On the surface, the town of Chippenham seems a rather unlikely place for a rebellion, with its genteel High Street of Georgian buildings, peaceful atmosphere and regular farmers’ market.
Yet this spot in Wiltshire has become the home of an uprising against online fraud. In response to a spiralling number of cases in the area, the local community is taking a stand to ‘kick fraud out of the town’.
Leading the charge is an unlikely figure. Step forward great-grandmother of two, Sandie Webb.
Blonde, 70 years old, 5ft 2in and equipped with a sturdy pair of hiking shoes — she is far from the stereotypical image of a vigilante.
Sandie founded Chippenham Community Hub in 2021 in a bid to help the town pull together during the pandemic. Today, the hub’s focus has shifted — it’s now the town’s centre for fighting fraud.
Scambuster: Sandie Webb, 70, (pictured, left, with reporter Jessica Beard), founded Chippenham Community Hub in 2021 to help the town pull together during the pandemic
More than 45 per cent of all crime in Wiltshire relates to cases of fraud, she says. And the police say 80 per cent of those cases are preventable.
‘That’s why we’ve taken the fight into our own hands,’ says Sandie. ‘We know the police have a small budget for handling fraud and it has become everyone’s problem.
‘The community is saying, “Go away, we won’t be scammed by you”. Fraudsters have no business in our town.’
The community hub is open 9am to 3pm five days a week and all are welcome.
But after seeing a rise in the number of scam victims coming into the hub, Sandie says dedicated help is needed.
In testament to her fighting spirit, next month, on October 7, she will open the doors to a ‘fraud surgery’, thanks to a £3,000 grant awarded by the local Police and Crime Commissioner.
On the day, scam victims will be able to voice their grievances and report crimes. The local police’s fraud officer will be there to deliver educational sessions and High Street banks have been invited.
From next month, the hub’s volunteers will be equipped with new training and protocols in order to welcome scam victims in to share their burden.
Volunteers have been carefully selected for their ability to deal with sensitive and traumatic topics and offer a comforting shoulder.
They have also received training from the police about how to report cases and provide support to those who need it the most.
Volunteers will give advice on how to prevent fraud and warn people about scam trends.
Sandie says: ‘We will teach people how to handle this epidemic of fraud through educational sessions and keep them up to date on the latest tricks.
‘We will signpost these around the community and on social media, too. We must stop fraud in its tracks.’
Fighting back: Sandie’s community leaflet which encourages fraud victims to come forward
Sandie understands the feelings of shame and embarrassment that so often stops scam victims from reporting crime or even telling their family.
‘We will become the human face for those who suffer from this dreadful crime and do what we can to get the message out about how different types of scams work,’ she says.
‘So many people who have fallen victim to a scam need support because they’re on their own. We offer a safe space where no one judges.’
Many have already sought comfort and support at the hub, but Sandie expects cases to soar. She says a growing number of social media and online scams are catching out the people of Chippenham.
‘I’ve seen all sorts, from buying and selling scams to dodgy investments, but the worst are the heartless romance scams that tend to start on Facebook or dating sites. I’ve seen a few cases, including one widow who I struggled to get through to.
She told me she had ‘this fantastic online friend who told her how gorgeous she was. It’s so easy to be flattered by it but I know that when she comes crashing down to earth she is going to feel worthless. All we can do is support her’.
The Police are limited
DC Rachel Davies, Wiltshire Police’s sole fraud prevention officer, has been Sandie’s biggest helper and advocate. She is dealing with around 80 cases a week.
The police officer has toured the county giving talks on online scams and sharing her advice on how to spot fraudsters.
It’s her day off when Money Mail visits but she is busy at the hub. It’s clear from her rapport with volunteers that she dedicates a lot of her time to the centre.
However, as a team of one, there is only so much she can do. Police have struggled to deal with the fraud epidemic in recent years as social media scams have become rampant.
Last month, Money Mail revealed that across the UK, 1.1 million people are falling victim to scams that originate on social media every year.
Yet the House of Commons Justice Committee warned last autumn that only 2 per cent of police funding was being dedicated to combating fraud — despite fraud making up 41 per cent of reported crimes in England and Wales.
DC Davies, whose role was set up at the start of 2021, acknowledges that the police and community need to work together if they are to turn the tide of the tsunami of fraud cases.
She says: ‘This hub is 100 per cent needed alongside the police effort — it is great that the community is coming together to fight fraud. We are all in this together. There is no one person who is less likely to be a victim of fraud.
Scamdemic: Last month, we revealed that across the UK, 1.1 million people are falling victim to scams that originate on social media every year.
‘The reason I’m working with the hub is because it’s a great place to speak to local people. They come in here because they don’t necessarily want to go to the police station.
That can be more daunting and victims don’t always know how it works. So this is a great safe place for them to come.’
Sandie agrees, and believes residents must step in to help the community when the police cannot. She says: ‘We save police time because we can pass cases on to them and warn them about trends we are seeing. We can be an early warning system for the police.’
Budgets have been so tight that Sandie has had to dig into her own pocket to produce anti-scam brochures to hand out in the police station.
Sandie fears the £3,000 grant won’t go far. ‘It’s going to pay for staffing, heating, electricity, rent, social media and brochures. It’s stretching a long way but we’ll do miracles with it.’
Police and Crime Commissioner Philip Wilkinson, who introduces himself as ‘the one funding all of this’, says it is crucial to rebuild trust in the police.
‘We need to support victims and let them know that we care for them in order to build trust and confidence in the police force.
We know from what’s happened elsewhere that that is sadly lacking. So we need to reassure them that we care.’
Already, the surgery has attracted attention. Officials in the neighbouring town of Trowbridge have contacted Sandie to ask how they can set up their own fraud surgery.
DC Davies says she would like to build one in every town in Wiltshire but first wants to establish a blueprint in Chippenham.
Social media websites have become one of the biggest facilitators of fraud. And DC Davies warns that 15 to 24-year-olds are among the most vulnerable to scammers because of how much they share on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok.
‘Whether we like it or not, most of our lives are online now and everyone needs to understand the risks that are involved with that. In my presentations I tell members of the public not to be forced online,’ she says.
‘A lot of big companies are forcing them to pay for bills or monitor their accounts online and it’s not helping our most vulnerable in society. I tell people that if you don’t understand it, you have to have the confidence to tell these companies and push back.’
Money Mail’s Stop the Social Media Scammers campaign has revealed the shocking scale of the problem.
Our investigations have found that scams on Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram — all owned by social media giant Meta — account for an astonishing 16 per cent of all crime recorded in the UK.
Our investigations have found that scams on Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram – all owned by social media giant Meta – account for an astonishing 16% of all crime recorded in the UK
Last week, the Prime Minister backed our calls to force tech giants into doing more to protect their users from the surge in scammers, as their platforms have become a breeding ground for fraud.
The Government’s anti-fraud ‘champion’ and MP Anthony Browne says community groups can ‘help provide important local support in a way that national government can’t’.
He says: ‘It is good to see communities protecting themselves. We are working hard with tech firms to put the fraudsters out of business but while there is still widespread fraud, it is in everyone’s own interest to learn how to avoid having their money stolen.’
In the brochures handed out at the Chippenham police station and community hub, the overwhelming message is to beware while online.
It asks: ‘Is the bargain you have seen online far cheaper than one you have seen elsewhere?’ and ‘Have you really won that prize in a draw you didn’t even enter?’
Walk-in victim who lost £7,000
On the sunny September afternoon when Money Mail visits Chippenham, it’s clear that fraud isn’t just a fear for the townspeople — it’s a reality.
One 80-year-old woman who walks in is reticent at first, but wants to share her story. She tells a volunteer that scammers have charged £7,000 to her credit card and made off with the money.
She doesn’t know how they got hold of her details, who did it or how they pushed the payment through — and she has not told her family. Volunteer Ian Spyre asks her to fill in a fraud questionnaire.
It asks for details of what happened, how much the victim lost, whether they would like to report it and if they want support.
He suspects the woman must have clicked on a fraudulent link online or unintentionally shared her details on social media. She agrees to report the crime to Action Fraud, the reporting hotline run by the City of London Police. But she is quick to turn down support.
Ladonna Watts, the full-time community hub manager, says it is very difficult for victims to open up.
‘A lot of people feel embarrassed and stupid for falling for the trick — I’ve watched people disintegrate. The older generation in particular doesn’t feel they need or deserve the help they should be getting.’
Ladonna, a 57-year-old mother of one who used to work in recruitment, is clearly disappointed the team couldn’t convince the woman to opt in for help. ‘She told me she was strong enough.’
When you report a crime to Action Fraud, it is added to the national database of fraud cases. However, it is only when someone opts for victim support that the case gets logged as a Wiltshire crime with the local police. This is crucial for officers like DC Davies, who can then get involved.
She says: ‘There can be a lot of frustration with Action Fraud because people don’t always understand that it is just a reporting hotline.’
Sandie adds: ‘People go to Action Fraud because they want action to be taken about their personal experience of fraud and then it doesn’t happen.
So we are here to put them in touch with DC Davies or social services depending on their needs.’
Above all, the hub is there to listen. It should serve as a wake-up call to banks, tech companies and government that at the other end of criminal gangs who thrive on social media are everyday people who are fighting back. As the people of Chippenham say: ‘We deserve so much more.’
n How have you fought back against online fraudsters? Tell us your story at email@example.com
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.