CRIMINAL gangs have extended their operations into Scotland in order to supply a lucrative black market in stolen technology.

A recent raid in the Scottish Borders near Coldstream netted more than £55,000 of equipment from a rural business and there are fears the thefts will be ramped up over the summer.

Investigators believe the technology is heading for Russia which is under sanctions because of the Ukraine invasion and cannot import the technology legally.

The demand is for expensive Global Positioning Systems (GPS) which are used to guide and control machinery on farms and can typically cost £10,000 each.

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It is thought the gangs are using drones to identify where the equipment is located and people in rural areas are being urged to report any suspicious activity to the police.

While this type of technology has always been a target for thieves, the number of thefts have rocketed in recent months as sanctions on Russia bite harder.

Superintendent Andrew Huddleston from Northumbria Police, which is investigating thefts of GPS across the Border in Northumberland, said there was high demand on the black market for good agricultural machinery and technology.

“Stolen equipment has been heading to eastern Europe without a doubt,” he said. “You would expect the black market to respond in any country that is under sanctions and cannot buy machinery and equipment legally.”

The cost of GPS theft has doubled in the first four months of 2023, compared with the same period last year, and there are worries the gangs will take advantage of the looming busy harvest season to ramp up the raids, causing disruption and widespread delays.

Insurers NFU Mutual said equipment worth more than £500,000 had been stolen in the first quarter of this year, with the month of April hitting the second-highest monthly level ever reported.

“Traditionally the eastern arable region of England was targeted hard by organised criminal gangs looking for GPS equipment to steal but in recent years these determined thieves are now travelling the length and breadth of the UK for these high-value and easily portable kits, raiding farms in Scotland, North West and North East England in recent months,” said Hannah Binns, rural affairs specialist at NFU Mutual.

“Intelligence suggests these criminal gangs are watching farms and using drones in some cases to identify farm equipment fitted with GPS and return at night. The thieves are also leaving a trail of damage as they smash locks and glass to gain access and crudely cut wires.”

She added: “We’re concerned the thieves responsible may be planning to up their game during this year’s busy harvest season to target even more farms, causing widespread delays and disruption.

“Disrupting worldwide criminal distribution lines for gangs to sell-on stolen GPS equipment is the key to controlling this crime wave, so we’re working closely with police, machinery manufacturers and farmers to make it more difficult for these gangs to operate.”

Police Scotland said investigations are underway into a theft of GPS worth in excess of £55,000 from a farm in Coldstream.

Detective Superintendent Andy Patrick, Acquisitive Crime Lead for Police Scotland said: “Officers are currently following a positive line of inquiry in relation to these incidents. However, anyone who believes they have information that can assist with the investigations is asked to come forward.”

The surge in thefts shows how sophisticated and organised the criminals are becoming, according to NFU Scotland communications director Bobby Carruth.

He urged all farmers and crofters to review constantly the measures they have in place for vehicles, buildings, fields and storage facilities to prevent theft and said they should always look to check the origin and legality of any second-hand GPS equipment that they may be offered for sale.

“With the spike in GPS thefts, we recommend farmers follow the NFU Mutual recommendations to activate PIN security on GPS kit and mark them with your own farm postcode,” he said.

“Keep equipment fitted with GPS technology out of sight and remove GPS kit from tractors and combines when possible.

“Keeping a photographic record and a note of serial numbers is also good practice.”