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Meet the American teen tracking Russian oligarchs' jets

Jack Sweeney first attracted public attention after starting a Twitter account devoted to tracking Tesla founder Elon Musk's private plane. Now the teenage college student has a new pet project involving another set of billionaires: publicizing the movements of private jets owned by Russian oligarchs.

"It would be pretty cool to see one of their planes seized," Sweeney, 19, told CBS MoneyWatch in discussing his Twitter account, @RUOligarchJets, or Russian Oligarch Jets. 

Sweeney, a first-year student at University of Central Florida, said the account is based on an algorithm he developed that taps publicly available records of jet ownership and flight data to track about 30 private jets belonging to Russian oligarchs. 

The teenager said he was inspired to create the service following Russia's attack on Ukraine, when people on social media asked him if he could use the algorithm used to track Musk to monitor Russian oligarchs' private aircraft.

"People want these people tracked down and have their assets tracked down and to take their yachts and jets," Sweeney said. 

Since Sweeney started the service to track Russian oligarchs' jets, the Twitter account has swelled to more than 340,000 followers.

The term "oligarch" — denoting a small group in government who exercise control, usually for corrupt purposes — has been used to describe the enormously rich business elite in Russia whose wealth is suspected of having been gained chiefly through their political connections to members of government, including via privatization of state assets.

Here's what it means to be an oligarch 01:31

In his State of the Union address, President Biden said the U.S. and its allies are waging economic war on Russian President Vladimir Putin over the country's invasion of Ukraine as well as Russian oligarchs who are viewed as supporting him. On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced the formation of a new task force that would target the oligarchs. 

"We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains," Mr. Biden said.

One private aircraft Sweeney is tracking, via the Twitter account @PutinJet, belongs to Putin himself, although the flight data so far is only for travel within Russia.

Other jets tracked by Sweeney include planes owned by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who this week said he would sell the Chelsea soccer club and donate the proceeds to victims of the Ukraine invasion, and Leonid Mikhelson, CEO of Russia's largest natural gas provider. 

"They have huge planes — some of them are just continuing to fly, they aren't stopping," Sweeney said, noting that one of the planes is a commercial Boeing 787.

Owning and operating a Gulfstream GIV for private business use can cost anywhere between $30 million to $50 million per year, depending on the hangar services and whether one buys a new or used plane, according to Honeywell Aerospace. The private jet version of the Boeing 787 can cost more than $200 million, Business Insider reports.

Sweeney, who is studying information technology and aims to get a job in software engineering in the aviation industry, said he isn't worried about threats or his safety since he's in the U.S. He said he'll track more jets if he finds information on them. 

As for Musk — who tops Bloomberg's rich list with a fortune estimated at $226 billion — Sweeney said he's still tracking his plane. He also said Musk offered him $5,000 to shut down the account, but that he declined. 

"I'm not going to take it down for just $5,000," he said, noting that he made a counter-offer of $50,000 or a Tesla. "He said it doesn't feel right — then all the news got out and he blocked me."

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