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People are tracking the private jets and superyachts of Russian oligarchs

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Seeing the seized yachts feels like a “bit of justice,” Finley said.

She is part of a growing group of online viewers watching and reporting as governments around the world seize the assets of Russian oligarchs as part of sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although money can often be stashed and transferred between offshore bank accounts, it’s trickier to conceal a 511ft megayacht with an indoor swimming pool, multiple helipads and a tracking system.

Use automated Twitter accounts, online tracking sites and homemade bingo cards, casual financial retaliation enthusiasts track the locations of oligarchs’ ships and jets, often hoping to catch them on the run or docked in a country likely to seize them. Social media accounts have sprung up to track the movements of these luxury vehicles and keep track of those that have been frozen or taken into possession by governments.

They use sites like VesselFinder, MarineTraffic or SuperYachtFan where you can enter a vessel’s name or unique identifiers, known as an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number or Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI). Using similar satellite tracking technology, the locations of the oligarchs’ private jets can also be tracked online through sites such as Flightradar24.com. It’s not just about location information. Some of the most expensive and well-known yachts have their own Wikipedia pages and online trackings, where details of their most over-the-top features are documented.

Russian billionaires have become the new object of fascination after the White House and the European Union decided to sanction dozens of individual oligarchs and their associates in the biggest Western crackdown on Russia after its invasion of Russia. ‘Ukraine.

“The United States and governments around the world will work to identify and freeze the assets that Russian elites and their family members hold in our respective jurisdictions – their yachts, luxury apartments, cash and other improper gains. acquired”, according to the White lodger in a March 3 statement.

Yacht watchers have already witnessed several seizures. Italian financial police have seized superyacht Lena and another named Lady M, owned by Russian oligarchs Gennady Timchenko and Alexei Mordashov respectively, according to the Associated Press. VesselFinder recently showed the two on its charts, moored in Italian ports.

At the end of last week, the French Ministry of Finance announcement on Twitter, he seized a 281-foot-long superyacht worth $120 million that belonged to Russian oligarch Igor Sechin, the CEO of oil giant Rosneft. Called the Amore Vero, recent locations for this vessel weren’t as easy to find on tracking sites.

Yachts are not always required by law to share their location, although they usually do so for safety reasons. However, some can turn off their automated tracking system if they want to sail under the radar.

“Whether a yacht has an obligation to keep its AIS device on under international law or its national flag laws depends solely on the size of the yacht, its flag and the location of the yacht,” said said R. Isaac Hurst, attorney. to the International Maritime Group, said in an email.

Russian-owned megayachts have become a clear object for people to focus their anger and attention on, yacht tracking fans say.

“There is a symbolic power the yacht holds in the West’s campaign to rein in the power of Vladimir Putin and his global kleptocracy,” said political activist and writer Oliver Houston from London. Houston has been active on trending #YachtWatch on Twitter.

If wealthy landowners lose their most prized possessions, they could be incentivized to pressure Putin to pull out of Ukraine, according to Houston.

The practice of tracking the jets of billionaires is not new – amateurs, journalists and observers have long tracked the movements of leaders and heads of government by following their private planes. In 2017, a federal inquiry investigated then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s trip on a political contributor’s plane. (It turned out to be legal.) And while Amazon was looking for a second headquarters in 2018, hunted journalists where founder Jeff Bezos’ jet went to try to find clues. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

He leads the @RussiaYachts Twitter account, which shared some locations of the ships, as well as a list of several superyachts and their billionaire owners. Sweeney has also created a Twitter account which shares automated updates jet movements of the oligarchs.

He began following the ownership of the oligarchs after receiving a flood of messages from people who knew of his theft tracking prowess. It’s a way to make locations more transparent, even when their owners are trying to fly (or navigate) under the radar.

“They think they’re hidden but they’re not necessarily,” he said.

Private jets are less flashy than megayachts, at least on the outside, but they’re still an object of fascination online.

“Some are very recognizable. Some have custom paint jobs,” said Jon Ostrower, editor of air current, an aerospace industry information site. “[Russian billionaire] Roman Abramovich has a plane he’s always maintained called the Bandit, a 767 painted all white except for that black stripe on the cockpit windows. It was sharp. »

On Twitter, student Sweeney uses data from ADS-B exchange, an open source company that publishes a map of flight movements around the world. Founder Dan Streufert said virtually every plane flying in the world has a transponder that broadcasts the plane’s unique identifier and position, for safety reasons such as collision avoidance. The ADS-B exchange relies on crowdsourced data – aviation and radio enthusiasts have receivers that collect transponder data from flights, which the company then plots on a map.

The system is not without shortcomings. Areas without participating receivers will show fewer flights, and military aircraft can turn off their transponders, making some areas – like Crimea – appear as if they have empty skies.

Streufert said he understands people’s fascination with massive jets. Few people have their own private fleet, after all.

“It can help not only to hold [the oligarchs] responsible, but also the countries they are flying from, because some countries say they are going to seize assets,” he said.

Yachts can sometimes be more difficult to track, especially if they are not near a port. Marine traffica website that publishes ship location data, uses a network of ground-based receivers as well as satellites to track the positions of ships wherever they are.

The company has about 6.5 million unique users each month, ranging from hobbyists to shipping and banking professionals who use the data to track assets, the company said. head of media and communications, Georgios Hatzimanolis.

Since the start of the invasion in Ukraine, MarineTraffic has seen a ‘huge spike’ in interest, he said, a level not seen since a huge ship got stuck in the Suez Canal there one year old. The highly publicized fate of the stranded container ship Ever Given was monitored on maritime tracking sites like MarineTraffic and VesselFinder, where it was often depicted as a giant rectangle stuck diagonally in the Suez Canal.

People are also monitoring villas and other lavish properties owned by Russia’s elite, checking online listings and satellite images as well as public property registers while they wait to see if they are seized by local governments.

Still, “the yacht is a particularly powerful symbol – not only of their power, but also of our power to be sure we hit them where it hurts,” said #YachtWatch user Houston.