Authorities have arrested one leader on Wednesday of a cryptocurrency project called OneCoin, which prosecutors allege was in fact a pyramid scheme rather than a functional currency. Konstantin Ignatov was arrested on a wire fraud conspiracy charge, while his older sister, Ruja Ignatova, has been indicted for money laundering, and wire and securities fraud, in a document unsealed yesterday. Ignatova is currently at large.
OneCoin, a Bulgaria-based company, was founded in 2014 and still has operations running today, according to the indictment. The company gave users a commission if they could convince others to buy OneCoin cryptocurrency, taking the familiar shape of a multi-level marketing scheme. It claimed to have over 3 million members worldwide, despite having no functional blockchain or public ledger.
Manhattan attorney Geoffrey Berman says in a government press release that the OneCoin leaders created a multibillion-dollar company “based completely on lies and deceit.” In a brief period between 2014 and 2016, OneCoin made €3.353 billion (roughly $3.7 billion) in revenue.
Prosecutors allege that the leaders lied to investors to inflate the value of a OneCoin from half a euro ($0.56) to almost 30 euros ($33.65) as of January this year. In reality, the leaders of the project emailed each other saying that they planned to “take the money and run and blame someone else for this.”
“These defendants executed an old-school pyramid scheme on a new-school platform,” New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.
US authorities found in their investigation that OneCoin claimed to have a digital ledger for recording cryptocurrency transactions, but there wasn’t a public one that could be verified. In 2015, Ignatova started to give members of her project fake OneCoin tokens to sell, aptly calling them “fake coins.”
When members of OneCoin recently asked Ignatov when they would be able to cash out on their tokens, he allegedly responded, “if you are here to cash out, leave this room now, because you don’t understand what this project is about.”
OneCoin is known to be potentially fraudulent in various countries, including in the UK, Germany, Finland, India, China, and Bulgaria, as noted by CoinDesk. Many authorities have warned about its behaviors and even attempted to halt the company’s operations.
Mark Scott, another person who assisted in the OneCoin project, was indicted last summer and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. Ignatov also faces 20 years in prison, while Ignatova faces five separate charges, which could add to up a maximum of 85 years in prison if she’s found guilty on all counts.