It’s Friday October 25 and I’m in London due to meet the journalists behind The Missing Cryptoqueen, but they’re not here. And neither is the latest instalment of their eight-part podcast series.
Instead, they’re in Frankfurt, Germany, following a lead that could alter the whole direction of their real-life, ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Dr Ruja Ignatova – the individual at the centre of their investigating, and the alleged perpetrator of a multi-billion pound cryptocurrency scam. That fresh twist had delayed the latest episode (pushed back from Thursday to today, Monday October 28) as the show races to a thrilling conclusion next week (Monday 4 November).
“We took a gamble on this trip now,” says producer and co-writer Georgia Catt down an international telephone line, as she dashes between airport gates along with host Jamie Bartlett. “We took a gamble on on coming here, and it hasn’t not paid dividends.”
The Missing Cryptoqueen has been a word-of-mouth hit since it launched in early September on BBC Sounds. The pair – Jamie is a technology journalist and author, Georgia an experienced documentary maker – first heard about OneCoin when a friend of a friend spoke to Georgia about the scheme during a conversation in the pub. When she researched it, she was astonished by what she discovered.
To recap: the podcast digs into the story of OneCoin a “cryptocurrency” launched in 2014. The public face of the company was founder Dr Ruja, a captivating leader and glamorous evangelist. The company grew fast – thousands of people invested their cash under the impression they were early adopters in a lucrative new investment opportunity (between £89-96 million in the UK alone). Except they weren’t – it was a scam. A multi-level marketing scheme. An illusion. And then, in 2017, along with their money, Dr Ruja was gone, too. Nowhere to be seen. It is possibly the largest crypto-scam of all time. The authorities made arrests, but Dr Ruja wasn’t one of them.
The Missing Cryptoqueen is Jamie and Georgia’s attempt to get to the bottom of what’s happened. It’s taken them all over – from a surreal beauty pageant in Bucharest to a mansion in Amsterdam’s wealthy suburbs stuffed with taxidermy. They speak to all involved; from victims of the scam to former OneCoin employees. Were the podcast a fictional tale it’d be compelling; the fact that this is a real life ongoing mystery makes it utterly gripping.
OneCoin – still operating – has denied accusations that it’s a scam and have rubbished the series saying “[it] will not present any truthful information and cannot be considered objective, nor unbiased.”
I spoke to Jamie and Georgia to hear about the podcast, its success and, the question on every listener’s lips ahead of the final episode… will they find The Missing Cryptoqueen?
How did you both become aware of OneCoin and the disappearance of Dr Ruja?
Jamie: When I was writing my book on the Dark Net in 2014 I was doing a lot on cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin in particular. All the hype about it, all the potential about it. I’ve been on that block for a while. Then Georgia got in touch about something she’d heard…
Georgia: I don’t want to identify who it was but through a friend of a friend somebody was telling me about OneCoin. It was someone who’d invested in it and believed they had made a lot of money. At the time it seemed very odd. I don’t know if they were trying to get us to invest but they definitely were keen on it and thought it was a great thing. As soon as I started looking into this – the avenues it goes down. I don’t have a background in cryptocurrency but it just felt like a hyper-version of now. It seemed so current. Perfect for a podcast.
There’s a lot to the story – the scam, the missing Dr Ruja, lots of other strands – what made you want to investigate this the most?
Jamie: You only need to spend about 10 minutes going over it to see there’s a hundred different interesting aspects to this story. There’s a lot to say. As Georgia said, it says something interesting about society today. You know, like how do people construct an image or create credibility around themselves using social media? The cultish element. The hyper-technology. The spread of MLMs [multi level marketing]. The way that people deal with those who disagree with them. People being spun an amazing story through complicated tech. The minute you start looking at it you see so many things that are going on in broader society are happening in a concentrated form here in OneCoin. That was key. It’s often quite hard to find a story through which you can tell all these different parables. Also, having a missing person behind this is absolutely enormous.
This is a huge true-life news story – why isn’t it more well known?
Jamie: It’s not really been covered much by anyone mainstream because 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. It was the fact that that whole story was there to be covered but having a missing person gives it a dramatic thread that runs through all of those themes. That’s what excites me.
“We’re emails from people all over the world every week who’ve lost a devastating amount of money ”
– Georgia Catt
Georgia: I don’t think that we thought the company would be running to the extent that it is still now when we first started doing it. We’re getting in emails from people every week who’ve lost a devastating amount of money all over the world. Going to places like Uganda and Scotland – Jen McAdam from the first episodes in Scotland – you hear the impact that it’s had. We really do want to expose what’s going on here really, and how it’s been allowed to happen.
What’s been the most memorable moment of the series been so far for you?
Georgia: Every time we’ve gone on a trip we’ve come back saying that was either the weirdest or the best thing. Miss OneLife [a beauty pageant] was obviously quite odd.
Jamie: We’re both totally obsessed with the story. I’m working on it non-stop. In the evenings, on weekends, I’m going through YouTube videos. It gets very strangely addictive. You start being unable to say what’s a weird thing once you’re in the OneCoin rabbit hole – everything starts to seem normal! Definitely the most strange and most uncomfortable I felt was the beauty pageant. It was so bizarre, it was peculiar. Maybe the most moving thing for me is actually going to be in the last episode which we can say is in Uganda. We spent a week in Uganda – I can’t say too much about it – but we just could not believe what we were seeing.
“Definitely the most strange and most uncomfortable I felt was the beauty pageant. It was so bizarre”
– Jamie Bartlett
Georgia: We met people there who this was the first cryptocurrency they’d come across – what they thought was a cryptocurrency – and they lost everything. I don’t think we’d really prepared ourselves for quite how devastating the situation was going to be. It really brought it home. Moments like that have been really genuinely shocking.
Jamie: They still believed in it, and it’s really difficult.
There’s huge amounts of money involved in the scam – have you ever felt in danger investigating it?
Jamie: Not really. People have said that to us. You’re dealing with serious people here, that amount of money… there’s going to be shady characters involved and you hear rumours about that. I’ve never felt personally in that way. I also wonder whether the timing is quite good in a sense. It feels to me like the scam is slowly, slowly coming to an end. I think it would be a lot more dangerous to say what we’re saying now three years ago when it was right at the very beginning.
What kind of emotional journey has the investigation taken you on?
Jamie: One of the reasons we’re obsessed with it and working on it all that we can is that I feel a bit of responsibility in a way to the people who’ve let us talk about what’s happened to them. We’re just trying to uncover the truth of this, as best as we can. It’s very upsetting and distressing but it does make you absolutely determined to do anything you can to get to the bottom of what’s going on. However, the line between the person who is the victim and the person who is the scammer is a bit blurred in places. So, even when you feel very sorry for people it’s tinged with a little bit of ‘ah, but you were also being a bit greedy weren’t you?’ or ‘you were also recruiting other people weren’t you so…’ It’s very mixed emotions when you’re dealing with the people involved in this.
As we approach the conclusion… what can people expect?
Jamie: The end of episode eight, I think people are going to be quite surprised by what they hear and what we find. But I don’t think the story is going to be quite over. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to carry on after episode eight.
Georgia: There are still things we’ve learned to look into a little bit more.
“I don’t think the story is going to be quite over. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to carry on after episode eight”
– Jamie Bartlett
Will there be more podcasts? A TV series?
Jamie: I can’t say too much but I’m getting quite a lot of enquiries. A lot of people are saying ‘you’ve got to turn this into a movie!’ I think follow-ups, yeah! There’s a big trial coming up in November of Dr Ruja’s brother Konstantin Ignatov who was arrested – we mentioned it in the podcast – we don’t know too much detail about him. I’m sure when that trial comes out, some of the details in the transcripts will show us certain things we didn’t know. New threads of this to explore.
Some people are calling the podcast the new Serial…
Jamie: Yeah, that’s brilliant. That’s about as high praise as you can get. Great.
Georgia. It’s better! We think it’s better. I’m joking!
I have to ask. Are you going to find The Missing Cryptoqueen?
Georgia: We can’t say!
Jamie: We can’t say but we’re still investigating it. When you find an amazing story you feel a responsibility to do it justice. We’ve landed on this amazing story and we have to do it as well as we can. When people enjoy it, that means a lot.