Criminal gangs are monitoring social media posts by farmers to create “shopping lists” of tractors and quad bikes they then steal from farms.
Thieves are using the social media profiles to pinpoint farms where desirable machinery is kept before carrying out raids.
Offenders are also joining or “liking” farming Facebook pages, including community groups, rural watch groups, and police liaison groups to stay one step ahead of farmers trying to prevent criminal activity.
The findings are contained in a new study – Illicit Entrepreneurialism in the Countryside (PDF) – by Kate Tudor, a criminologist at the University of Northumbria.
Dr Tudor spent a year interviewing almost 250 people, including 131 farm theft victims, 37 police officers – and 20 rural thieves who revealed the secrets behind their crimes.
Offenders told her that social media was an “invaluable resource” in their criminality. Some also scour agricultural publications – both online and in print – to identify targets.
Dr Tudor urged farmers to be “very careful” about what they post on social media.
“Make sure your settings are closed and private. Try not to post pictures of machinery to advertise it to potential thieves,” she said.
Dr Tudor highlighted “closed” WhatsApp groups involving rural police as offering “enormous practical and psychological benefit” to farmers, helping them feel “less vulnerable”.
As well as using social media, thieves adopt physical tactics to “scope” farms, such as driving, walking or cycling around the countryside to build intelligence.
Criminal gangs use informants such as scrap metal dealers and delivery drivers to tip them off about machinery targets. Information about the location of vehicles is exchanged for money or drugs.
Offenders revealed to Dr Tudor that they often had a professional background that equipped them with the “skills” to steal machinery, through working in construction, waste collection, groundworks and even agriculture.
The thieves were also attuned to machinery brands that were “easy to steal”, and desirable models.
A reduced police presence and surveillance make rural areas attractive locations for criminals to commit crime without being seen.
NFU Mutual response
In 2019, the cost of agricultural vehicle claims made to rural insurer NFU Mutual totalled £9.3m – with quad bike and all-terrain vehicle theft rising by 21% to £3.1m.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “From using social media to Google Maps for layouts of farms, criminals are carrying out well-planned thefts from their mobile phones.
“It’s important to be cautious – not only when it comes to sharing what you own, but also your location and activities.”
NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said the University of Northumbria research was a useful reminder of what farmers could do to secure their kit, both physically and digitally.
“Criminals will use every tool available to them to identify opportunities and it’s important we all make a criminal’s life as hard as possible.”
The on-farm security measures rural thieves detest
- Alarm systems that combine loud sirens and flashing/flood lights
- Guard dogs that alert owners to abnormal activity
- CCTV systems or even dummy security cameras
- Tracking devices fitted to farm machinery, especially quad bikes
- Machinery stored in places not visible from roads or footpaths
Case study: Richard Willcox
One farmer who has fallen victim to targeted burglary is Richard Willcox, who runs a 220-acre livestock farm near Highbridge, Somerset, where he rears dairy heifers and a flock of 80 ewes.
In May 2020, Mr Willcox had a quad bike stolen, almost exactly a year to the day from when one was taken in broad daylight in May 2019.
“My quad bike was stolen from inside the workshop on the farm overnight. They also took a strimmer, some scrap batteries and other tools,” he recalls.
“A similar incident happened the year before, but that time the quad was taken in the middle of the afternoon.
“CCTV from the property opposite captured a white van entering and leaving the property and they were in and gone within just a few minutes.
“I have my suspicions that it was the same gang that returned this year. The quad is such a vital piece of kit that they must have known that I would replace it.”
Mr Willcox has since invested in a steel roller shutter on the workshop and a motion sensor inside that sounds in the house if there is any movement at night. The new quad also has a tracker installed.
He has also experienced cases of “cold-callers” coming to the farm offering to buy scrap metal. “I can tell which ones are genuine and know that the others are using it as a chance to get on site and see what’s here,” he says.