PHONE fraudsters have hit an Oxford-based charity that helps farming families in need.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) yesterday warned other charities to be on their guard after the scam cost it about £2,000.

The West Way charity’s telephone system was hacked last Friday evening and fraudsters spent hours dialling a premium rate number they had set up in Russia.

The scam lasted for five hours before the charity’s telephone firm du Pré spotted the unusual activity and blocked calls.

The charity’s chief executive Paul Burrows said the crime would hit needy families at an important time of the year.

He said: “We help farming families in financial need, often in extreme circumstances.

“It’s hard to believe someone would sink so low – especially at this time of year – and not only prevent people from getting the help they need, but effectively steal money which we and the people who support us work hard to raise.

“For example £2,000 could have bought food vouchers for 10 families at Christmas, paid for a relief worker to help a farmer who has suffered a tragic accident, or paid for 10 lifeline alarms to keep elderly people safe in their homes.”

The charity’s phones, including a confidential helpline for farming families in need, were down until Tuesday – stopping anyone from calling the charity for help.

Emma Gibson, head of human resources and administration, said the phone system was hacked when the fraudsters guessed voice mail codes.

She said: “As an organisation we take security very seriously but it seems that all it took was for someone to guess a voice mail code at random.”

She added: “We now understand this kind of fraud costs UK businesses at least £16 million a year.

“I should like to warn other organisations, especially charities, to be on their guard in case it happens to them too.

“We were fortunate that our service provider noticed the unusual telephone activity and barred calls before we lost even more money – other people might not be so lucky.

“It’s clear we all need to remain vigilant and increase the security in our phone systems.”

Last month the Oxford Animal Sanctuary’s appeal for donations in the Oxford Mail was exploited by scammers who phoned members of the public up pretending to be from the charity and asking for money.

Thames Valley Police were unable to comment yesterday.