Opportunistic crime is turning into organised crime as thieves target farm vehicles and GPS systems for lucrative markets online and overseas.
The value of agricultural vehicle thefts rose by nearly £2 million in 2019 from £7.4m (2018) to £9.3m. And GPS theft continues to rise, estimated at one GPS system per day being stolen in the UK.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at insurer NFU Mutual, which published the figures in its 2020 Rural Crime Report, says the last 10-15 years has seen more expensive vehicles being stolen.
“Thieves can command high values from pieces of [agricultural] kit. Previously they stole motor vehicles, including sports cars, but the central driving position of tractors, [rather than right- or left-hand drive] for example, means they can more easily be exported overseas,” says Ms Davidson.
This year, NFU Mutual invested £430,000 to tackle rural crime, including a police UK-wide agricultural vehicle crime tracking and recovery unit. The National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS) co-ordinates farm machinery theft intelligence between NFU Mutual, police forces, Border Force and Interpol.
DC Chris Piggott, agri-vehicle specialist at NaVCIS, says there has been an increase in agricultural GPS system thefts since Covid-19 restrictions were implemented earlier in the year.
He says: “This could be because thieves were unable to transport larger machinery, with more chance of getting caught when there were fewer vehicles on the move. However, there has been an increase in tractors and telehandler thefts.
“Recently we intercepted two stolen JCB telehandlers valued at £120,000 entering Poland. This was carried out with the assistance of the Polish authorities.”
Vehicle thefts tend to be highest in the arable regions, says Ms Davidson. “The East has been very hard hit and Lincolnshire is top. A lot of the thieves know these farms will be using bigger, more expensive items of kit.”
Flat land also makes it easier for thieves to spot vehicles and machinery with binoculars, but they are also increasingly making use of Google maps and drones to spot what they might steal, says DC Piggott.
“They do not need to physically go on to the premises. We need to be very wary of the next 18 months to two years when we could have high unemployment – when people are struggling to pay their bills, crime goes up. People are tempted to make a quick buck. Organised criminals recruit people who may have debts so they do not have to go on the farm themselves.”
Ms Davidson adds: “It is not the opportunist thefts of a generation or two ago. They are really well organised, taking eight GPS systems a night. They know what they are stealing and will have worked out a market for it. It is a new breed of criminal targeting British farmers.”
DC Piggott says he has ongoing investigations concerning GPS systems which are being sold on auction websites such as eBay.
“People will put numerous items up for sale and set up a false company address. There is a market for this stuff. Farmers are buying it and not doing any checks. If you think the price is too good to be true, there is something wrong with it – it is not legitimate property.”
Larger machinery tends to end up in countries such as Romania, Lithuania and Poland, he says.
“This is £50,000-plus tractors and telehandlers. Most is stolen to order. By the time it reaches its final destination its identity will have been changed. A lot of the people taking ownership at the other end are innocent purchasers.”
When buying secondhand kit not from a dealership, UK farmers need to make careful checks, says Ms Davidson. “Really check things out. Criminals may have cloned the identity of a legitimate vehicle. Be very vigilant about the provenance of the kit you are buying. Be suspicious of anything that has had serial numbers removed.”
DC Piggott says: “Our message to help protect your property is simple – pin it or pen it. So, if you have pin enabled technology to protect your GPS system, make sure it is up and running and if not, daub your postcode onto kit using indelible ink.
“It might not look pretty, but it is a big deterrent to thieves who are stealing systems to sell on across the world. Anything that is identifiable and will trace the kit back to its owner will immediately put the thieves off.
“Remove GPS systems from vehicles if you are not locking them away.”
There are some ‘fantastic’ tracking devices available which can help with recovery of stolen vehicles, says DC Piggott.
He also recommends the Construction and Agricultural Equipment Security and Registration Scheme (CESAR). This combines state-of-the-art Datatag-ID-technology, overt and covert deterrents, at a one off cost to protect the machine for life and a secure and accredited dedicated 24/7 UK Secure Contact Centre.
“NFU Mutual offers agricultural vehicle insurance discounts to encourage people to CESAR mark and fit approved trackers,” adds Ms Davidson.
Mechanical devices such as ram and stem locks can also be used to protect vehicles, says DC Piggott.
“Once you have applied it the vehicle will only turn in circles. We had an example of a telehandler which had one of these locks fitted and was in front of other machinery, also preventing it [the latter] from being stolen. It is a simple device that takes two minutes to take on and off.”
CCTV cameras and vehicle tracking devices can also help deter and catch criminals, he adds.