCoin in Uganda.
So there will be more podcasts?
Surely. The story isn’t finished. OneCoin is still operating. The series featured voices of salespeople and investors who’re still actively involved. The concluding episode (8) finishes with a tip off from a contact, who wanted to remain anonymous, urging the team to continue searching for Ruja in Frankfurt, Germany.
As for OneCoin, after Ruja went missing, her brother led the company. Konstantin Ignatova was arrested in March 2019 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His trial is expected to take place in the U.S. before the end of 2019. Dr Ruja Ignatova was also charged in absentia with money laundering. The trial of OneCoin lawyer Mark Scott has begun in America for his role in the “crypto-scam”.
What of OneCoin – do they have a response to all this?
Yes, believe it or not. The Missing Cyptoqueen team were putting their accusations to OneCoin throughout the making of the podcast. They reject all the allegations saying “OneCoin verifiably fulfills all criteria of the definition of a cryptocurrency”. Adding, “the series will not present any truthful information and cannot be considered objective, nor unbiased”. Riiight.
I’m hooked. Get me another series!
Well, probably. In our interview Jamie was being guarded about the future, but admitted the pair had received “enquiries” about making more podcasts, and maybe even turning it into a movie. “There are so many threads to this,” he said. “I’m sure when that trial comes out, some of the details in the transcripts will show us certain things we didn’t know.”