Thieves pick scheme victims from hay directory in Missouri


October 14, 2007|By TED SHELSBY

Hay farmers beware -- con artists are on the prowl.

That's the gist of a warning issued last week by Maryland agriculture officials after learning of a scheme in Missouri, in which the state's directory of farmers who sell hay was used to cheat growers out of thousands of dollars.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture posts a similar directory on its Web site, linking customers, including horse owners, with farmers who have product to sell.

Such directories are particularly helpful in a drought, like this year in Maryland, where some counties are reporting a 40 percent loss of their hay harvest.

In Missouri, the scheme operators used the directory to contact farmers and inquire about purchasing a shipment of hay.

Here's how it works: The buyer reaches an agreement with a farmer for the purchase of a shipment of hay. The buyer sends a check for an amount higher than the purchase price. The buyer also would request that the farmer wire a portion of the money (about $2,000) to a truck hauling company that was to pick up and deliver the hay.

"It's considered an overpayment scam," said Misti Preston, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Farmers would learn days and sometimes weeks later that a bad check was used for the original payment and it never cleared the bank, Preston said. It would be too late to retrieve the trucking fee.

"The farmers would still have their hay," she said, "but they would lose the $2,000 sent to the hauler."

The department was aware of seven hay producers being victimized by the scheme, but it suspected there were more who had not come forward, Preston said. The department learned of the scheme when the operators contacted farms owned by two state workers whose farms were listed on the hay directory.

"We suspected it was a scam when the buyers wanted the hay shipped to New York," Preston said. "Farmers don't normally sell hay out-of-state. The shipping charges would be too high."

"We played along with them," she said, "as part of an investigation by the attorney general's office."

There is speculation that the scheme was operated by someone overseas because of the language used in the e-mails to farmers, Preston said.

Mark Powell, chief of marketing and agriculture development for the state Agriculture Department, said he was aware of only one farmer in the state who had been contacted with what appeared to be a similar overture.

"[The farmer] was smart enough to figure it out and did not lose any money," Powell said, declining to name the farm.

"It is a `sellers beware' sort of thing," he said of the department's warning to farmers.

Crop outlook

The government's new outlook for the state's top grain crops -- corn and soybean -- is bad, but no worse than last month.

As a result of the summer drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted Friday that farmers would harvest an average of 85 bushels of corn from each acre planted. This is down 40 percent from last year's average yield of 142 bushels per acre.

The latest corn prediction is based on field conditions as of Oct. 1 and there was no change from the September survey.

Soybeans are expected to average 25 bushels per acres. This is unchanged from the September estimate.

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