Cyber attacks are increasingly sophisticated, with fraudsters using new ways to exploit vulnerabilities in a farm’s online security.
Scammers operate on the telephone too, masquerading as representatives from legitimate companies to trick people into giving away information that allows access to bank accounts.
Calls to NFU’s CallFirst, an advice service for the union’s members, illustrate the scale of the problem: since January this year it has dealt with 166 calls specifically on scams and fraud.
Scammers will exploit specific times in the farming calendar – for instance, farmers in Wales may be more vulnerable now, with advance Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments being made in October.
In anticipation of such an occurrence, Rural Payments Wales – and its counterparts in other UK regions – emphasises that it will never ask a claimant to supply personal information in an email or text.
With the financial losses and leaking of confidential data having a potentially devastating effect on the business and the farmer, we look at some of the common scams and how to protect against them.
Scam emails, text messages and phone calls
In its farm-specific guide on cyber security, produced in association with the NFU, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) says a typical scam email or text message will try to convince the farmer to click a link.
This link will send them to a website with the capability of downloading viruses onto their computer, allowing passwords and personal information to be stolen.
The first things to consider when receiving a call or message is “Am I expecting this?” and “Is the sender or caller who they claim to be?”, advises the NCSC.
If there is even the slightest doubt, establish if the caller/emailer is genuine by contacting the person they are purporting to be through their contact details in an original document or their business website; never use numbers or addresses listed in the suspicious message.
A bank will never phone or email a customer to ask for their online password information or request a payment to be made over the phone using an online account.
If such a call is received, the NFU suggests calling back, ensuring that a dial tone can be heard and, where possible, using a separate phone line from the one on which the inbound call was received.
This will prevent a fraudster holding the line open to intercept a return call.
There has been a huge rise in the number of emails, texts and phone scams claiming to be from HMRC.
Specialist agriculture and property tax advisor Joanne Wright, a partner at Ellacotts, advises recipients to always check with their accountant before making a payment.
“The accountant will be able to log in to the HMRC system and check what is due. Never make a payment demanded in an email, text or letter without first asking your accountant to do that,’’ she says.
Tax returns and accounts are very vulnerable because they will include personal details.
“If you are receiving tax returns or accounts via email always make sure they are password protected,’’ says Mrs Wright.
Another common scam targeted at her clients is the interception of emails.
In one example, a client had received an invoice for a payment they were expecting to make, but the scammers had hacked into the email account and had changed the bank details on the invoice.
“Fortunately the book keeper picked this up,’’ says Mrs Wright. “It is important to bear in mind that it is very unusual for a business to change its bank details, so always pick up the phone to the supplier to confirm that change.’’
Farm subsidy scams
Fraudsters target farmers who receive subsidy payments; they will receive emails, texts and telephone calls which claim to be from the payment agency or the relevant government department.
In England, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) says links to a fake website designed to look like an authentic RPA or Defra online service are sometimes included in the message with a request asking the recipient to confirm their personal details or payment information.
“We strongly advise anyone who receives such a request not to open the link, and delete the item,’’ it says.
Scammers will offer farm machinery, equipment and supplies at very low prices on social media, using professional photographs and website design to make them appear genuine.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist with NFU Mutual, says if the price seems too good to be true then it probably is – check the market value and find a legitimate reason the price is low before going ahead.
Ensure the seller has a valid address and telephone number. “Visit them at their home or business premises, be suspicious of anyone offering to meet halfway, at a services or car park,’’ says Ms Davidson.
Check important, identifiable features such as serial numbers – make sure they haven’t been scratched away on trailers or quad bike frames – and always check the documentation related to the machinery or vehicle.
“Buying from a trusted dealer can help to reduce the risk of being scammed and can also make it easier to get redress or have problems sorted,’’ says Ms Davidson.
While many frauds come from external sources, Mrs Wright says many also come from within a farm business, for example a family member making unauthorised payments to themselves.
“Most of the irregularities we see come from within the business,’’ she says.
In this situation, it can be very difficult to recover the money so she recommends setting limits on payments, with dual authorisation needed when the sum is higher than the threshold set.
Be aware, too, that payments can be set up internally to a fake supplier with regular amounts being paid from the business into that account, Mrs Wright adds.
Victims of scams, fraud or cyber-crime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are advised to contact Action Fraud.
A police crime reference number will be given and reports passed to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
By calling 0300 123 2040, help and advice can be provided over the phone.
Have you been conned?
Farmers Weekly would like to hear from victims of fraud to help prevent this happening to others: What happened, was it resolved and what help, if any, did you get from advice services, banks, agencies or others?