By Mike McGinnis
DES MOINES (DTN)--After a Midwest farm chemical company was duped out of more than $200,000 by an anonymous customer, questions have been raised about how wholesale distributors conduct business during a time of heightened alert about agroterrorism.
Internet sales of farm chemicals are of even greater concern.
In mid-April, Wickman Chemical Co. in Atlantic, Iowa, sold 7,000 pounds of herbicide to a group of farmers known as Minnesota Marketing Company. The buyer said the company was based in Morris, Minn. It was not until days after the purchase that officials at Wickman realized the check used to pay for the product was bogus.
"We feel stupid for doing this transaction, there are a few things we are changing as a result," owner Eric Wickman said during an interview with DTN. "We no longer are accepting a check after 3 p.m."
A broker, known as Don Stoller, contacted the Iowa chemical company in early April by phone to arrange for the transaction.
A few days after the transaction, Wickman discovered Stoller's check for the product was phony, as was the Minnesota company and bank from which the check came.
As it turns out, the man who claimed to be Stoller had given a phony bank phone number and account information when Wickman did a pre-purchase background check.
"When Stoller first called in early April, my sales associate talked to him," Wickman said. "He (Stoller) was comfortable, knew his product, knew how the buyers' group worked. He was very smooth. We talked several times on the phone."
Wickman said Stoller wanted some products that he couldn't get in his home state.
"He wanted some product that isn't licensed in Minnesota, I said I wouldn't do that," Wickman said. "Plus, one time when we called him back, he apparently was in the hospital. We then called his bank and the person on the other end of the line knew what he was talking about."
Stoller allegedly sent the bogus check with a hired man to pick up the chemicals.
Though the driver showed the proper certification for use of the chemicals, the red flags about the transaction began to shoot up when the man didn't know how to load it properly.
"I thought something was strange at that point," Wickman said.
The man that picked up the chemicals was described to be about 22 years old and didn't know "diddly" about agriculture, said Cass County, Iowa, Sheriff Bill Sage, the lead investigator of the theft.
Since the theft, the FBI, several Midwest law enforcement agencies, the Office of Homeland Security and the members of Iowa Criminal Investigations have been notified.
Wickman said Friday the phone company was tracing back calls made with the thief's cellular phone.
Experts believe the chemicals would not be useful for making explosives, but most likely would be sold on the black market.
Most of the chemicals taken were listed as restricted-use products such as Callisto, Raptor, Capture pesticide, Regent, Pursuit Ecopax, Lightning and Select.
As a result of the theft, Wickman has offered a $50,000 reward for the arrest of the thief and the return of the chemicals. Any leads can be directed to the Cass County (Iowa) Sheriff's Office at 1-712-243-2206.
Since the incident last month, Wickman said he has heard of two similar cases in recent years.
"A driver got away with a semi-load of Puma by just showing a load number at the dock in North Dakota," he said. "Also, another friend told me a similar case happened to him."
Of concern to some government officials is how chemical dealers are being duped so easily, especially when they're supposed to be trained to watch out for suspicious activity related to agroterrorism.
Luetta Flournoy, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide branch in Kansas City, Kan., said no federal laws would have prevented the Iowa theft.
"We stress that in the dealer to end-user transaction, the dealer needs to properly check for the restricted use pesticide certification and make sure that is on hand," she said. "In fact, this is the most frequent infraction we see."
Flournoy's EPA office oversees the states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
"Whether you are a co-op or a wholesale dealer, we encourage the dealers to protect their product and to promote homeland security," she said.
Chuck Eckerman, pesticide bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Agriculture, said the key is building a relationship with each customer.
"How do you avoid this from happening again? I think there is room for further regulations to avoid that," he said. "Plus, you almost have to be familiar with your customer to be certain. You have to have some former relationship to avoid it completely."
Wickman, whose business is just minutes off Interstate 80, said about half of his customers come from out of state.
"People just pop in all of time off the interstate," he said. "Plus, we do about 50 percent of our business over the phone. I have a lot of customers I've never met."
Denny Knight, chemical safety director at New Co-op in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, said his company is more cautious about selling to just anybody.
"We don't sell to every Tom, Dick and Harry," he said. "If you are a stranger, we get nervous. Our sales guys are working out in the country, they know who is buying."
Along with making off with thousands of pounds of farm chemicals by writing a bad check, Flournoy said, thieves are finding more ways to steal.
"There is a lot of e-commerce out there and there is a lot of potential for things like this to happen," he said. "When someone is really wanting to get their hands on chemical, there are lots of ways they can do that."