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At one, in July , the American pop star Bebe Rexha performed a private set.


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Despite the successful facade, trouble was brewing. The opening of a long-promised exchange that would allow OneCoin to be turned into cash kept being delayed - and investors were growing more and more concerned. Nobody knew why she wasn't there," recalls one delegate. Frantic calls and messages went unanswered. The head office in Sofia, where she was such an imposing presence, didn't know anything either.

Dr Ruja had vanished. Some feared she'd been killed or kidnapped by the banks, who - they'd been told - had most to fear from the cryptocurrency revolution.

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In fact, she had gone underground. FBI records presented in court documents earlier this year indicate that on 25 October , just two weeks after her Lisbon no-show, she boarded a Ryanair flight from Sofia to Athens. And then went completely off radar. That was the last time anyone saw or heard from Dr Ruja. Igor Alberts is wearing black-and-gold everything. Black-and-gold shoes, black-and-gold pleated suit, black-and-gold shirt, black-and-gold sunglasses, and he has a thick black-and-gold ring on.

And every item of clothing is Dolce and Gabbana. His wife, Andreea Cimbala, nods along, adding that if he wakes up and puts on pink underwear, he sticks to pink as he chooses his shirt, trousers and jacket. They live in an enormous house in an affluent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam. At the gated entrance to their mansion is a 10ft-high wrought iron gate with their names and the slogan "What dreams may come".

A Maserati and Aston Martin are parked outside. Alberts was brought up in a poor neighbourhood. Then he got into network marketing, or multi-level marketing MLM as it is often known, and started making money. Lots of money.


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  • I sell a box to my friends, Georgia and Phil, and make a small cut. But then I recruit Georgia and Phil to start selling too, and I make a cut on their sales as well. They are now in what's called my downline. Phil and Georgia both recruit two people, and then all four of them recruit two more, and so on. This mushrooms very rapidly - 25 rounds of recruitment later and everyone in the UK would be selling vitamins.

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    And I, at the top, would be making a cut on all the sales. MLM is not illegal. Big companies like Amway and Herbalife use these techniques. But it is controversial, because usually only a small number of people make all the money. It's also notorious for exaggerated promises of high earnings and tough sales targets. When there is nothing of value to sell, though, and all the money is made by recruiting other people, it is illegal and goes by another name: a pyramid scheme.

    In May , already a very successful MLM seller, Igor Alberts was invited to a OneCoin event in Dubai, where he met lots of people, all apparently making fortunes with this new currency. Dr Ruja herself made a powerful impression too, with her "princess's dresses" and her vision of a financial revolution. Igor returned with a new mission - and gave new instructions to all the salespeople in his downline: stop whatever you're doing, and start selling OneCoin. Dr Ruja's genius was to recognise that established MLM sellers with huge downlines were the perfect vehicle to market her fake coin - a plan the FBI says she privately referred to as "the bitch of Wall Street, meets MLM".

    This was the secret of OneCoin's success. It wasn't just a fake cryptocurrency, it was an old-fashioned pyramid scheme, with the fake coin as its "product". No wonder it spread like wildfire. But they used some of this cash to buy more OneCoin. They, like almost everyone else involved, were convinced they were earning a fortune.

    It's easy as that. The nature of MLM networks - where people often recruit others who are close to them - creates a blurred sense of responsibility. Blame is not easy to apportion. And if sellers have invested their own money, they are victims too. He didn't get it, and in December he quit.

    I ask if he felt guilty, for having sold so many people a coin that didn't exist, and for having made so much money in the process.

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    Not guilt," he replies. I had no clue that it could be false. I didn't even know what is a blockchain… What doubt can I have? By contrast, Jen McAdam says she bears a heavy burden of guilt. She feels guilty towards those who she introduced to OneCoin, she says, but also towards her late father, a miner, who worked hard all his life in horrible conditions, and left her the money that she then gave away.

    It's hard to know how much money has been put into OneCoin.

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    There's a famous saying in journalism, "Follow the money. The problem, he explains, is that following the money isn't as easy as it sounds, because criminals structure their companies and bank accounts in such a way that their assets seem to disappear. But when it comes to someone trying to find them - whether that's a journalist or a police officer - they are invisible. It's no surprise, then, that OneCoin's corporate structure is incredibly complicated. Here's an example: Ruja bought a very large property in central Sofia. Technically it was owned by a company called One Property.

    One Property was owned by another company called Risk Ltd. Risk Ltd was owned by Ruja, but was then transferred to some unnamed Panamanians, but it was still managed by another company called Peragon. And Peragon was owned by another company called Artefix, which was owned by Ruja's mother, Veska.

    And then in , the ownership of Artefix was sold to an unknown man in his 20s. For several months, a French journalist called Maxime Grimbert tried to unpick OneCoin's corporate workings, collecting as many company names and bank account details as he could. I show his results to Bullough, who immediately notices how many British companies there are. He takes the first one on the list and looks it up on the Companies House website.

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    Everything is meant to be transparent - the website contains the details of every company in the UK. It's thought to be a key anti-corruption tool. They have filed no financial information at all. The UK began to insist recently that companies must enter the name of the person with "significant control" - the real owner. That's illegal… That is an anonymous shell company, as anonymous as anything that you can buy anywhere in the Seychelles or Nevis or the Marshall Islands or Vanuatu.

    So much for following the money. In an interconnected global economy, assets can simply vanish, and you end up chasing shadows. When you're dealing with a scam worth billions of euros, it's not unusual for shadowy groups to get involved. Several of the people Georgia and I interviewed spoke darkly about mysterious people and connections they didn't want to name.

    He tells me he's received death threats as a result of speaking out. I would have just turned my back and walked away," he says. When I ask him who might be behind the threats, he won't elaborate.

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    It starts to get very very very scary, very very very fast. People involved at the early stages have told him it was never supposed to be a billion-dollar scam. She tried to close it down, he says, but the dark forces wouldn't let her. Igor Alberts, the MLM seller, also talks about the involvement of "very influential people". When I ask for more details, he replies: "No, I cannot tell that because I don't want to take that risk with our lives.

    It's not clear who Bjorn and Igor are talking about, or whether they are even talking about the same people, but the US Department of Justice claims to have evidence of a link between Dr Ruja's brother, Konstantin Ignatov - who took over the running of OneCoin when Ruja disappeared - and "significant players in Eastern European organised crime". Just as he was boarding his flight home, he was pounced on by FBI agents, arrested ,and charged with fraud in connection with OneCoin. Around the same time, the US authorities charged Dr Ruja in absentia for wire fraud, security fraud and money laundering.

    Amazingly, even after this, OneCoin continued to function - and people continued to invest in it. When Georgia and I visited Sofia a month later, Dr Ruja's personal mansion appeared to be locked up and empty, but the OneCoin office gave every appearance of being a busy workplace.

    Investors often told us that what drew them in initially was the fear that they would miss out on the next big thing. They'd read, with envy, the stories of people striking gold with Bitcoin and thought OneCoin was a second chance. Many were struck by the personality and persuasiveness of the "visionary" Dr Ruja.

    Investors might not have understood the technology, but they could see her talking to huge audiences, or at the Economist conference. They were shown photographs of her numerous degrees, and copies of Forbes magazine with her portrait on the front cover. The degrees are genuine. The Forbes cover isn't: it was actually an inside cover - a paid-for advertisement - from Forbes Bulgaria, but once the real cover was ripped off, it looked impressive.

    But it seems it's not just the promise of riches that keeps people believing. She was entered into a Whatsapp group, with its own "leader" who disseminated information from the headquarters in Sofia. And McAdam's leader prepared her carefully for conversations with OneCoin sceptics.

    Even Google - 'Don't listen to Google! Prof Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, who has spent years studying groups like the Moonies and Scientologists, says there are similarities between OneCoin and messianic millennium cults, where people believe they are part of something big that is going to change the world - and no matter what the evidence, once they've signed up, it's very hard for them to admit they are wrong. You think, 'Wait a bit longer.