International fraudsters have targeted solar firms in both the UK and abroad, making off with equipment from two separate firms worth significant sums.
In the first of two separate cases, CCL Components lost £66,000 worth of modules and inverters after falling victim to “a very professional scam.”
The company was contacted via email from a group posing as the SASU subsidiary of French construction giant GGC Group. According to managing director Paul Brooks, there was no evidence that it would lead to anything other than a normal transaction.
“We had done the due diligence on the company and everything appeared very legitimate. We've started picking holes in it now but the truth is we had done for them what we do for most people and everything was very credible,” he said.
“What they appear to do is mimic the staff, mimic the website – we actually passed all the detail to an IT company and it would appear they have effectively copied SASU's website. Everything looked legitimate, but that's obviously just what these guys do.”
As a presumably large client with credible purchase orders and positive due diligence procedures, both CCL Components and the freight company delivering the goods from Glasgow to Erith in Dartford provided credit on the deal.
Once delivered and signed off, the buyers disappeared with 210 LG 300W modules, 10 SMA SB3000 and 30 SMA SB3600 inverters, leaving CCL out of pocket.
Just a few weeks following the incident a second case with remarkable similarities cost international distributor Libra Energy €126,000 (just under £100,000) after 756 panels were stolen.
The company’s Dutch office was seemingly contacted by international technology firm CSC Computer Services via email, requesting solar panels for a client of theirs in the UK. Once again, the fraudsters used credible email addresses, disclaimers, business addresses and contact numbers to win the trust of Libra Energy.
After hammering out an agreement over a couple of weeks, an order was placed for the JA Solar 270W all black panels to be delivered to an aquatics nursery in Mitcham, South London.
“Normally [the company] wouldn't offer credit on a container, it would be payment in advance but because it was such a big company…it was allowed with 30 days credit on it,” explained Paul Bradbury, UK general manager for Libra Energy UK.
“It got delivered and signed for and we got thanked for it, not a problem. But when it came to collecting the money all the phone's had gone dead and no one was replying to the email address anymore and the gear had vanished.”
A last minute change of address meant that the panels made been delivered to a location a few miles from the aquatics centre, which is now up for sale and hasn’t been occupied since October. When Bradbury contacted the Beaver Aquatic Nursery originally used as the delivery address, he was told that the centre had been receiving calls from a company attempting to deliver solar panels that they had not ordered.
In addition, an individual “hanging round looking suspicious” had been chased off by the manager into what was later found to be a stolen van.
Police later claimed he had likely planned to use the nursery as a location to hijack the panels when they arrived before transferring them to the van. When he was confronted, the delivery address was changed to the secondary location.
Like in the first case with CCL Components, Bradbury claimed there was little in the documentation to suggest the deal wasn’t above board.
“It was very plausible. If you look at some of the names on there I would've hoped if it was the UK office involved we might have spotted the fact that Simon Cowell was one of the names but then again it’s not an unusual name but I think it might have raised a few eyebrows. But the rest of it was very plausible,” he said.
Both companies have reported their cases to Action Fraud and CCL Component’s case has been referred to the Metropolitan Police online crime and fraud team, known as FALCON. However, a spokesperson for the Met told Solar Power Portal that the Libra Energy case has not been passed on for further investigation as “there doesn’t appear to be any viable lines of enquiry.”
Brooks and Bradbury are warning the industry as a whole to show caution when entering deals that have similarities to both their cases.
“It's embarrassing to admit that you've cocked up and lost money however there's now two of us that have lost,” Brooks said.
“We've lost the money and need the support of the police. Even the freight company that took the goods down gave them credit. There's a lot of people losing money and the police don’t appear interested.”
“It should serve as a lesson to all our competitor colleagues and installer customers that it’s easy to get caught out.”
Bradbury added: “They've [the Dutch subsidiary of CSC] done all the checks that we would normally expect them to do on a company so I suppose the warning to everyone is check, check and check again.
“I think one thing they could've done is look up that company on the internet, get a separate number and then phoned them up and ask for confirmation. That's the only thing I think they could've done to prevent this from happening.”
At the time of publication, SPP was waiting to hear from the FALCON unit regarding its progress on the CCL Components case.
If anyone has any additional information on either case, or have fallen victim to similar fraudulent activities, contact Action Fraud or the local police jurisdiction.