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How Iran is using ‘ghost ships’ to flout Donald Trump’s oil sanctions

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It sounds like something out of a pirate story, but the normally staid world of international trade has been beset by a flotilla of ghost ships in recent weeks, and they’re weighed down by several million barrels of trouble for U.S. foreign policy.

Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers, and according to official records, the country shipped about 1.8 million barrels of oil per day last month, a slight decline from August’s level and 40 per cent below a peak of almost 3 million barrels in April.

All things being equal, that figure is likely to plunge even more in the coming weeks, as U.S. sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement are set to come into force next month. If fully implemented and adhered to, the sanctions will cut Iran’s oil exports to zero as long as the rest of the world plays along.

But the Iranian government seems to already have found innovative ways around those efforts by moving millions of barrels of crude on the sly.

People who monitor global tanker traffic noticed a curious new development last month, as about a dozen tankers known to be carrying Iranian oil mysteriously turned off transponders designed to track their movements via GPS.

Under an international law known as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, ship captains must keep their  transponders — known as Automatic Identification System or AIS — on at all times. But sometimes vessels wishing to move about without as much scrutiny will turn them off, and so far the international community doesn’t seem too interested in stopping them

Iran has lately become a hub for the tactic. And the journey of one ship, the Dino I, is a good example of how it works.

On Sept. 4, AIS data shows that the supertanker picked up 2 million barrels of Iranian oil at Kharg Island, a massive fill-up station in the middle of the Persian Gulf. From there, the ship made its way through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Indian Ocean, where the ship went dark from Sept. 15 onward.

It reappeared on the grid more than ten days later while passing through the busy shipping lanes near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and its transponder stayed on while it paid a visit to the shipping hub of Singapore a day later, on Sept. 27.

Then it vanished again for more than a week, before reappearing off the coast of Taiwan on Oct. 5. It then went dark for another few days before checking in off the South Korean coast and delivering its cargo at the Chinese port of Dalian on Oct. 13.

Dino I is not the only such “ghost ship,” as experts have called them, and the eyebrow-raising voyage seems part of a targeted attempt to evade the coming sanctions.

“They think they’ll throw people off the scent [and] they want to confuse what they’re picking up,” says David Adesnik, research director at Washington, D.C.-based national security think-tank the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, of what the ships are up to.

“We’re still puzzling through their precise motives,” he says, “but broadly speaking, it’s about the money.”

The threat of Iran being locked out of the oil market has pushed up oil prices in recent weeks. So deploying an armada of cloaked tankers allows Tehran’s leaders to have their cake and eat it too by selling just as much oil as ever.

Oil prices have risen steadily in recent weeks ahead of sanctions that will theoretically lock Iranian crude out of the market. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

“They’re doing it more because they embraced the media narrative that exports are down hard,” says Samir Madani, co-founder of ship monitoring firm TankerTrackers.com. “It helps boost the price of oil. They don’t want OPEC to go into higher production,” he says. OPEC refers to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, a producers’ cartel that includes Iran as a member. 

In the first 13 days of October, TankerTrackers calculated that Iran shipped an average 2.2 million barrels per day. That’s an increase of 10 per cent from what the company was seeing in September, and several hundred thousand barrels more than what’s being reported in the official numbers from OPEC.

Madani’s firm supplements rudimentary AIS data with other technology to fill in the gaps, and he estimates that official numbers sometimes only capture about 20 per cent of the tanker traffic at any given time. “The other 80 per cent is a cat and mouse chase involving satellite imagery,” he says.

This isn’t the first time that Iran has tried such chicanery. Iranian ghost ships last criss-crossed the seas to this extent between 2011 and 2015, when the previous U.S. administration had sanctions on Iranian oil before signing the nuclear deal that the current inhabitant of the White House pulled out of. 

It’s not just oil destined to feed China’s voracious appetite for fuel, either. Madani says Syria and Israel “both instruct tanker operators to switch off their transponders prior to arrival.” Officially, there are U.S. sanctions on selling oil to Syria, but Iran shipped up to 60,000 barrels per day to Syria in August, worth some $150 million, TankerTrackers says.

In Israel’s case, tanker operators bringing oil from Arab states who don’t have relations with Israel will turnoff the tracking devices to keep up appearances that they aren’t “dealing with the Jewish state,” Adesnik says.   

Ghost ships aren’t the only type of subterfuge currently at play in the oil market. Madani has noticed a marked uptick in the amount of barrels that Iran is storing in idle tankers. That’s a great way for the regime to get oil off of its official ledgers, until it can find a buyer on the sly in future, he says.

On the last day of September, for example, Madani’s satellites witnessed 10 million barrels sitting in six supertankers floating just offshore of Kharg Island. They hadn’t moved in days, nor did they move for several days following.

The red dots represent oil tankers spotted by TankerTrackers.com holding as many as 2 million barrels of oil on Sept. 30. The yellow dots represent smaller tankers that were holding a million barrels. (TankerTrackers.com)

That’s more than 10 per cent of all the oil the world consumes every day, just floating around, looking for a buyer — possibly one who’s willing to do business even after U.S. sanctions are in place next month.

“It would seem to be practice,” Adesnik says. “They’ll really need the cloaking after November 4, but they’re practicing with it now.” 

The risk isn’t only financial. In January, Iranian tanker the Sanchi burned and sank in waters 300 kilometres east of Shanghai after colliding with a freight ship. The Sanchi was carrying about a million barrels of condensate at the time, and all 32 members of the crew are missing and presumed dead. Rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that the Sanchi hadn’t broadcast an AIS signal for at least nine hours prior to the collision, Adesnik says.

More than 30 people who were on board the Sanchi when it exploded and sank in Chinese waters earlier this year are presumed dead. (10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters/Reuters)

Tragedies like the Sanchi are likely to repeat for as long as the international community is willing to turn a blind eye to the shipping subterfuge. Tehran has an incentive to keep doing it and “authoritarian regimes are not known for their ability to confront the truth in an expeditious manner” Adesnik says.

“I’d imagine we’re interested in taking some pretty serious measures to prevent them from getting oil out illicitly,” he says. “But we have to prioritize who we’re going to be pressuring into compliance.”

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Ontario’s new automated speed enforcement explained

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(NC) To wage the war against speeding, many municipalities across Ontario have turned to automated speed enforcement. Most recently introduced in Toronto, speed cameras are a high-tech solution to reduce speeding and are considered one of the most effective ways to create safer roads and save lives.  

Recognizing police officers cannot catch all speeders, these cameras fill the gap, providing monitoring in specific locations around the clock. When a car’s speed is even one kilometre over the posted amount, it will take a picture of the offending vehicle’s license plate, using the captured photo as indisputable evidence. A ticket is then served to the vehicle’s owner, regardless of who was driving. 

With a focus on high-risk areas, Ontario’s automated speed enforcement cameras are located in two specific municipal areas: school and community safety zones. School zones are designated streets close to a school, featuring reduced speed limits as dictated by local bylaws. Community safety zones are high-risk corridors and intersections, subject to increased fines and penalties.  

While the Ontario Highway Traffic Act outlines the use of automated speed enforcement, municipalities can decide when and where to use cameras to curb speeding. The act does dictate financial penalties for speed violations captured with cameras, which vary depending on the number of kilometres caught over the speed limit.  

Speed enforcement is not new, but part of a broader, integrated road safety strategy that includes infrastructure improvements, awareness campaigns and new uses of technology. City officials hope for a halo effect, inspiring better driving behaviour across entire communities, not only in areas with cameras. A controversial topic, some critics take exception to speed cameras, labelling them as sneaky cash grabs for municipalities. Governments think the opposite. 

Safety advocate and auto insurance provider Onlia is hopeful that the cameras will provide drivers with a reminder to slow down, especially in high-risk areas like school and community safety zones.  

For those who obey the speed limit, automated speed enforcement shouldn’t change anything about your driving style, says Alex Kelly, Safety Ambassador at OnliaDrivers have fair warning as they approach areas with speed cameras, as mandatory signs provide reasonable notice of upcoming automated speed enforcement. Regardless of warnings, the best speed is the posted speed. 

You can start to understand your speeding style by downloading the insurance provider’s new safe driving app that coaches and rewards for you for safe driving habits.

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Online banking: How to protect yourself from fraud

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(NC) Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, a growing number of consumers are regularly using mobile and online banking to paybill payments, transfer money and make purchases.

Although these tools can give you easy access to your personal finances on demand, there are also some risks involved. For instance, your banking information—such as your debit or credit card number, user name, or personal identification number (PIN)—could be stolen. If criminals have access to your online banking information, they can steal your money, which is why it’s so important to be  vigilant when you bank online.

Follow these tips to help protect your personal and banking information:

  • For your online bank accounts, use a strong password that can’t be easily guessed, and never share your user name or password with anyone.
  • Check your accounts regularly to make sure there are no transactions you didn’t make or authorize.
  • When making online purchases, never authorize a website to save your credit card information, password or other personal information. Giving websites this permission will save you some time the next time you access the site, but it poses a real threat if a hacker manages to access your information.

Most financial institutions have policies to protect you from transactions that you didn’t make.

However, you are responsible for protecting your online and mobile banking information. If you give your details to anyone—including your spouse or partner, a family member or a friend—your financial institution may hold you responsible for any unauthorized transactions in your account, and even strip you of protection from unauthorized transactions in the future.

If you suspect your information may have been compromised, change your passwords immediately, and check your account and credit card statements for anomalies and report any suspicious transactions to your financial institution.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada has created resources to help you protect your online banking information.

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Payday loans: Not the best way to borrow money

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(NC) Payday loans are a very expensive way to borrow money. Even if you’re struggling financially, think twice—and crunch the numbers—before getting this type of loan.

Depending on the rules in your province, payday lenders can charge fees of $15 to $25 per $100 that you borrow.

As an example, let’s say you borrow $300 for home repairs. The payday lender charges you $51 in fees, or $17 for every $100 borrowed. Your loan balance is therefore $351, which amounts to an interest rate of 442 per cent.

There can be serious consequences if you don’t repay your loan by the due date. These may include the following:

  • The payday lender may charge you a fee if there isn’t enough money in your account.
  • Your financial institution may also charge you a fee if there isn’t enough money in your account.
  • The total amount that you owe, including the fees, continues to increase.

There are better options out there

Payday loans should be your last resort to borrow money. Consider cheaper ways of borrowing money, such as:

  • Cashing in vacation days or asking for a pay advance from your employer.
  • Getting a line of credit, a cash advance on a credit card or a personal loan from your financial institution.
  • Getting a loan from family or friends.

Before getting a payday loan and to avoid getting stuck in a debt trap, consider other, less expensive ways to borrow money.

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