"The next thing we know we’re in this huge mansion in Amsterdam, filled with fibreglass zoo animals and Swarovski crystals. And this guy wearing head-to-toe matching Dolce & Gabbana is telling us he’s making €2.6 million a month selling OneCoin," says Georgia Catt, recalling the moment she realised the sheer scale of the scam she was investigating. "It was totally surreal."
Surreal, but just another day for a true crime reporter. Alongside presenter Jamie Bartlett, Catt is the producer and co-writer of The Missing Cryptoqueen podcast – last year’s BBC Sounds smash hit, with more than three million listeners hanging on its every twist. Together, the pair took a deep dive into the complex world of cryptocurrency and the mother of all scams: OneCoin, a company selling itself as the leader of a financial revolution.
Founded in 2014 by Bulgarian entrepreneur Dr Ruja Ignatova, OneCoin has made an estimated £4 billion by recruiting millions of members from across the globe. Like those friends of friends who flog laxative teas on your Facebook feed, the scam’s meteoric rise was down to MLM, or multi-level marketing. Unlike those laxative teas, however, OneCoin’s miracle product never even existed.
"It is so much a story of now," says Catt, who has worked as a radio producer with the BBC since 2012. "It’s a sort of hyper version of all these trends that we’re seeing anyway – a distrust in the mainstream media; huge dissatisfaction and suspicion about the banking world after the financial crisis. Then there’s the hype and the fear of missing out on technology, and how easy it is to construct credibility online these days. It managed to tap into all those things."
Catt first heard the story of Dr Ruja and her OneCoin empire during a casual dinner conversation with – of course – a friend of a friend. "They’d invested a lot, tens of thousands, and they believed they now had something like €150,000. They were convinced by it. Not only that their money was really going up, but that they were part of the next financial revolution."
Intrigued, she spent the next six months "disappearing down the rabbit hole" of online research, wading through the Facebook pages and forums where OneCoin disciples flogged their wares. "I was amazed at what I was seeing," she says. "I realised: This is a scam. There’s nothing more to it, it's the emperor's new clothes. And as soon as I was confident on that, I knew it would lend itself well to a podcast series."
Crime is huge right now; BBC Sounds alone has over 40 podcasts on the subject available to stream, from the more deadly mortem to a miscarriage of justice in Shreds: Murder In The Dock. Ever since Serial’s investigation into the death of teenager Hae Min Lee sent the genre mainstream in 2014, podcast audiences have been hooked on shows chronicling the mysterious, the murky and the couldn’t-make-it-up details of true crime stories. Audiences are overwhelmingly female, although nobody is quite sure why.
Where The Missing Cryptoqueen bucks the trend is that a woman is the star, not just the victim. "As much as I love true crime and I listen to a lot of it, so often it starts with a dead woman, or a missing woman," says Catt. "Okay, this one also starts with a missing woman…but very quickly you learn that she’s a criminal mastermind."
The enigmatic Dr Ruja is the backbone of the podcast; rather than being a faceless criminal operation, OneCoin has a glamorous female figurehead. "I have an almost Killing Eve-type relationship with her," Catt laughs. "Obviously, I want her to be found and brought to justice – she’s ruined millions of lives. But she’s smart. It’s like, What’s going through her head?"
As a two-person team, Bartlett and Catt took on all the research and on-the-ground reporting themselves, often uprooting their lives to chase each new lead across Europe. There were sleepless nights, cancelled plans. "I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard for that sustained a period of time before," says Catt. "I didn’t have a weekend, I didn’t have an evening. It was totally all-consuming. But because we didn’t know how it was going to pan out, we were so excited by it."
As a fan who had to sleep with the light on after more than one episode, the question I’m dying to ask is: Don’t they get scared?
Not really, insists Catt. "You realise you’re lucky, doing it for the BBC. We’ve got a legal team behind us. Meanwhile people like [former OneCoin investor] Jen or [blockchain developer] Bjorn have been hammering this for years without any support. Jen gets death threats."
One of the hardest moments was meeting 22-year-old Daniel, who had persuaded his mother to invest her whole life savings in OneCoin. Introducing the pair to his mother, who speaks little English and has no access to the internet, Daniel admits that he still hasn’t broken it to her that the whole thing is a scam.
"Maybe you can tell her?" he asks. There is a stunned silence.
"I’ve never, ever been in a situation like that before. Morally, what can you do? You can’t interfere in somebody’s family dynamic, but at the time we didn’t want to give them false hope," says Catt. "It’s really hard not to get emotionally involved. You have to be as objective and clear-headed as possible."
While rescuing people isn’t an option, the potential to reach so many listeners can still be a force for good. After all, true crime podcasts have been responsible for reopening investigations, finding clues the police have missed and, in some cases, altering the course of justice. "Seeing and speaking to the victims really drove us on to expose this," Catt says. "We came out with a proper fire in us. We were so outraged."
Since The Missing Cryptoqueen aired, Bartlett and Catt have been inundated with messages from listeners wanting to help or telling them that the podcast has prevented friends and family members from investing in OneCoin. Just as the internet helped spread and amplify the scam, so the podosphere could help to kill it.
Finally, the question everybody wants answered: Will there be a second series?
Catt remains coy. "We’re still on it," she says. "We haven’t found her yet, we haven’t solved it…and let’s just say, we would really like to."