Episode 972: The CryptoQueen : Planet Money A mysterious woman promises a financial revolution. That promise leads to greed, corruption and... a beauty pageant. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 972: The CryptoQueen

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Episode 972: The CryptoQueen

Episode 972: The CryptoQueen

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

Just a quick note - there is some swearing in this show.

JAMIE BARTLETT: The minute you look into the story, you become instantly addicted to it. And it becomes an obsession. So it's weekends, evenings. I mean, I've got to be honest, I'm still completely consumed.

ARONCZYK: This is Jamie Bartlett. He's a writer and a journalist. And a few years ago, he wrote a book called "The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld."

BARTLETT: So I spent a couple of years of my life on darknet drugs markets, you know, troll forums and neo-Nazi groups really trying to get to grips with the hidden underbelly of the Internet.

ARONCZYK: So while he was researching, he found online markets for organic fair-trade cocaine, stolen credit card data, illegal pornography - you know, all those things that you can't go pick up at Costco. And then in 2018, he was approached by a producer from the BBC named Georgia Catt. And she had this story that she thought might interest him. And it wasn't like anything he'd ever run into before. It's a story about a woman with an online empire and a massive, massive following - like, stadium-filling following.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's give a warm applause for our creator, our founder, our lovely Dr. Ruja...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) This girl is on fire...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ruja...

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ruja...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

KEYS: (Singing) This girl is on fire...

ARONCZYK: This is a video shot on June 11, 2016, at Wembley Arena in London.

BARTLETT: Picture the scene. This is an enormous, packed arena, thousands of cheering fans.

ARONCZYK: Actual fire shoots up from the stage. Then out walks this woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUJA IGNATOVA: Thank you.

ARONCZYK: She's wearing a floor-length red ball gown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: Thank you so much.

BARTLETT: She's incredibly well-groomed, well-dressed, long flowing black hair, incredibly expensive jewelry, brooches, dangling earrings. I mean, she looks incredibly wealthy. But she's also sort of incredibly mysterious in some ways as well. There's something about her, I think, that you can't quite - you can't fully understand.

ARONCZYK: Her name is Ruja Ignatova, and people call her Dr. Ruja. And while she's not a doctor-doctor, she does have a Ph.D. in law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: This network was created to become and to fuel the growth of OneCoin.

ARONCZYK: So Jamie learns that Dr. Ruja is a 36-year-old Bulgarian German businesswoman. And she's come to Wembley Arena to spread the gospel about OneCoin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: OneCoin is easy to use. OneCoin is for everyone, make payments everywhere, everyone globally. And this is...

ARONCZYK: OneCoin is a new cryptocurrency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: ...Because this coin is going to be No. 1 worldwide.

(APPLAUSE)

ARONCZYK: But Jamie, this guy who who knows a lot about cryptocurrencies, he's never heard of OneCoin. He and Georgia team up, and they start to investigate together.

Over the last year, how much of your time has been spent thinking about Dr. Ruja and OneCoin?

BARTLETT: All of it, pretty much nonstop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

Jamie Bartlett and producer Georgia Catt from the BBC have been investigating the bizarre story of Dr. Ruja and OneCoin. Today on the show - one of my favorite stories of this past year - there's greed and corruption and cult-like devotion. And just when you think you understand what's going on, you realize you have no clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARINE O'NEILL SONG, "ONE FOR ALL")

ARONCZYK: Jamie, is this a song about OneCoin?

BARTLETT: (Laughter) It's one of many songs about OneCoin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FOR ALL")

SHARINE O'NEILL: (Singing) We all around the world are changing the way happy people all around changing the way to pay.

BARTLETT: You've got to remember, this is 2015, '16, '17. There's so much enthusiasm that we were on the cusp of this brand-new way of thinking about money. And Dr. Ruja Ignatova really tapped into that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FOR ALL")

O'NEILL: (Singing) ...Revolution, a currency for everyone.

ARONCZYK: When Jamie started investigating OneCoin, this is one of the first things he learned. Dr. Ruja was presenting herself as a hero, this genius who had founded a new cryptocurrency that was going to be bigger than Bitcoin. But unlike Bitcoin, her currency wouldn't be for some small group that understands the technology or got in early. She was going to share it with the masses, help real people take control of money away from big banks, away from governments. She was going to lead a financial revolution for the people.

BARTLETT: Fans of hers would just write poetry, write music about her. They'd almost - they'd really sort of worship the woman. We heard a lot of songs that had been dedicated to Ruja. That was one of many.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FOR ALL")

O'NEILL: (Singing) ...People all around carrying financial solution.

ARONCZYK: There are all these fans and this whole community online. And Jamie's trying to figure out, well, who are these people in real life? One of the first people he finds is a Scottish woman in her late 40s. Her name is Jen McAdam. Her father had recently passed away, and he'd left her about 10,000 euros.

BARTLETT: So a friend of hers had heard about this new cryptocurrency, OneCoin, and heard about Dr. Ruja and then emailed Jen and said, hey, have you seen this? You know that money that your father left you? This could be a place to invest it.

ARONCZYK: So Jen McAdam goes online. She watches some videos, and she's impressed.

JEN MCADAM: Ruja - she's a doctor, and she has her Ph.D. She worked with McKinsey and Co.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: Thank you very much for the invitation to be a speaker at the Economist Forum today and to speak about the future of...

MCADAM: I think when I saw her at the Economist summit, that did it for me. The Economist (laughter) - being a businesswoman previously, I thought, that's amazing. Power of the woman - well done. I felt proud of her.

ARONCZYK: Jen then watches a webinar about OneCoin, and it seems so clear she's getting in early on this amazing investment.

MCADAM: By the time you come off that webinar, you're actually thinking - oh, my goodness - I suppose I could try a thousand-euro package - because it was euros at the time - and then see how it goes. And that's what I did.

ARONCZYK: So here's how this worked. Jen went to the OneCoin website, and she was directed to buy one of these packages that they offer.

BARTLETT: And these packages are priced between, I think, 500 euros up to over a hundred thousand euros for a package. And technically, you are buying education.

ARONCZYK: Actually, just some PDFs with info about cryptocurrencies.

BARTLETT: And with each of those packages - they're differently priced - you receive things called tokens, and those tokens can then be transformed into OneCoin.

ARONCZYK: So Jen gets her own OneCoin account. She buys a thousand-euro package. Every time she logs in, she sees the value of her OneCoin going up and up and up.

MCADAM: When you think you're changing your life financially and your hardships are over - yeah, I remember that as clear as day.

BARTLETT: Were you quite excited? You know, were you excited?

MCADAM: So excited, so excited. So was my friend.

ARONCZYK: She had told all of her friends and family about it, and she would make a commission when her friends invested, too.

MCADAM: We were going to go on holiday. I remember going down to visit her afterward. We thought we would change our lives. We thought that we'd changed all of our family lives.

ARONCZYK: Around the time that he meets Jen McAdam, Jamie gets a tip about OneCoin - that OneCoin has as many as a million investors - a million people like Jen McAdam, people who have OneCoin accounts and have invested some money.

BARTLETT: This is going to blow you away. But we were shown documents - we were leaked documents that estimate that the total amount invested into OneCoin between 2014 and early 2017 is well over 4 billion euros. And it could be as high as 15 billion euros.

ARONCZYK: At least $5 billion and possibly much, much more - and that's just from this one three-year period. And the money is coming in from all over.

BARTLETT: From something like 175 countries in the world.

ARONCZYK: A hundred and seventy-five countries.

BARTLETT: Yeah. I mean, every corner of the globe - people from Palestine; people from the Congo; people from the Vatican; America, of course; China - hundreds of millions of dollars, euros invested from China.

ARONCZYK: So then Jamie's wondering - well, how did this get so big so fast? It's this question that leads him to the mansion of a man who seemingly has everything.

BARTLETT: Can I just quickly ask you about this enormous bear?

IGOR ALBERTS: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: This is the home of Igor Alberts and his wife Andreea Cimbala. They have a massive garden surrounding their massive, eight-story mansion just outside of Amsterdam.

ALBERTS: We have panthers, rhinos, giraffes.

BARTLETT: When you walk into his garden, there's 30 or 40 fiberglass, lifesize animal sculptures from all the different places in the world that he's been to.

ALBERTS: We have gorillas from Uganda.

BARTLETT: You've got pelicans. You've got giraffes.

ALBERTS: This is the house of dreams. And it's - it is a kingdom.

ARONCZYK: Jamie says that Igor Alberts is a big Dutch guy. He's probably in his mid-50s. And he's larger than life in almost every single way. For example, there's the way that he is dressed.

BARTLETT: Everything he wore was black and gold Dolce and Gabbana - socks, pants, shoes, sunglasses, waistcoats.

ALBERTS: But when you look at my clothes, they are disciplined.

ANDREEA CIMBALA: Everything - he has socks and pink underwear. And if he dresses in pink, he will dress in pink everything.

ALBERTS: I have it in everything.

ARONCZYK: The Siberian tiger statues, the outfits, the Maserati parked by the gate - if this seems like an ostentatious display of wealth, that is because it is. Igor Alberts and his wife want to look very rich because they're both experts at what's known as multilevel marketing.

BARTLETT: People are probably familiar with this, with certain cosmetic products and vitamin tablets. And there's a lot of this kind of multilevel marketing around.

ARONCZYK: Amway works like this, and so does Herbalife and Avon. People sell the products to their friends and their families. But more importantly, they try to recruit their friends and families to sell the product, too. That's how they make a commission. So you want to look like you're making a lot of money off of selling that product.

BARTLETT: It's a huge industry. There's millions of people around the world doing this.

ARONCZYK: And OneCoin is a great product for multilevel marketers because unlike selling bottles of vitamins, you don't have to store thousands of boxes of the stuff in your garage. A cryptocurrency doesn't need to be boxed or transported.

BARTLETT: But Dr. Ruja Ignatova's genius was to realize that she could take her cryptocurrency and market it through existing multilevel marketing networks.

ARONCZYK: Networks of salespeople who knew how to sell physical products, they could sell a virtual currency even faster.

BARTLETT: And it took off like wildfire. There are people that had worked in multilevel marketing all their lives. They'd never seen anything like it. They'd never seen a product grow like it.

ARONCZYK: And one of the best-known sellers is this guy - fiberglass tiger guy. Dr. Ruja recruited Igor Alberts and Andreea not long after she launched OneCoin.

ALBERTS: They invited us to go to Dubai...

CIMBALA: In May 2015.

ALBERTS: ...In May 2015 (laughter). And I saw thousands of people. I saw - when they can all make so much money, it must really be something. Then I saw Dr. Ruja, and she had all princess's dresses. And she definitely knew what she was talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGNATOVA: Before you joined OneCoin, 99% of you did not know what cryptocurrency is about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

IGNATOVA: Now we understand, and we are shaping the future. Everybody needs to know OneCoin's name.

(APPLAUSE)

ALBERTS: What we did then, we gathered the teams together and we started to work like crazy. We made in our first month almost 90,000 euros out of nothing - bang.

ARONCZYK: Eventually, Igor says, he was making a million dollars a month off of OneCoin because he's convincing people to invest, they're convincing other people to invest, they're convincing more people to invest.

TIMOTHY CURRY: They're pretty genius how they put it together, actually.

ARONCZYK: This is Timothy Curry. Jamie called him up because he works in the cryptocurrency industry and he was watching OneCoin. He told Jamie that Igor Alberts wasn't working alone. Igor had assembled a team of the best multilevel marketers in the world to spread the word about OneCoin.

CURRY: Basically, think of it as an all-star soccer team or all-star baseball team or whatever. And they're like, OK, we have a bigger budget than any other baseball team in the United States. Right? And so what we're going to do is we're going to buy the biggest rookies. We're going to take the biggest stars from some of these biggest teams, and that's how we're going to build this team. Right? It's not that much different. You take the best talent; you pay them enough money. And so it's perfect. And if they're getting a paycheck, they're happy to do it.

ARONCZYK: Timothy first heard about OneCoin back in 2015, and it immediately looked suspicious to him.

BARTLETT: As soon as Tim Curry saw that, rather than there being a kind of easy way of buying and selling OneCoin for dollars and back again, you have to buy these confusing packages and you got commission to sell to your friends - which no other cryptocurrency was like - you know, alarm bells went off in his head. And he thought, this can't be right.

ARONCZYK: Timothy's at home, and he's looking at this. And he's like, wait a second - this is not a real cryptocurrency. Now, cryptocurrencies don't always seem real in the first place to a lot of people. But if you're into them, you know that a legitimate cryptocurrency has a few safeguards, like an open ledger called the blockchain that anybody can participate in, and there's a market where you can trade the currency. OneCoin had none of those things - no blockchain, no market, no way to turn them back into dollars. So Timothy was convinced it was a scam. And he wanted to do something about it.

BARTLETT: He became a bit of an online vigilante. He sort of took it upon himself to, I think, spend, like, 12 or 14 hours a day online warning people about OneCoin, trying to stop people from investing and trying to call out investors wherever he could.

ARONCZYK: Timothy joins OneCoin Facebook groups. And he's like, guys, wake up; this is a scam. He kind of starts freaking out. He contacts hundreds of people.

BARTLETT: And one of the people he comes across is Jen McAdam.

ARONCZYK: Jen McAdam, the Scottish investor. Timothy Curry thinks Jen is a promoter - that she's part of the scam. So he gets in touch with her. And this next recording, which is kind of alarming, is a video chat between Timothy and Jen. It's a fight, and Jen recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CURRY: OneCoin is not a cryptocurrency. There is no blockchain, and I can prove it.

MCADAM: Yes, there's a blockchain, Tim.

CURRY: I can prove it to you that there's not.

MCADAM: Well, then prove it to me.

CURRY: I'll f****** prove it. It's a f****** scam.

MCADAM: For me, that...

CURRY: This is the biggest scam in the world right now. Do you understand? It's the biggest scam in the f****** world.

BARTLETT: He sees Jen as a OneCoin promoter because he's seen that she's selling it to her friends and family. At that point, she has been told by OneCoin that this guy Timothy Curry is a dangerous fanatic who hates OneCoin because he's scared of the financial revolution. And he sees her as being this kind of scam artist who's ripping people off.

ARONCZYK: First Jen's like, no way - it is not possible that OneCoin is a scam.

BARTLETT: I know it sounds ludicrous, but once you've put your money into something, it's actually quite hard to let go of that. You know, you don't want to believe the truth because it's too hard to take.

ARONCZYK: But over the next few weeks after that video call, Timothy sends Jen all of this stuff about how cryptocurrencies actually work. He sends links and articles and YouTube videos.

MCADAM: So he sent me loads of information, which took me three months to eventually go through and digest it, to understand it.

BARTLETT: So the things he sent you, slowly, you did start looking at - you did start reading?

MCADAM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Once it starts to digesting, then that's when the serious red flags were popping up.

ARONCZYK: Then Timothy told her, go on - go ask the people at OneCoin to show you the blockchain. See what happens. See what they say.

MCADAM: So I started asking my OneCoin leaders, was there a blockchain? And I want answers.

ARONCZYK: The more questions she asks of those OneCoin leaders, the more defensive they get. They say that she doesn't need to see it, that it's stored somewhere secretive. And it's at that point she realizes there is no blockchain and there is no OneCoin.

MCADAM: And I - literally, my legs just went, and I fell on the floor.

ARONCZYK: Jen's investment is worthless. The 250,000 euros her friends and family had invested is gone. It's finally clear to her - OneCoin is a scam.

BARTLETT: But the problem is, even at the bottom of the pyramid, there are people that are selling it, too, to their friends and family, often unwittingly. So the line between perpetrator and victim is just not clear when you're dealing with this kind of pyramid scheme.

ARONCZYK: Not even Igor Alberts, the multilevel marketer who got rich off OneCoin, admits to knowing that the cryptocurrency was a fake.

ALBERTS: I have no clue about cryptocurrency at all - nothing. But what I saw is a lot of people that have a lot of knowledge about it. I see those people making the money. What doubt can I have?

ARONCZYK: Igor told Jamie that there were all sorts of mysteries behind OneCoin.

ALBERTS: You never know what is behind because when we started, there were very influential people behind.

BARTLETT: Would you tell us anything about who they are?

ALBERTS: No, I cannot tell that because I don't want to take that risk with our lives.

ARONCZYK: Don't want to take that risk with our lives - that wasn't the only time that Jamie heard this fear. There was a rumor that the mafia was somehow involved with OneCoin, which might help to explain what happened next. Jamie learned that in 2017, money was still pouring into OneCoin. Dr. Ruja was still flying around the world promoting it. And then there was this big event. It was supposed to be in Portugal, and Dr. Ruja was scheduled to speak.

ALBERTS: Dr. Ruja was extremely disciplined.

ARONCZYK: Igor was there that night helping promote OneCoin.

ALBERTS: It never happened that she didn't show up for an appointment. And she was always on time - not one minute late.

BARTLETT: Then suddenly, at this event in Lisbon, Portugal, she just doesn't turn up.

ALBERTS: The people from the office were desperate. We saw them. Where is she? How can that be? We should call her one more time.

BARTLETT: Frantic calls and emails; she's not at the head office in Sofia.

ALBERTS: She didn't react on the email, not on the WhatsApp or nothing. Nothing helped.

BARTLETT: That's the last time, really, anyone hears anything of her. She seems to have vanished into thin air.

ALBERTS: And nobody knew where is Dr. Ruja.

ARONCZYK: We'll be back in one moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Dr. Ruja was the founder and the face of OneCoin, but Jamie says she wasn't running the company alone.

BARTLETT: When Ruja disappeared in October 2017, her brother Konstantin took over and essentially became the acting boss of OneCoin.

ARONCZYK: Konstantin, who is this tattooed bodybuilder, was Dr. Ruja's personal assistant before she disappeared. And for about a year and a half, he's the one running OneCoin. But then he makes a mistake. In March 2019, Konstantin travels to Las Vegas. He's there for some meetings. And then he heads to LAX to fly back to Bulgaria. Now, up until that time, OneCoin had largely avoided the U.S., probably for good reason - because just as Konstantin was preparing to board his flight, he was picked up by the FBI.

BARTLETT: So when he was arrested in the U.S., it was essentially the U.S. arresting the big boss of the whole scam.

ARONCZYK: Konstantin and Dr. Ruja, in absentia, were charged with a list of crimes...

BARTLETT: Money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, wire fraud and securities fraud. The state attorney essentially called OneCoin an old-fashioned pyramid scheme using new technology. So they're pretty serious charges, obviously.

ARONCZYK: Konstantin gets sent to jail in lower Manhattan. He hasn't been sentenced yet, but he could be going to prison for 90 years. Dr. Ruja - she's at large. At the time of the arrest, Jamie and BBC producer Georgia Catt are deeply into reporting their podcast. They end up calling it The Missing Cryptoqueen. And for a moment, they wonder if that's the end of the story. But people are clearly still investing in OneCoin online. There are still webinars and new videos. And perhaps strangest of all, a month after Konstantin's arrest, OneCoin organizers have planned a beauty pageant...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The first annual Miss OneLife 2019 beauty pageant. For the first time...

ARONCZYK: OneCoin was like this machine that had been so well-built, it just seemed to keep going. Jamie and Georgia Catt, the BBC producer, are like, what is this?

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARTLETT: And they're saying the biggest beauty pageant in the world...

GEORGIA CATT: The biggest event in the world.

BARTLETT: The biggest event in the world. And millions of people will be watching, the media...

CATT: All the mainstream media outlets.

BARTLETT: All the mainstream media and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The biggest event in the world...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARTLETT: And we're thinking, OK, what? This is ridiculous. We thought, we got to go because it's a OneCoin event.

CATT: So we tried calling the organizer, a multi-level marketer networker called Cristi Calina. And remarkably, he answered. And I think we weren't quite expecting him to answer.

BARTLETT: No.

CATT: And he kind of said, yes, sure, come along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: See you in Romania.

ARONCZYK: Georgia and Jamie make their way to Romania, and they buy themselves some last-minute cocktail party attire.

CATT: And yeah, we're right there in the evening. And it was a really big event.

BARTLETT: Champagne on every table, vodka on every table.

CATT: And people - just cigar smoke everywhere.

BARTLETT: Oh, there's four more bottles of champagne coming out. Just send away a bottle my way. Oh, dear, OK, that's what we do.

Yeah, what can you say was? I mean, it was a beauty pageant with real people, real contestants. No other media. There wasn't any other international media, of course.

I thought we're just going to blend in. We are not blending in.

ARONCZYK: They're sitting in the corner. They're not drinking. They're holding this giant microphone. And they feel like they're really sticking out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Unintelligible).

BARTLETT: The music's going down.

CATT: It was really, really surreal.

BARTLETT: Oh, my God. The stage has descended from the ceiling. Oh, my God.

ARONCZYK: As they're watching the pageant, Jamie and Georgia realized that this event isn't being held just for the people in a club. This event is being livestreamed.

BARTLETT: And you're watching this pageant at home. And you're seeing, wow, there's this huge beauty pageant, loads of people, champagne. This has to be a legitimate company.

Champagne's being popped.

So it kind of made us realize, I think, just how good these scammers are at creating a sort of facade of believability, just enough that an ordinary person that doesn't understand the technology will believe that OneCoin is legitimate.

ARONCZYK: Jamie says that OneCoin was able to keep the lie going even though the founder had disappeared, the boss was arrested by controlling that image, that facade of believability and also by going after anyone who tried to attack them. Even before the first episode of The Missing Cryptoqueen was released, the BBC was flooded with complaints. And then once a couple of episodes were out, someone posted this really odd, negative video about Jamie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: OneCoin, How to Disrupt BBC Propaganda by Jamie Bartlett.

BARTLETT: I got onto this fairly well-known BBC news program just to talk about the podcast. And probably within 24 hours, footage of me being interviewed on that program had been taken by OneCoin promoters, re-edited, basically insulting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Jamie Bartlett is not a serious journalist with ethical practices. It's like a children who want the attention, and it's just for his personal interest. But nobody listen you.

BARTLETT: They edited a red nose onto my face, played stupid music over the top, basically saying to OneCoin promoters, you can ignore this podcast about OneCoin. It's all lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARTLETT: Well, I mean, Jen, as well, you know, it was sort of F, F...

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: F, F, F. This guy cannot even speak correctly. And he has pretend to have made serious investigation about OneCoin.

BARTLETT: You're talking about people that have invested money and are now tied into the program. And they have to recruit more people. So you being out there criticizing them, calling it a scam is directly harming their personal prospects. So invariably, what happens is those current investors will do anything to silence you.

ARONCZYK: And they don't just criticize Jamie and the BBC. OneCoiners have even gone after people like Jen McAdam, the Scottish woman you heard from before. Jamie says that once the podcast was out and Jen was publicly out there calling OneCoin a scam, she received all sorts of awful messages.

BARTLETT: Some of the messages that you've received so far - what have you got?

MCADAM: Online?

BARTLETT: Yeah.

MCADAM: Death threats.

BARTLETT: What were people saying?

MCADAM: You won't be living within the next few days. And there was sexual abuse threats, as well. I really - I don't even want to repeat it. It's not nice at all. Sometimes, I feel as though I'm in a nightmare that I just can't wake up from. I try to contain it because of my loved ones, not to show them that I'm worried. I don't sleep. I just worry constantly.

ARONCZYK: She's now doing for others what Timothy did for her, trying to help people see what OneCoin really is through the smoke and mirrors.

MCADAM: I mean, I speak to people every day that are suicidal, and this is only the beginning. They don't want to hear this because they've gave everything they've got. They've sold their houses. Who wants to hear someone say, listen - this is actually a scam? They don't want to hear that. And I understand that. I really do understand that because I was there.

ARONCZYK: We reached out to OneCoin but didn't hear back. They did get back to the BBC, though, and they denied any wrongdoing. OneCoin had told the BBC, quote, "OneCoin verifiably fulfills all criteria of the definition of a cryptocurrency," end of quote. The company also claimed that they are challenging the allegations made about it, stating, quote, "Our partners, our customers and our lawyers are fighting successfully against this action around the globe. And we are sure that the vision of a new system on the basis of a financial revolution will be established." Since the FBI got involved and the BBC podcast came out, the growth of OneCoin seems like it's finally slowing down. The last time I looked, the website wasn't even working. But it's clear that this kind of international online scam, especially one that exploits our ignorance about new technologies, it's more like a contagion than a business - self-spreading, leaderless.

BARTLETT: No one's entirely sure whose jurisdiction it is. No one's sure whether it's a cryptocurrency or not. Technically speaking, because OneCoin is not really regulated, no regulator is in charge of it.

ARONCZYK: Because so much of OneCoin's rise happened online, it's a crime that's happening everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Meanwhile, Dr. Ruja is still missing, and so is all of the money that people invested. But some of the same people who are involved in OneCoin, they've started something new.

BARTLETT: We heard that there's a new opportunity...

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yes. Yes. And we are here with the reason...

BARTLETT: ...Run by some of the same people with a very similar compensation scheme called Dagcoin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We like to bring the real future of payment. We like to...

BARTLETT: Even when OneCoin dies, there are many other similar things out there that look remarkably alike.

SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) Let's go, crypto. Let's go cashless. Let's go, crypto. Get your money. Let's go cashless. OneCoin.

ARONCZYK: Has your leader disappeared? Email us at planetmoney@npr.org and let us know. We're also on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook at @PlanetMoney. Thanks to Georgia Catt and Rachel Simpson at the BBC, Nolan Bauerle at Coindesk and Jeff Locke. Please also be sure to check out the eight-part part BBC series. It's called The Missing Cryptoqueen. There's so much more to the story. There's what Dr. Ruja was up to before OneCoin, just how far OneCoin traveled. And, of course, they have a lot more details on the whereabouts of the missing cryptoqueen. This episode was produced by Liza Yeager. Planet Money's editor is Bryant Urstadt. And our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Also, one more thing - PLANET MONEY has a newsletter. You should check it out - npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: OneCoin, together for all (ph).

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