Thieves have stolen 40 GPS tractor kits from farms across East Anglia and Hertfordshire in an organised crime wave estimated to have cost farmers about £500,000.
Thefts of high-tech global positioning system (GPS) equipment were reported on 7 September in Norfolk, Suffolk and neighbouring Hertfordshire.
Norfolk-based farm manager Andrew Francis, who runs the 9,100-hectare Elveden estate, raised the alarm on social media after he was targeted.
"Be wary. Seven tractors broken into last night. Built in screens and GPS equipment taken. All 7 currently out of action", he said on Twitter.
It follows a recent joint UK-German police operation which infiltrated a Lithuanian crime group and retrieved 80 GPS tractor kits — 23 of which were stolen in the UK.
The high-tech equipment is an essential part of modern farming, without it harvests can be delayed and some farmers left unable to work.
According to figures by NFU Mutual, the cost of claims for GPS thefts almost doubled last year to £2.9m, as worldwide demand for the kits fuelled the crime wave.
Rebecca Davidson, rural affairs specialist at the rural insurer, warned farming businesses that organised crime gangs were now armed with new tactics and targets.
"As the economic impact of the pandemic bites, we are very concerned that rural theft may escalate significantly," she said.
“Criminal gangs continue to target farmyards for high-value GPS systems, quad bikes and tractors with the cost of agri vehicle theft remaining at over £9m - only a 2% drop in cost from 2019.
“There’s no doubt that when we work together with police, farmers, communities and other rural organisations to tackle rural crime it can make a real difference."
DC Chris Piggott co-ordinates the agricultural vehicle crime unit at the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS), which supports operations across the UK to tackle organised agricultural machinery crime.
He said GPS theft was an international crime, with countries across the globe experiencing thefts and attempts to sell stolen equipment back into the farming sector.
"There are also homegrown-criminals stealing GPS systems as people turn to criminal activity to make a quick buck," he added.
“Demand for GPS equipment is fuelling this type of crime and we are urging people to think twice before purchasing second-hand items online.
“Although police have shut some bogus sellers down, they are emerging again under false names and purporting to be UK sellers.
“Anyone considering a purchase should get photos showing serial numbers before parting with any money and check with the manufacturer that it is not recorded stolen."
How can I increase GPS security?
To protect GPS systems from thieves, NFU Mutual and NaVCIS have issued farmers and growers the following advice:
• Activate PIN security on GPS kit with your own unique number if available
• If your system is not pin enabled, mark your postcode to deter thieves and trace your property back to you
• Keep tractors and combines with GPS fitted stored out of sight when possible
• Remove GPS kit when possible from tractors and other machinery and store it securely when not in use
• Record serial numbers and photograph your kit
• Check serial numbers of second-hand kit offered for sale