'Once they’ve got you in their claws, they don’t let go' - Sheffield's scam champion leading the fight against fraudsters
Hunched over the sink, scrubbing mugs, Siobhan Drury cuts an unlikely figure as the first line of defence against the cruel fraudsters preying on Sheffield’s most vulnerable.
But it’s all part of a charm offensive to win people’s trust before the confidence tricksters can get to them – and it appears to be paying off for the city’s first PCSO ‘scam champion’.
“They’re very serious about their bingo, and I help out with the washing so they can get down to it sooner,” says the 48-year-old, who has just hosted an event highlighting how to spot the latest scams.
She’s a popular character on the Brindley estate in Norton Lees, where the session took place, and that’s not just thanks to her washing-up skills.
Tina Wright, secretary of the Brindley and Mundella Tenants and Residents Association (TARA), is full of praise for Siobhan, or ‘Shiv’, as she’s better known.
“Shiv’s brilliant. Whenever there’s a problem we know she’s at the end of the phone, and if someone needs a talking to she’ll go and talk to them,” says Tina.
It’s thanks to events like this morning’s that Siobhan is able to stay one step ahead of the fraudsters and rogue traders seeking to part often elderly victims, belonging to a ‘more trusting generation’, from their hard-earned savings.
As well as passing on tips about how to stay safe, she heard that day from members of the close-knit community about someone they feared was at risk of falling prey, and she was able to visit him and ensure he had the necessary support to prevent the vultures getting their mitts on his cash.
Sadly, Siobhan is not always able to get there first, as crooks develop ever more sophisticated and convincing rackets in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the game, and some of the cases she describes are truly heartbreaking.
“It’s horrible to see someone who’s lost their life savings, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s tens of thousands of pounds or a few hundred,” she says.
“It’s not just the money, either. It can massively knock their confidence. I visited one elderly couple who were targeted by someone pretending to be from the tax office who told the man there was a warrant out for his arrest because he’d broken the law.
“He was instructed to go to such and such a shop and get £5,000 worth of iTunes vouchers, but luckily a neighbour found out what was happening and contacted us.
“This was a man who’d worked hard all his life and always paid his taxes, and he was absolutely terrified because he genuinely believed they were coming to get him. His wife told us she thought he was going to have a heart attack.
“They target the most vulnerable and once they’ve got you in their claws they don’t let go. They try to make them repeat victims so they can extract as much money as possible, and they’ll often sell on their details to other scammers.”
When people do fall prey, Siobhan is there to ensure they have the support they need to avoid being targeted again.
Those victims, she says, are often so determined to prevent other people being conned that they sign up as ‘scam champions’ themselves to raise awareness of the warning signs.
There are a ‘huge amount’ of different scams doing the rounds, explains Siobhan, with fraudsters using everything from dating to fake lottery wins as bait to hook their prey, and on any given day there is probably at least one unsuspecting victim somewhere in Sheffield sending off a large sum of money.
A particularly prevalent trick, she says, involves people calling and telling victims their bank account has been breached and they need to transfer money into another, supposedly safer, account.
Siobhan also works closely with Sheffield Council’s Trading Standards teams to crack down on cowboy builders and other rogue traders operating in the city.
One of the most devastating cases she uncovered was that of a woman who was preyed upon by the same fraudsters for five years, leaving her thousands of pounds out of pocket and feeling unsafe in her own home.
Her plight only came to light because Siobhan spotted a suspicious-looking van outside the woman’s house and when she ran the registration number through the system found it had already been flagged by police.
“I visited her the next day and she was very distressed. She told me they were ‘very bad people’ who wouldn’t leave her alone,” says Siobhan.
“She explained how they’d turned up one day and started cutting down branches in her garden. She needed it doing so she went along with it but the price started going up and up and there would always be more work.
“They used a mixture of charm and intimidation. One minute they’d be telling her about their fictitious families and the next they’d be standing over her making her write them a cheque.
“It was affecting her health but she never told her family because she felt ashamed and didn’t want to worry them.
“We got Trading Standards involved and put cameras in her house, and when they returned she said ‘the police are looking for you’. They never came back and it turned out they were part of a bigger investigation, stretching all the way up to the north of Yorkshire.
“We still keep in touch. I send her a Christmas card each year and visit her when I can.”
Were Siobhan not taking on the scammers, incidentally, her engaging and chatty personality mean she would be well equipped to join them on the dark side.
She was born in the village of Blarney, in Country Cork, Ireland, and definitely has the gift of the gab associated with kissing the famous Blarney Stone.
After leaving school aged 17, the dog lover initially worked in the kennels for an animal charity and became a qualified dog trainer before moving with the charity to Bolton, where she met her husband at work, and then to Sheffield.
She briefly worked as a city centre ambassador in Sheffield before joining South Yorkshire Police in 2003 as one of the force’s first police community support officers.
Having initially covered the whole of South Yorkshire, before bosses realised the best way for PCSOs to serve the public was by building relationships within a smaller community, she is now works out of Woodseats police station and spends most of her time pounding the beat in her patch, which includes Norton, Norton Lees and all of Graves Park.
Siobhan loves the outdoors, getting out into the Peak District whenever possible and each working day walking six miles with her dog and five miles to the police station before spending much of the day on her feet.
Foiling fraudsters is just part of her job. At the other end of the age spectrum, she spends much of her time working with children in care who have been moved out of other cities because their troubled upbringing has left them at risk of becoming involved in gang or knife crime.
“I’m at the local children’s home most days, building relationships with these young people, some of whom don’t have a very good opinion of the police,” she says.
“It’s about breaking down barriers and making them forget about the uniform and just see you as a person.”
Siobhan also visits primary schools, where she talks to younger children about what her job involves and delivers road safety advice. She believes it is important children get to know their local police officers from a young age so they feel comfortable approaching them when they need to as they grow older.
Off-road bikers and reports of anti-social behaviour in Graves Park are some of the other issues keeping her busy, especially during the summer months.
But thwarting the scammers remains her biggest passion, and she claims everyone has a role to play.
“I’d ask people look out for any friends, neighbours and relatives who could be vulnerable,” she says.
“If they’re getting post telling them they’ve won money, catalogues trying to sell them stuff or lots of medical items being delivered, those are all good signs someone’s got hold of their details and is trying to scam them.”
You can report suspected scams to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or visiting actionfraud.police.uk.