Who is Ruja Ignatova, and What is Her Crime?

FBI's most wanted scammer vanishes with US$4 Billion, now tied to Bulgarian underworld
Who is Ruja Ignatova, and What is Her Crime?

Dr. Ruja Ignatova rose to fame a decade ago with her fraudulent scam concerning the cryptocurrency OneCoin. People from all over the world put their confidence in the Bulgarian-born German businesswoman, believing entirely in her vision for a new digital currency. Nonetheless, in 2017, Dr. Ignatova departed from Sofia, Bulgaria, and has yet to be observed since. The enigma surrounding her vanishing continues. The FBI has designated her as their principal fugitive due to fraud allegations, asserting that she managed to swindle approximately US$4 billion (equivalent to ₹ 31,580 crore) from people from 175 countries.

The inquiry spanned over a year, as reported by the BBC, which disclosed her extensive connections to a suspected Bulgarian crime lord - Hristoforos Nikos Amanatidis, better known as Taki.

"We were informed, supposedly, that a major drug dealer was overseeing her protection," Richard Reinhardt, who initiated the probe into OneCoin for the US Internal Revenue Service in collaboration with the FBI, disclosed to the BBC.

"Taki was mentioned repeatedly, suggesting it wasn't a singular incident," the former officer recounted.

They both embarked to Bulgaria accompanied by Taki, a bodyguard, and she was able to get to Athens. Taki remained behind.

"We have proof that a highly influential, if not the most active, drug dealer in Bulgaria was in a tight relationship with OneCoin - acted as Ruja Ignatova's bodyguard," an assistant attorney disclosed to the source.

Taki is a well-known figure in Bulgaria, comparable to El Chapo or Pablo Escobar. He is extensively believed to lead the Bulgarian organized crime syndicate and to be a major drug smuggler.

According to the BBC, authorities believe Taki is utilizing OneCoin's financial system to clean his money from illegal drug sales.

"Taki is the phantom. You'll never catch him. All you'll know of him is through whispers. If you don't heed his warnings, you vanish from the world. The sole individual capable of shielding Ignatova from scrutiny, including international bodies - Taki," Ivan Hristanov, a former Bulgarian deputy minister, disclosed.

It is now understood that Taki resides in Dubai. Sources within Bulgaria have revealed that Ms. Ignatova was paying him 100,000 euros (Rs 90.2 lakh) monthly for his services.

However, it seems Ms. Ignatova's protector might have become her adversary.

Referring to a 2022 article by Bulgarian investigative reporter Dimitar Stoyanov, the BBC reported that Ms. Ignatova was killed a year following her vanishing act.

Several criminal partners of Taki have stated that Ms. Ignatova has become a problem for him. Property documents indicate that since Ms. Ignatova went missing, several of her assets have been utilized by individuals associated with Taki.

Taki has been acquitted on the allegations of Ms. Ignatova's killing. Her remains have not been discovered, and authorities claim they lack sufficient proof to charge him. Nonetheless, whispers persist that her demise is yet another clever tactic to divert attention from the investigation.

Ruja Ignatova, who earned her degree from Oxford University and spent her childhood in Germany, built a thriving career in the financial sector before venturing into the cryptocurrency market with OneCoin in 2014.

She managed to persuade countless individuals globally to invest in OneCoin, promising returns that mirrored those experienced by the initial Bitcoin investors.

However, in reality, Ignatova—often referred to as Dr. Ruja—orchestrated a sophisticated scheme that was an investment scam, lacking the transparent digital ledger that authentic cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin possess.

As authorities from Germany and the United States began to pursue Ignatova in October 2017, she made a flight to Athens on an early morning Ryanair and disappeared without a trace.

Over the past year, the BBC World Service's programs Eye Investigations and Panorama have been on a quest to uncover the truth behind her disappearance and determine her current status.

A crucial part of this effort has been identifying her close associates.

Richard Reinhardt, who initiated the probe into OneCoin for the Internal Revenue Service in the US in collaboration with the FBI, disclosed to the BBC about a significant figure in the investigation who has remained unnamed by the public.

The Quest for the Missing Crypto Queen

The investigation into Dr. Ruja Ignatova takes an unforeseen twist when rumors surface suggesting she has been killed. However, reports of Dr. Ignatova's survival continue to surface, leaving the question of her fate open.

The BBC has learned that Hristoforos Nikos Amanatidis, better known as Taki, was the individual entrusted with Dr. Ignatova's protection.

“We received a tip, supposedly from a major drug lord, that he was in charge of her physical protection,” Mr. Reinhardt shared in his initial interview after stepping down in late 2023.

“Taki was mentioned more than once, suggesting this was not a one-time event but a repeated pattern.”

This matches the details we had gathered earlier - US federal attorneys had disclosed in 2019 that Ms. Ignatova's chief of security belonged to the circle of a top drug lord in Bulgaria, though his name was withheld.

“We have proof that a highly active if perhaps the most active, drug smuggler in Bulgaria was closely associated with OneCoin - acted as the personal bodyguard for [Ruja Ignatova].” An assistant in the legal department explained.

The same "chief of security" mentioned by a different lawyer from the US government, who claimed he was "linked to Ms Ignatova's vanishing" in court the previous day, was also identified by Mr Reinhardt as the person in question.

Mr. Reinhardt described Ms. Ignatova as a highly-skilled criminal that many might not fully understand.

"It's as if she's a white-collar criminal, but with the intensity of a drug trafficker or a mafia figure."

This idea seems to be backed by documents leaked by Europol, which were reported by the BBC, indicating that prior to Ms Ignatova's disappearance in 2017, Bulgarian authorities had uncovered links between her and Taki.

The documents suggest that the police believe Taki utilized OneCoin's financial system to clean the money from drug trafficking.

In Bulgaria, Taki is almost legendary - akin to El Chapo or Pablo Escobar. He is widely believed to lead a Bulgarian organized crime group and to be a major drug smuggler. He and his crew have faced investigations for crimes like armed robbery, drug trafficking, and murder, yet he has yet to face any legal consequences for these actions.

According to Ivan Hristanov, a former Bulgarian deputy minister who in 2022 investigated claims made against Taki, who leads the Bulgarian mafia, Taki is highly influential. Hristanov suspects Taki was involved in a criminal network with corrupt officials.

The Bulgarian government ignored BBC inquiries regarding the criminal allegations against these officials. The Sofia Prosecutor’s Office clarified that it does not shield criminals or officials suspected of wrongdoing.

Taki is currently thought to reside in Dubai, where Ms. Ignatova, who purchased a high-end penthouse, has seen her bank accounts fill with money from the OneCoin scam.

The origins of Taki and Ms. Ignatova's relationship and Taki's involvement with OneCoin from its inception are unknown. However, several claims from anonymous sources indicate a deep personal connection, with Taki being described as the daughter's guardian angel or guardian.

One Bulgarian insider familiar with Ms. Ignatova reportedly told the BBC that she paid Taki up to €100,000 each month for his protection.

It seems there are additional monetary connections between Ms. Ignatova and Mr. Taki.

According to documents from Europol, there is a detailed agreement involving the sale of a property by Bulgaria’s Black Sea shoreline, which connects one of Ms. Ignatova's businesses to Taki's spouse.

Frank Schneider, a former intelligence operative and advisor to Ms. Ignatova, who has gone missing, handed over the confidential police files to the BBC.

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