UAE royals helped OneCoin kingpin Ruja Ignatova in selling huge properties in Dubai

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Ruja Ignatova, Crypto Queen, CryptoQueen, OneCoin, Dominica, Frank Schneider

While sitting in Dubai, a company named AG Mena, which works as agent for Dominica in selling citizenship and diplomatic position has been publishing advertisements and sponsored posts on social media luring Bangladesh citizens in laundering money, there is shocking information about a notorious scam racket offloading properties in Dubai with the active collaboration of members of the UAE royal family.

According to media reports, so-called Crypto Queen Ruja Ignatova, kingpin of OneCoin who swindled over 4 billion of dollars by cheating people and been in FBI’s Most Wanted list has succeeded in selling properties worth millions of dollars with the direct help of a number of influential figures in the royal family. Her security adviser, Frank Schneider, who was under house arrest in France battling extradition to the US also has sold his properties in the similar manner. Schneider escaped house arrest and was missing for years, although recently it has been revealed that he currently is in Indonesia’s Aceh province – most possibly by using a different name and passport issued by one of the Caribbean nations.

According to OCCRP investigation, several of Frank Schneider’s former associates in one of the biggest cryptocurrency scams in history were facing criminal charges, and some were on the run. But if the former Luxembourg intelligence officer was concerned that the net was closing in on him too, it didn’t affect his exercise routine.

A fitness app recorded Schneider’s March 21, 2020, bike ride around the circumference of the luxury Palm Jumeirah development in Dubai.

Schneider had purchased an apartment there for US$2 million in early 2018.

Ruja Ignatova, the mastermind behind the massive OneCoin crypto scam, had bought a penthouse in 2015 in the same gated community – an artificial array of islands shaped like a palm tree inside a circular halo.

Ignatova and Schneider had begun working together after Schneider left his job as a director of operations for Luxembourg’s spy service, and started his own corporate intelligence firm. Schneider allegedly aided in “evading law enforcement investigations” and helped in “managing the scheme’s proceeds”, according to a US indictment against him.

By the time Schneider took his mid-day bike ride in 2020, Ignatova had disappeared – some reports say she was murdered –– and OneCoin had collapsed, costing investors over US$4 billion.

Schneider had not yet been publicly linked to the scandal when he purchased his apartment in 2018, a year after OneCoin collapsed. However, leaked Dubai property records show his and Ignatova’s properties were sold after they had already been charged with criminal offenses following OneCoin’s collapse, raising questions over Dubai’s enforcement of anti-money laundering rules.

Ignatova had purchased her 500-square-meter apartment through a shell company. A title deed obtained by OCCRP’s partner, paper trail media, shows the company sold the property in December 2019, by which time Ignatova was wanted by prosecutors in New York.

The OneCoin catastrophe was well-known by the time the properties were sold off. Numerous media reports quoted victims describing in detail how Ignatova had duped them into buying her fake cryptocurrency. The BBC traced Ignatova’s rapid rise and spectacular demise in a popular podcast launched in September 2019 called The Missing Cryptoqueen, which included scores of interviews with victims.

Ignatova and Schneider were able to carry out the real estate deals despite a United Arab Emirates law in place since 2019 that requires realtors to run background checks on buyers and sellers of properties, and report any suspicious transactions to authorities.

“You need to know the customers you’re dealing with”, said Henry Wyad, Investigations Analyst at Themis, a UK- and UAE-based firm that helps clients manage financial crime risks. The law is “explicit” about this, and clearly covers both seller and purchaser, he added.

This permissiveness is not surprising, according to Alexander Yearsley, managing director of Edinburgh-based Martello Risk, who has conducted financial investigations and forensic auditing on Dubai.

He said a lack of enforcement had helped earn the UAE a reputation as a safe place to stash the proceeds of criminal activity.

“You’ve got the fact that there is an unbelievably light touch to regulation – if you want to call it regulation. You literally can get away with whatever you want”, Yearsley said. “If the price is right, the politics don’t bother them”.

UAE officials — including at the ministries of interior, economy, and justice — and Dubai Police did not respond to detailed questions from reporters about the sale of properties belonging to Ignatova and Schneider. UAE embassies in the UK and Norway sent a brief comment saying that the country “works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance”.

According to Dubai records, Frank Schneider’s most recent UAE ID data shows his residency was authorized through July 2023, which would have granted him lawful entry into Dubai at the time he escaped French custody.

An FBI spokesperson told OCCRP that Schneider “remains a fugitive”. But journalists discovered new clues linking Schneider to Indonesia, which does not have an extradition treaty with the US.

Schneider appeared as director of an Indonesia-registered company called White Orchid Management, described in registration documents as being set up in March 2020 to buy, sell, rent, and operate real estate.

On September 8, 2023 – months after Schneider disappeared – the shares of the company were transferred to his wife and son, and he left his position as director.

Ignatova too has disappeared without trace. While OCCRP’s Bulgarian media partner, Bird, reported in February 2023 that Ignatova was likely murdered, her death has never been confirmed. In 2022, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation declared Ignatova, who was born in Bulgaria and became a German citizen, one of its most wanted fugitives.

An FBI spokesperson said in an email that the agency “is aware of media reports regarding Ruja Ignatova’s death, however, until there is documented evidence that she is dead, the FBI considers Ignatova as alive, and she remains on the FBI Top 10 Most Wanted List”.

According to an investigative report published in Blitz in October 2023, although Ruja Ignatova is seen by Federal Investigation Agency (FBI) as “missing cryptoqueen” or a fugitive, in reality she has been living in the United Kingdom under protection of several mighty politicians belonging to the Labour Party, while she is enjoying legal services from a number of front-ranking UK lawyers. Last week she came out of hiding to make a formal claim on a £13.5 million townhouse in London, while the UK authorities neither arrested her nor brought the matter to attention of Interpol or FBI.

Meanwhile, according to information, a UK law firm named Locke Lord offered its services to Ruja Ignatova long after she went missing. A letter admitted in evidence at the US trial of ex-employee Mark Scott shows that on July 12, 2018 James Channo, a partner at the London branch of the firm, wrote to Ruja about her UK properties.

“We believe it is important that we revisit the manner in which you hold your real estate interests in the UK,” he wrote. The letter, addressed to Ruja at a Sofia address.

A statement provided by Locke Lord and James Channo said the letter was an offer of legal services “in a standard form”, that it was disclosed by Locke Lord to US prosecutors, and that no work was done for Ruja as a result.

One interesting line in the letter confirmed what BBC sources had been telling – that it wasn’t just the penthouse Ruja Ignatova had bought in the UK. On the fifth floor of Abbots House there’s a less fancy two-bedroom apartment that ex-porter James told BBC Ruja Ignatova’s bodyguards would stay in.

UK records show the owner of 11 Abbots House is also a Guernsey shell company, Abbots Property Limited, and that it too is registered at Aquitaine’s address.

The smaller flat was also bought in 2016 – for £1.9m. Her name was again kept off the paperwork, but our sources say she was the one behind the purchase.

Asked by the BBC about its dealings with Ruja Ignatova, Aquitaine said it had no comment to make.

BBC report said, after she disappeared, 11 Abbots House seems to have taken on a different function, serving as a secret storage facility, which its sources told at one point that house was containing two large safes.

Since her disappearance in 2017, Blitz in a number of exclusive reports had had provided information about Ruja Ignatova owning properties in the United Kingdom, Dubai and several Caribbean island countries.

According to a source, Ruja Ignatova succeeded in buying Dominica citizenship by giving “extra cash” to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, while it is also learnt that Ruja has made significant investment in various business ventures in Dominica and other Caribbean nations.

Meanwhile, Ignatova’s OneCoin co-founder, Karl Sebastian Greenwood, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering. In September 2023 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and ordered to forfeit US$300 million.

As first revealed by the BBC’s The Missing Cryptoqueen podcast, Greenwood also held Dubai property, purchased before OneCoin launched. Records show that his villa was valued at US$5.4 million when it was put on the market in 2022 as part of an unrelated lawsuit.

Overall, the findings show how Dubai remains an attractive destination both for foreigners who want to invest in real estate in a low-tax jurisdiction and for money launderers who benefit from some local real estate agents’ “no-questions-asked” policy. Real estate investments also allow foreigners to obtain UAE residency if they buy one or more properties worth at least US$545,000.

Besides the OneCoin fraudsters, the 2022 data reveal that dozens of criminals, including mafia bosses and individuals sanctioned for financing al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, bought luxurious flats, commercial real estate and parking lots in the Persian Gulf’s financial hub. Among them are Daniel Kinahan, a former boxing promoter who is accused by Irish and US authorities of running a deadly global drug cartel from the UAE, and his wife, Caoimhe Robinson.

The dataset lists passport numbers, building names, room descriptions and other details of flats and commercial properties owned by individuals and companies. ICIJ and reporters participating in the Dubai Unlocked investigation cross-referenced the property data with the UAE registry of sale transactions from 1990 to 2023.

The records also show that even individuals who are the subject of an Interpol red notice — a request for a country to provisionally arrest someone — can be property owners in Dubai. For example, Isabel dos Santos, the wealthy daughter of Angola’s former ruler, is listed as the co-owner of a two-bedroom apartment near the Dubai waterfront. Since 2019, at least three countries have frozen Isabel dos Santos’ assets. Dos Santos, who denies wrongdoing, is banned from entering the US due to her alleged “involvement in significant corruption” and was recently charged in Angola with 12 crimes, including embezzlement and fraud.

Soon after, the European Commission sought to remove the UAE from the EU’s own list of countries at high risk of money laundering, but the European Parliament blocked that proposal in April, citing “important and recent” evidence that the UAE facilitates financial crimes and the evasion of sanctions.

Unlike other notoriously secretive jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, the UAE’s role as a critical military ally of the U.S. and a bulwark against terrorism in the Middle East have shielded the country from a greater degree of scrutiny by Western powers.

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