POLICE have established a strike force designed to catch fraudsters targeting landholders in the Oxley and Hunter and beyond with a hay scam.
Rural crime investigators announced the formation of Strike Force Woden to examine reports of fraud hitting farmers in drought-stricken communities around NSW including the Oxley, Hunter Valley, Port Stephens and on the Mid North Coast.
It follows numerous reports to police of social media advertisements of hay for a discounted price. Police said that in each reported case the seller took an initial deposit for the feed but failed to deliver.
Reports have also been received in the Southern Highlands, the Hills, and Nepean commands. A number of people are understood to have lost money to the online fraudsters.
State rural crime co-ordinator Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside urged anyone buying fodder, water or other supplies to survive the drought to take additional precautions.
"These are difficult times, and it's disgusting to think anyone would seek to take advantage of people who have already been through so much," Detective Inspector Whiteside said.
"I would encourage anyone buying supplies online to only deal with people and businesses that have proven to be genuine in the past.
"Where possible, it is best to only hand over money until the goods are in your possession.
"And of course, the age old saying applies - if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is."
NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said anyone found guilty of scamming farmers should face the harshest punishments under the law.
"At a time when we're seeing unprecedented levels of drought affecting every corner of NSW, it's unthinkable that anyone would seek to exploit those who most need our support," Mr Elliott said.
"This is a pathetic act and the government will continue to back our police in their efforts to keep these online criminals away from communities struggling during these hard times."
Police have urged anyone who has been caught out in the scam to ensure they report it to investigators, potentially leading them to protect other potential victims.
"It is important not to be embarrassed - scams succeed because they look like the real thing and catch people off guard," Detective Inspector Whiteside said.
"Our officers need as much information as possible in order to investigate these crimes thoroughly and find those responsible."