The nationwide spate of GPS guidance system thefts has highlighted how easily farmyards can be targeted by thieves.

The pattern of thefts suggests that organised gangs are selectively stealing mobile GPS equipment to order, hitting a large number of yards in a short timeframe.

The Irish Farmers Journal reached out to tractor manufacturers and GPS system suppliers to get some advice on theft prevention and what to do in the event of a unit being taken.

What should you do if your GPS system is stolen?

If a unit is stolen, report the theft to Gardai, your insurance company and your local dealer immediately. It’s vital that you have the serial numbers to hand and report them.

This allows the manufacturer/supplier and the Gardai to log them as stolen and, if the unit is found, you will be able to identify and claim your unit back.

Manufacturers/suppliers will also block all future unlocks/subscriptions to these stolen units.

Why can stolen units not be traced?

“For GPS receivers, it is not possible for us to trace. The receiver is only one-way communication, so it only receives the signal from the satellite.

"It does not report back its location to an external server. This will be the norm for the majority of receivers from the different manufacturers. Some of the receivers though allow for a SIM card to be inserted in them (for RTK NTRIP for example).

"For these receivers, it would be possible to trace if and when they are powered on if the sim card was able to connect to a local network,” John Hand of CNH (Case New Holland) told the Irish Farmers Journal.

“Trackers are not built-in due to possible interference issues with the systems controlling the steering of the machine,” explained a Trimble spokesperson.

Are serial numbers recorded on a central database by manufacturers?

Vantage Ireland logs all serial numbers in its CRM system, as well as registered for warranty purposes, the company explained.

Massey Ferguson said all receivers supplied from the factory are recorded in the build spec of the tractor and can be accessed at any time in the machine database.

Fendt told us that serial numbers of receivers are linked to tractor build spec and the original tractor it was fitted to in the factory, but added: “however if a receiver is swapped by a dealer between tractors which can happen, then no.”

Topcon’s spokesperson said it traces all serial numbers between its factory to the distribution partners in the region but, “depending on the dealer/distributor the end-customer is unknown.”

Moral of the story, all manufacturers record the serial numbers of units from the factory. Dealers should also have a record of the units and what customer owns what unit(s).

However, dealers may swap units amongst tractors, so users need to take note of their individual serial numbers.

If a farmer abroad unwittingly buys a stolen unit second-hand, can they reuse the GPS systems, and buy annual subscriptions?

Taking John Deere as the most popular unit targeted by thieves, it has two signals, which offer two levels of accuracy. SF1 is a free signal which offers +/-15cm accuracy, whereas SF3 is subscription based and offers +/-2.5cm accuracy.

All John Deere StarFire receivers come with SF1 signal in base from the factory. This means it is a free signal that requires no additional activations or yearly subscriptions to function.

If the unit is pin protected, technically speaking it can’t be used without the correct pin. But with modern technology, is it much different to someone cracking the password on your iPhone?

To be fair, this isn’t just the case with John Deere, it’s the same with most suppliers.

So, although many will say these systems can’t be reused, they can, just at a lower level of accuracy, which in reality might be good enough for whatever market these stolen systems are destined for.

“Farmers in other countries can freely purchase these stolen units, and we cannot so much prevent that, but if they try and renew any subscriptions or purchase any unlocks, it will flag up on Trimble’s CRM system, as we would already have the unit logged with Trimble as stolen and have serial numbers logged also.

Therefore, if the stolen GPS unit is purchased on the black market, the user would not be able to buy any additional subscriptions or unlocks. We also urge all of our customers to contact their insurance company at the time of purchase and get the unit insured,” said Vantage Ireland.

Are stolen GPS systems being used outside of agriculture?

Manufacturers did not answer this question in the main, although the CNH spokesperson said that it is “hard to tell, but a lot of units that go overseas are being broken down for either the raw materials, or the precious metals contained in them.”

What are manufacturers doing to help reduce the theft of units?

All manufacturers and suppliers strongly advise dealers and farmers to remove the components when not in use.

“CNH have joined up with a company called SelectaDNA, which allows you to chemically mark the high value components which is invisible to the naked eye. The mark is then recorded via a QR Code, and the component is labelled to show that it is has been tagged,” explained CNH.

“John Deere offers a PIN code lock, meaning the receiver can only be put into operation after removing from the cab roof and moving to another machine if the correct PIN code is entered. It is a prerequisite that the PIN code has been set up in advance,” John Deere noted.

“At Vantage Ireland, we give customers the option to purchase quick release brackets so that the Nav 900 receiver on the roof, which carries the most value, can be easily taken off the tractor in less than two minutes and stored away,” said Vantage Ireland.

“Lockable domes, and cab redesign to integrate the GPS receiver into cab roof,” said Argo Tractors.

“Any GPS system installed on a Valtra machine is hidden within a casing on the roof. Unlike many of our competitors, the GPS receiver on the roof is very well disguised– it physically looks like part of the roof structure.

"Not only is the cover bolted in place, so too is the whole metal plate that the components sit on. There are no quick release clips or levers,” explained Valtra.

John Deere offers a PIN code locking system to help prevent theft of GreenStar displays and Starfire satellite receivers.

Advice on buying used GPS systems

“If the offer sounds too good, it could very well be a stolen unit. Also, used GPS technology purchased through a non-reputable seller has no guarantee or comeback.

"Furthermore, the seller cannot give advice on calibration and set up. The initial savings can be very quickly lost in not achieving the optimum performance from the GPS system and the potential for subsequent repairs if something is not working correctly,” explained Fendt.

If you are buying a used GPS system, we strongly recommend that you contact your local dealer/agent, and check the serial numbers with them, to clarify if it has been reported as stolen.

Not so much in Ireland, but in the UK, we have heard of lots of units being stolen, advertised on eBay, Amazon and Facebook Marketplace, with unknowing farmers buying the units.

When they go to get a subscription, they discover they are stolen, and the police return the units to their rightful owner/insurance company, with the farmer who bought them online left out of pocket.

Insurance of GPS systems

Stewart Gavin, underwriting manager with FBD Insurance, advised that farmers have the option to individually cover a wide range of items against theft.

In terms of mobile GPS equipment, receivers and screens can be insured as individual items. “All risks cover is widely available for GPS. These items can be specifically named,” he told the Irish Farmers Journal.

The cost of insurance depends on the type of item, its value, and the level of cover sought for it. Where GPS systems are in-built into newer tractors (as opposed to mobile equipment that is ‘bolted on or interchangeable’), the value declared for the tractor should incorporate the value of the GPS system.

Farmers should check the cover active on their tractors to ensure appropriate protection is in place in the event of theft or damage.

However, most Irish farmers have mobile as opposed to integrated GPS screens, and these need to be separately insured and itemised by farmers.

Take home message

  • Specifically name each element of your GPS guidance equipment on your insurance policy.
  • If the GPS unit is in-built into the tractor, the value declared for the tractor should include the value of the GPS system.
  • Remove all units of your GPS system every night and safely store them away.
  • Ensure you have all serial numbers and uniquely mark the units with a dye etc.
  • Be very careful buying second hand units. If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.