Gangs target families as 'soft option': Jason Bennetto looks at a growing trend among criminals of seeking to bypass sophisticated security

THE KIDNAPPING and murder of Carol Wardell is the latest incident in which criminals have turned to hostage-taking as a 'soft option' rather than trying to tackle increasingly sophisticated security systems.

Robberies against building societies have fallen from a high of 1,086 in 1991 to 770 last year and only 262 in the first seven months of this year. The decline is believed to be due largely to new security measures.

The building societies, however, are so concerned that criminals may be turning their attention to staff and their families that they now give regular training and advice on how to act in a hostage situation.

Ian Stewart, head of security at the Woolwich Building Society, which employed Mrs Wardell, said yesterday that her kidnapping may have been a consequence of the improving security. 'Clearly as we tighten security around branches criminals will be looking for other avenues. Short of making every member of staff's private home a security castle it's very difficult to prevent.'

The Woolwich updated its security manual, which covers kidnapping, last March. Staff are given training twice a year and the building society is reviewing home security measures following the murder.

The threat has become so great that, in 1991, Securicor produced a video showing an armed and masked gang bursting into a family's home, handcuffing and gagging them and threatening to cut off the wife's fingers. The husband goes to work as instructed, but colleagues persuade him to alert his branch manager. Police then trigger a pre-planned covert operation to free the kidnapped woman.

Some of the security measures being introduced at building societies include video cameras; double entrance doors to prevent robbers rushing in and out to snatch money; keeping money away from the counter and, in some cases, only making it available to staff from electronic withdrawal machines; automatic locks on doors so that all customers have to be 'buzzed' into the branch; fast-rising counter security screens; secret panic buttons; and underground safes with time locks.

A spokesman for the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union called on all banks and building societies to implement immediately recent guidelines from the Health and Safety Executive for improving security and called on employers to draw up personal security plans to cover staff outside work.

Among recent hostage- taking incidents were:

In January, an armed gang kidnapped a director of the Park Tower casino in Knightsbridge, London, and forced him to empty a safe after handcuffing him to a briefcase that they claimed held explosives, then escaping with pounds 90,000.

In February, gunmen kept a jeweller and his family hostage in their Kent home overnight before forcing him to open his shop and stealing more than pounds 50,000 in gems and cash.

(Photograph omitted)