Under attack - online fraudsters target farm payments

Cyber criminals, posing as EU payment officials, are embezzling farmers into parting with personal bank details over the phone

Scammers target weak security measures to gain access for farmer's accounts
Scammers target weak security measures to gain access for farmer's accounts

Claire Mc Cormack

Cyber crooks are targeting cash-strapped farmers waiting on EU farm payments, an IFA crime expert has warned.

The news comes at the same time that new CSO data reveals that 580 farm-related crimes were prepetrated during the first three months of 2016.

As criminals become more sophisticated in their operations, Colin Connolly, rural crime prevention executive at the IFA, says fraudsters are identifying "ideal time periods" when farmers may be more susceptible to scams.

"Any criminal can easily access information in relation to payments from the EU which will enable them to authenticate their phone scamming skills to make them more believable to unsuspecting victims," he said. "This knowledge allows a criminal to make a call pertaining to be a relevant authority and perhaps scam a person into parting with vital information," he said.

Annual UK crime data, published last week, reveals the worrying prominence of the cyber trend across the Irish Sea. One well-planned phone scam cost farmers in excess of £500,000.

The National Farmers Union Mutual, a leading UK insurer, warned criminals are using Google Earth, Defra data and taking advantage of relatively weak online security measures to defraud farmers, who now conduct large amounts of their business, including CAP applications, through online transactions.

Tim Price, NFU Mutual's rural crime specialist, said: "Their tactics now include cloning tractor identities, advertising non-existent machinery in agricultural publications and stealing the GPS computer systems that are a key part of modern farming.

"Farmers are having to regularly update security measures at considerable cost to keep high-tech criminals at bay," Mr Price told the Farmer's Weekly magazine.

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Rural crime cost the UK economy a staggering £42.5m in 2015, up from £37.8m in 2014, but down from £44.5m in 2013.

The IFA caution that trends witnessed in Britain and Scotland are regularly mirrored in Ireland.

"We are very interlinked, even with the theft of machinery and livestock, we bear similar trends here to what is happening in the UK at any time. Ignoring the figures and not taking into account what is happening over there would be very neglectful," said Mr Connolly, a former member of An Garda Siochana.

Whilst he is not aware of excessive reports of scammers "pharming or phishing" for information, he recently received a call from a concerned farmer who had been asked a number of questions about his banking and personal details over the phone. "Some of the questions were very specifically linked to his farming profession which demonstrated a level of premeditation," said Mr Connolly.

He believes the vast majority of these cyber attacks are orchestrated from outside the State. The IFA are working very closely with IT strategists to keep on top of any new developments. "This is an extremely difficult area to police and it can only be done by educating the public on the scams that exist and how to deal appropriately with them," he said.

"Whilst there is a perception that farming is a very old fashioned profession carried out in isolated rural locations, the truth is farming is becoming increasingly technological and as with all advances, so too must come a degree of vigilance," he said.

"Farmers need to be on the lookout right through the year and particularly when farm payments are due, especially when they are overdue, there is the opportunity for a very skilled criminal to just change their wording around to entice the farmer," he said.

The lastest CSO figures show 225 burglary and thefts from outhouses and sheds, 246 vehicle and property thefts from farmyards, 57 livestock thefts and 40 fuel thefts.

Seamus Sherlock, ICSA rural development chairman says his main concern is the under-reporting of agri-related crimes.

"I regularly hear reports of people going to the mart and when they arrive back, the tool shed has been broken into, fuel has been taken from the tank or chainsaws, welders or machinery have been lifted," he said adding that quad bike thefts are increasingly common.

"They are being stolen in the middle of the night, lifted out of the yard, sometimes across the fields and over hedges. These are very valuable assets so it's a huge loss to farmers," he said. The ICSA say motorway routes, border counties and the midlands remain agri-crime black-spots. "Victims don't appear to consider it as a serious offence. But it's vitally important that they report it immediately because the gardai can't solve it unless they know the crime is being committed," he said,

However, Mr Sherlock hopes a new, one-of-a-kind agricultural crime survey, conducted by the ICSA and researchers at Waterford Institute of Technology will help address the growing problem. "It will offer a true reflection of the gravity of agri-crime nationwide and lawmakers can take it from there," he said.

First ever agri-crime survey underway

Every week, reports in the media indicate that crime in agricultural areas is increasing, yet no statistics are recorded about the level of such crimes, writes Louise Walsh, co author of the first ever agri-crime survey of farmers in Ireland.

The response of An Garda Siochana is the closure of rural stations with limited resources being directed toward the more populated urban areas.

Good decision-making requires good data — this is where two academics from the Waterford Institute of Technology, Dr Kathleen Moore Walsh and myself are stepping in, along with support from the ICSA.

The aim of the survey is three-fold: ascertain the extent and nature of farm crime around the country; determine cost to the individual farmer as well as the agri-economy; and decide what crime prevention strategies work. In doing so, we hope to provide data that will allow decision makers from the individual farmer, farming organisations, gardai and elected officials to make informed decisions.

The problem of agriculture crime is not unique to Ireland. Farm crime studies are now a common feature in agricultural states in the US and have been conducted in various countries including Britain, Australia, Canada and in some African nations such as Kenya.

The study is important because when a farmer suffers a crime — whether it’s theft of an asset, criminal damage including illegal dumping and trespassing, assault or fraud — the financial cost extends beyond the individual farm business to consumers. Loss of profit also means the farmer will have less to invest in the farm and his or her family will have less to spend in the local community. Stolen livestock raises animal welfare issues as well as the potential risk to the food chain.

We want to know the experiences of full and part-time farmers of any type of livestock or produce. We are also attending agricultural shows and marts to spread the word about the survey which is available to complete online on the ICSA website where responses are completely anonymous.

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