While fewer than 100 cases have been prosecuted using satellite imaging since the RMA started its crackdown in 2001, data mining _ coupled with satellite imaging _ pinpoints about 1,500 farms annually that are put on a watch list for possible crop fraud, Hand said. Ground inspections are done on the suspect farms throughout the growing season.
The agency says its spot checklist generated by the satellite data has saved taxpayers between $71 million and $110 million a year in fraudulent crop insurance claims since 2001.
The agency stepped up its enforcement after the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000 mandated it use data mining to ferret out false claims, Hand said. Every year, it ships claims data to the Center for Agriculture Excellence at Tarleton State University in Stephensville, Texas, where analysts look for anomalies in claims. They generate a list of claims for further investigation, with satellite imaging pulled on the most egregious cases.
Just as U.S. satellites kept track of things like the wheat harvest in the former Soviet Union, other countries have also launched satellites to monitor American crops. Germany, France and others have satellites monitoring crop conditions, and many other private firms sell those images in the U.S.
"Everybody spies on everybody. I was stunned to hear that myself," Edwards said. "Someday, I may have to rely on a French satellite to convict an American citizen."