The money-laundering trial of OneCoin lawyer Mark Scott got underway today in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, just as another drama was ending: “The Missing Cryptoqueen,” the riveting BBC podcast that laid bare the whole scheme, dropped its final episode.
The BBC podcast detailed the story of Bulgarian tech entrepreneur, Dr. Ruja Ignatova, who disappeared in 2017, when her cryptocurrency, “OneCoin,” raked in as much as $5 billion in what prosecutors claim was one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history.
OneCoin’s operations were shut down two years ago in Italy, and people associated with it have been arrested and charged in China and India. Its headquarters in Bulgaria is still functioning, per the podcast.
Scott, who’s charged with money laundering, has pleaded not guilty. Likewise, the OneCoin maintains its innocence, and its crypto coin is still being sold.
In an interview today, Jamie Bartlett, who wrote and narrated “The Missing CryptoQueen” podcast, told Decrypt that regulators were asleep on the job. Specifically, he faulted the Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates the financial services industry in the UK. He said the regulator should have continued to warn consumers about OneCoin after it became apparent that people were still investing in the alleged scam.
“The FCA is a very respected institution. So, when they don’t have a warning or they take a warning down, it has an impact all around the world," he said, adding that inaction also makes it harder for those who criticize the project to demonstrate their concerns.
Bartlett, and series producer Georgian Catt, travelled to Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Germany, The Netherlands and Uganda during the nine months it took to make their hit podcast
A criminal scheme
Scott is accused of money laundering and routing approximately $400 million in OneCoin funds out of the U.S, on behalf of his employers. His trial, expected to last for three to four weeks, is the first of several connected with the alleged scam.
Konstantin Ignatov, the brother of Rufa Ignatova and allegedly one of the OneCoin leaders, as well as co-founder Sebastian Greenwood, are both due to face trial in the U.S. in the coming weeks. Ignatova, who disappeared in 2017, has been charged in absentia.
Scott’s lawyers are expected to argue that Scott himself was duped by the company, and had no idea it was involved in anything shady, according to the BBC.
U.S.-based investors who claim to have been defrauded by the scheme have also filed a civil against OneCoin and related defendants to recover damages.
Afraid of speaking out
The search for the enigmatic Dr Ruja formed the main story of the podcast but Bartlett believes its main achievement has been to provide victims with a voice, enabling them to organize in forums and to see that they’re not alone.
“For a long time, people who were speaking out were basically being ignored,” he said. “There wasn’t really much talk about it. They were probably a bit afraid of speaking out because once you leave the network you can be labelled a ‘hater.’”
Bartlett and Catt admitted that their investigations produced some unnerving moments—such as when they attended a beauty pageant in Romania and it dawned on them that OneCoin may be controlled by the most violent of criminal groups.
Conservative estimates put the amount raised in the scheme, since 2014, at $4 billion, but many, including Scottish victim Jen McAdam, think it’s much more than that.
As much as 15 billion euros ($17 billion) may have been invested altogether, with as up to 10 billion euros ($11 billion) coming from China, McAdam and Bartlett said.
McAdam herself invested about £8,000 ($8,000) in the scheme, and persuaded family and friends to put in about £220,000 ($281,000), before realizing she was not going to get the money back.
She alerted the authorities, but said she was shocked at their inaction. This September, just before “The Missing CryptoQueen” aired, she was told the UK investigation had closed.
“I’m so glad that someone, like the USA, are doing something and being proactive, ” she told Decrypt. “As for the UK, I’m thoroughly disgusted with the authorities,” she added.
A little every month
She’s taken action by forming a victims support group, which now has over 7,000 members.
Her story, typical of many OneCoin supporters, is integral to the podcast. But when she agreed to go on air, she began to receive sexual and death threats for speaking out. She claims these threats were co-ordinated by OneCoin supporters.
But she’s not the only one who has spoken out and been threatened. In the U.S., OneCoin critic Tim Curry said, during the podcast, that he received picture of a hand with severed fingers. He was also served with a court action for accusing financial advisor Chris Principe of taking payment from OneCoin in return for promoting the project.
McAdam said that despite the scare, she still invests in crypto—but only in Bitcoin, and only “a little every month.” She also thinks that those who study and write about cryptocurrencies should speak out and educate others.
“I had no idea about blockchain or blockchain technology or how it worked when I invested in OneCoin. They sold me a financial dream, and I fell for it,” she said.
In the final episode of the podcast, Bartlett and Catt hear how so-called “network marketing” or MLN (Multi Level Marketing) has mushroomed in Uganda. And they meet meet former health care professionals who emulate Dr Raja and persuade people to part with property and livestock in order to invest in OneCoin. For most, OneCoin was the first cryptocurrency they had heard of.
Over 50,000 people invested in OneCoin in the east African state, a former OneCoin recruiter tells them. He, like many others, still has hope for the OneCoin that he owns.