Cash-filled post offices exposed to tiger gangs
Stricter controls of cash and protocols to counter kidnappings can only do so much when the human factor comes into play, writes Jim Cusack
Out of seven robberies involving kidnappings in the Republic this year, five have been aimed at post office staff.
Two of the post office raids have been successful netting around €650,000, including last week's raid in Drogheda in which an estimated €550,000 was stolen.
Details of the latest abduction robbery are unclear and the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has asked for a report from gardai and information as to whether "protocols" were adhered to by An Post.
These protocols in the event of tiger kidnappings have evolved over the past decade since mainly Dublin gangs have begun specialising in the terrorising tactics of abducting family members and succeeded in escaping with millions of euro.
It is understood that An Post employees are told that in the case of a fellow worker arriving in their office and pleading for cash the staff have to inform management , who, in turn, must inform gardai. This gives the gardai the opportunity to mount a security operation to intercept gang members and stop the theft of monies.
However, it is known that in some instances of these crimes in recent years staff have been too terrified to adhere to the protocol guidelines and gardai have been unable to mount operations. It is believed that in a number of incidents where gardai were notified they held back because the abducted family members could not be found and for fear for their safety.
An Post said last week that security protocols were adhered to and it is not known if gardai held back due to fears for the safety of the abducted mother and her two-month-old child, the youngest victim to date of the tiger kidnappers.
The main issue at play in these short-term, business kidnappings is the understandable terror of the victims, the "human factor" as it is referred to among gardai and in the security industry.
Industry sources say the fact that post offices and relatively small cash-handling businesses are now being targeted is an indication that the additional security measures and protocols introduced by banks and cash-in-transit companies have been successful.
Banks have drastically reduced the amounts of cash being held in branches in the past two years. Time lock systems on safes are being rigidly imposed. Outside main city centre banks, customers are now told that if they want more than €5,000 in cash they will have to wait 24 hours.
The last attempt to use the tiger kidnap tactic on a bank was in Kilkenny in November 2009, when the wife of Kilkenny hurler Adrian Ronan, Mary, and their three young children were abducted. Mr Ronan was told to go to his work in the Bank of Ireland in Kilkenny and remove €3m. This was not possible and he was only able to access a much smaller amount -- believed to be €30,000 -- which he brought to the allotted hand-over spot but was rejected by the gang, who eventually gave up and released the family and fled.
The increasing targeting of post offices shows, security sources say, that the gangs are going "down the food chain". In the past year, gangs have been known to have escaped with sums as low as €50,000. As up to a dozen robbers can be involved in such robberies the individual returns are very low and particularly so given that if they are caught they will face very long prison sentences. False imprisonment is punishable by up to life imprisonment.
But this movement towards lower value targets has its dangers, says Cathal O'Neill, director of security firm RMI which specialises in protective security programmes for firms handling cash, cigarettes and other high-value products.
He said: "We have been predicting for the last few years that tiger kidnappers were moving down the food chain as banks and cash-in-transit companies improved security measures and protocols. There are many billions of euro in social welfare and pension payments being processed each year through An Post and its agents, and a lot of this is in cash.
"An Post is in an invidious position, given the ongoing requirement to keep communities alive in both rural and urban areas and to provide direct support to the most vulnerable in society, the aged and the unemployed. The 1,200 post offices across the county handle very large sums of money and there is only so much you can do with time locks when you have to pay customers their cash. However, An Post has been very active in enhancing measures, training personnel and developing counter measures to these types of attacks.
"Our big concern would be that as the gangs go for smaller and smaller amounts, less experienced, if you like, gangs will come into play which could be more violent and there are clear risks associated with that."
Garda sources agree, saying there is a picture emerging of the gangs moving away from high-value targets and banks almost completely in the past year. Gardai have been watching one of the main gangs suspected of the tiger kidnappings for at least two years but have had difficulties in mounting what they say are necessarily expensive operations because of budget constraints. Surveillance operations, properly conducted, entail large amounts of overtime but the overtime budget this year took a massive hit with the visits of the queen and US President Barack Obama, they say.
According to sources, the gang responsible for last Tuesday's robbery is almost certainly the same gang which kidnapped the wife of Brinks Allied director Bill Hoyne from his home in Co Louth last November. The gang abducted Shirley Hoyne and instructed her husband to go to the Brinks Allied depot in north Dublin, which handles cash to the value of tens of millions of euro each week, but he was only able to access €170,000.
Of the seven tiger kidnappings this year, the only other one in which a gang escaped with cash was at the end of June in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. The gang abducted a 25-year-old man, who was minding his parents' post office while they were on holiday. He was abducted at gun and knife point, driven to the post office shortly before opening time and forced to hand over €100,000 from the safe.
The kidnap gangs did make one attempt to strike at the heart of the An Post cash handling operations by kidnapping the wife and two children of senior executive Liam O'Sullivan from their home in Fennore, Co Kildare, on April 4. However, Mr O'Sullivan's wife, Mary, was able to escape and raise the alarm and the gang fled without getting any money.
Another similar attempted tiger robbery with a similar outcome took place on April 26 when a gang imprisoned the wife and two-year-old son of an employee of G4S Cash Solutions at their home in Athy, Co Kildare. However, the alarm was raised and the gang fled, leaving the mother and child uninjured. G4S said it was thankful the family was unhurt and that its security systems and procedures "worked effectively".
Kidnap gangs also targeted post offices in Prosperous, Co Kildare, on Good Friday, imprisoning a woman and her two daughters. In May, another gang took four people including the local post mistress hostage in Cloonfad, on the Mayo-Roscommon border, but failed to get any money when they brought the woman to the post office. Gardai almost caught the gang, which escaped across fields to a car. The other attempted kidnap and robbery this year took place in Rathdowney, Co Laois, in May, when a woman in her fifties was taken from her home and forced to open a filling station where she worked. The gang escaped with cash and cigarettes valued at around €50,000.