Criminals are impersonating established retailers and wholesalers in an attempt to steal goods from food suppliers in a new and fast-growing type of fraud.

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors said it had received 50 reports of fraudsters impersonating its members since October.

“A supplier will receive a call or email apparently from a UK wholesaler. Sometimes they ask to open an account in the name of the wholesaler, sometimes they ask for goods to be delivered on an existing account to a wholesaler’s premises,” explained criminal intelligence data analyst Isabel Koppel. “When the goods are en route, the lorry driver will receive a message to deliver the load to an alternative venue. The legitimate wholesaler knows nothing of the scam until an invoice arrives.”

The orders are often high in value. One wholesaler said their name had been used to target a Spanish produce supplier. The criminals placed two orders worth £15,000-£20,000, which they received at an empty warehouse. It was only when the supplier rang up to chase payment that they realised.

Another fraud was stopped when a Dutch company called the wholesaler’s head office to check the order.

Trade credit insurer Atradius said it had also seen a rise in buyer impersonations. “We have witnessed several cases recently, with the targeted suppliers trading in fruit, vegetables and fish in particular,” said fraud officer Louise Cochrane. “The perishable, non-traceable nature of these goods makes them an easy target.”

Signs that a customer may be not be legitimate include the use of a Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail account, giving a mobile phone number as the only contact and using a different delivery address to the registered company address or volunteering to collect goods.