Top Crypto Scammers Managed to Sell Dubai Properties After Being Charged

So-called CryptoQueen Ruja Ignatova and her security adviser, Frank Schneider, liquidated Dubai assets despite being charged in the U.S. for their alleged roles in a $4bn fraud. The whereabouts of both is unknown.

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 $2 million in early 2018. Ruja Ignatova, the alleged 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 U.S. 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 $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 — and possibly even dead.

Credit: Private The view from inside Ruja Ignatova’s Dubai penthouse apartment, which was sold in 2019 — after she was wanted in the U.S.

Schneider had already been detained when his Palm Jumeirah flat sold for $2.3 million in January 2022.

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 U.K.- 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 U.K. and Norway sent a brief comment saying that the country “works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance.”

“The UAE is committed to continuing these efforts and actions more than ever today and over the longer term,” the statement added.

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