Hackers track public money across borders

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A team of journalists, coders and a financial expert pored over local real estate records online Saturday looking for South Florida property purchased by Venezuelan public officials. The hunt was part of a hemisphere-wide hackathon called “The Money Trail” — a daylong attempt to work across borders to track the flow of public money through the Americas.

Team member and investment manager Dave Dorr believes that part of the recent housing boom in South Florida may have been driven by corrupt politicians overseas looking to launder money abroad, and his team was trying to find evidence of it.

About two dozen participants in the Miami headquarters of the Fusion Network coordinated with similar groups in 13 different cities across Mexico, Central and South America to track where public money flows.

Relying on data sets and coding tools, their projects ran the gamut from public money invested in education, to more obscure fields such as soccer and gambling. They coordinated with groups in other countries through video conferences and an online chat.

Organizers with the Miami chapter of the international group Hacks/Hackers believe it is the first time tech experts from across the U.S. and Latin America have participated simultaneously in a multicity hackathon.

Some participants looked into whether World Cup money was benefiting Brazilians. Others were helping research money involved in Argentina’s electoral campaigns.

Hacks/Hackers Miami Co-founder Dan Grech said that the availability of public data sets made some of the projects easier than others.

“There is no way on Earth to identify the origin of Latin American dirty money invested in Miami in just one day, but we are not expecting to have finished ideas,” he said. “The purpose of the event is to build the beginnings of a project.”

The participants investigating Venezuelan real estate purchases hoped to unearth newsworthy information about just who is purchasing property in South Florida and eventually track whether the funds are being diverted from taxpayer money. By the end of the day, they were still outlining the scope of their search.

“If you are a corrupt public official, one of the most enticing ways to launder your money without many questions being asked is to invest it into U.S. real estate,” Dorr said. He said he was attracted to the subject due to his work managing international investments in the Cayman Islands. Dorr is also a member of the nonprofit group LuzparaVenezuela, a Miami-based nonprofit that often speaks out against the Venezuelan government and seeks to bring attention to the country and its various challenges.

Venezuelans top the list of foreign buyers of real estate in Miami-Dade, according to the Miami Association of Realtors.

The Hacks/Hackers movement is seeking the participation of journalists with the idea of helping them to find and tell stories.