Monday, May 20, 2024

Is fugitive ‘Cryptoqueen’ the world’s most successful criminal?

With crypto markets in turmoil, files seen by the BBC suggest an unlikely Bitcoin investor may have also lost a fortune – “the missing cryptoqueen”, Dr. Ruja Ignatova.

The scammer disappeared in 2017 as her cryptocurrency OneCoin was at its height – attracting billions from investors. Fraud and money-laundering charges in the U.S. have led to her becoming one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives.

The Oxford-educated entrepreneur told investors she had created the “Bitcoin killer”, but the files suggest she secretly amassed billions in her rival currency before she disappeared.

Details first surfaced in 2021 in leaked documents from Dubai’s courts, posted online by a lawyer who crowned Dr. Ruja – as she is known – the “most successful criminal in history.”

A new book and upcoming episodes of BBC podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen investigate how Dr. Ruja has stayed hidden – and whether this alleged crypto-hoard might help explain it.

The Dubai files

The BBC has been able to independently verify some – but not all – of the information in the Dubai files.

At the very least, the leak suggests Dubai was an important financial route for Dr. Ruja, something the FBI alluded to in naming the United Arab Emirates as one of five countries she has known connections to.

“You’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here,” said Dr. Jonathan Levy, the lawyer who first posted the files online, and who is relying on information from them in a compensation claim for OneCoin victims.

The claim was lodged with the Supreme Court of the British Indian Ocean Territory, chosen because it hosted a web domain allegedly used by OneCoin.

Levy received thousands of documents, mostly in Arabic, from a whistleblower who he said thought it was wrong that people were being “unjustly enriched” in Dubai.

The ‘Bitcoin deal’

The most tantalizing claim made in Levy’s legal case is that a massive Bitcoin deal was struck with Emirati royal Sheikh Saoud bin Faisal Al Qassimi, the son of a business tycoon.

The files further suggest that in 2015 Sheikh Saoud gave Dr. Ruja four USB memory sticks containing 230,000 bitcoin – worth about US$50.5 million at the time.

In return, Dr. Ruja reportedly handed over three cheques to Sheikh Saoud from Mashreq Bank, totalling around 210 million Emirati dirhams, roughly $52 million.

Prior to the alleged deal, Dubai’s Mashreq Bank had begun closing Dr. Ruja’s accounts amid money-laundering concerns, so the cheques were unable to be cashed.

In 2020, the Dubai authorities unfroze Dr. Ruja’s funds, despite the fact that more than a year earlier the U.S. Department of Justice had published an indictment for her, labelling OneCoin a “fraudulent cryptocurrency”.

Months before the decision, Dr. Ruja’s former fund manager Mark Scott was found guilty in New York of laundering $400 million in OneCoin proceeds.

Asked by the BBC about the decision, Dubai’s public prosecutor did not respond.

According to Dubai Court of Appeal records, on April 28 of this year, Sheikh Saoud was seeking to have Dr Ruja’s funds handed to him – suggesting a deal of some kind did originally take place between the pair. Dr. Ruja is named as a respondent, despite not being seen in public for nearly five years.

Dr. Ruja and the sheikh

Little is known about Sheikh Saoud, but sources tell us the stocky body-building enthusiast is rarely seen in public.

He features in a 2017 YouTube video for an organization called the Intergovernmental Collaborative Action Fund for Excellence (ICAFE), which claims to support education initiatives. After the Dubai files were released, references to Sheikh Al Qassimi as ICAFE’s “Secretary-General” disappeared from its website.

A recently launched cryptocurrency lists the sheikh as its chairman. The Dubai files appear to show a once-close relationship between the Al Qassimi family and Dr. Ruja.

On Sept. 3, 2015, Dubai’s Mashreq Bank wrote to Dr. Ruja to explain that it would be closing her personal accounts.

An email admitted to a U.S. court shows, 11 days later, Dr. Ruja writing to a OneCoin colleague about moving US$52 million out of Mashreq Bank. She mentions a meeting the following week with “one of the Sheiks [sic] in Dubai” where she would “try to get something done for us.”

It is not known who Dr. Ruja intended to meet or even if a meeting took place, but the files hint at one possible explanation.

A photo from the files seemingly dated Oct. 8, 2015, but taken at an unknown place, pictures Dr. Ruja standing next to Sheikh Faisal, the father of Sheikh Saoud.

The Al Qassimi family rules Sharjah, which borders Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), the northernmost emirate. Sheikh Faisal did not respond to the BBC about his family’s relationship with Dr. Ruja.

The files also include a diplomatic ID, issued to Ruja as a “special adviser” to ICAFE – the organization with which Sheikh Saoud once held a senior role.

The organization appears to be connected to the United Nations, but a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General reportedly could not find any records of it being affiliated through normal routes.

Co-founder Shariar Rahimi said ICAFE was “registered” with the UN, but failed to provide evidence of this. On Dr. Ruja, he said any ICAFE documents provided to her came from Sheikh Saoud.

Some time after Dr. Ruja’s alleged Bitcoin deal, their relationship appears to have soured. One letter among the leaked files shows Sheikh Saoud dismissing Dr. Ruja from a role as an ICAFE ambassador, before later becoming involved in a legal dispute over her assets.

The case between the pair concluded in Dubai’s Court of Appeal on June 28.

Asked about the alleged Bitcoin deal, his relationship with Dr. Ruja, and his role at ICAFE, Sheikh Saoud’s lawyer did not directly respond, but wrote: “All the information you have is baseless.”

The alleged Bitcoin transaction is said to have taken place using what is called cold-storage wallets, making it very difficult to ascertain if it actually happened.

Bitcoin transactions can often be traced because all transfers of the virtual currency between wallets are recorded on a publicly viewable database. However, the court documents do not include any details about which – or how many – wallets these bitcoins were stored on.

If she does still have them, Dr. Ruja might find it difficult to move such a large amount of bitcoin.

Crypto-author David Birch thinks Bitcoin’s reputation as an “anonymous” currency is inaccurate because law-enforcement agencies are increasingly using clever algorithms to track coins as they flow through the system.

“Getting rid of a few billion dollars’ worth is much harder than you think,” he said.

If Dr. Ruja still has the 230,000 bitcoins, she would be one of the currency’s largest holders. In November 2021, her stake would have peaked at nearly $15 billion, but at the time of writing it has dropped to around $5 billion, still more than enough to help her stay hidden.

BIG Media
BIG Media
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