Security pitfall in wake of phone call

I recently decided to try to get a little ahead of myself in work, specifically boundary maintenance.

After two years of cropping barley off of a 20-acre boundary field, I had noticed that the road ditch was now not as secure as it had been, because I’d clipped a few stakes with the tractor when ploughing the headlands in the spring.

Armed with all the paraphernalia needed for the job, myself and the man I employ from time to time were well into restoring the security of this portion of my farm one Friday afternoon, when my mobile phone rang. Answering it, I heard the voice of a farming colleague whom I have known for years.

Pleasantries exchanged, we conversed for a while, with me now and then asking questions.

When the conversation ended and I clicked the phone off and returned to the tractor to turn off the engine, I lit a cigarette.

“Is there a problem?” asked my helper?

What I had been told was that the man on the phone had phoned the Department of Agriculture in Portlaoise the previous day, to make a relatively simple enquiry on some matter or other.

The lady answering the phone gave him the relevant information, and then asked, “Weren’t you on here yesterday about your single farm payment?”

The reply was a very definite “No”.

She, however, insisted he had, as she had taken the call herself, and very clearly remembered checking the details on the status of his farm payment.

He reiterated that he hadn’t phoned, and neither had his wife.

I suspect there may have been a bit of a silence in the conversation at this point, as both parties tried to figure out what had actually happened the previous day.

Eventually the conversation concluded, no doubt, but an awful big question remained unanswered in the mind of this farmer.

How could an unknown individual manage to impersonate him to the point that what he considered private information was given out?

And there the story lay, until last week, when I decided to ask a non-farming friend to impersonate me.

I gave him the information that you will find on any farm-to-farm animal movement permit, my name, my address and my herd number, and asked him to phone Portlaoise and ask if I’d received my single farm payment.

I further explained that, like the man who phoned me, I am paid “electronically”. and for one reason or another, I had not received any post this week, so hadn’t received notice of payment; plus. I hadn’t been to the bank.

My friend stated that he was phoning to enquire about whether he’d been paid. He was asked, “What’s your herd number?” This he gave.

“Yes, you’ve been paid, Mr Coughlan.” (And indeed I have).

A further question on the accuracy of this information yielded the same response.

The fact that at no time was he asked to verify his identity, or answer even a simple security question, left my friend amazed.

My experiment indicates that security seems very lax, even though in many respects, the Department of Agriculture is in effect a type of bank, or finance clearing house, for €1.23bn of annual single farm payments in Ireland.

Contrast the very detailed information to confirm who I am before my phone company will even discuss issuing me with a mobile phone upgrade for €40-50. And I’m the one paying


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