A THIEF has escaped with thousands of pounds in a raid on a building society.

It is thought the thief may have set off a fire alarm to clear the headquarters of Darlington Building Society before walking in to snatch the cash.

Police were called to the head office in Yarm Road, Darlington, yesterday afternoon when the theft was discovered.

It is thought the money was stolen after staff were evacuated from their offices when a fire alarm was triggered just before 2.30pm.

As staff congregated outside the building for a roll call, an unknown, smartly-dressed man was seen leaving the building from a side door.

The stranger, who was seen by some members of staff, was wearing a suit, shirt and tie, and was carrying a bag.

He was seen getting into a dark Ford Focus car and was immediately driven away.

When staff returned to their offices they realised a cash box containing several thousand pounds was missing.

The police were called and investigators later recovered an empty cash box.

Detective Chief Inspector Andy Reddick, of Darlington CID, said: "The raid appears to have been carefully planned and was well executed.

"Investigators are considering the possibility that the fire alarm was deliberately triggered to create a diversion for the cash box to be grabbed.

"I would appeal for anyone who saw anything suspicious in or near the premises to get in touch."

No members of staff or members of the public were hurt in the raid, which was described by police officers as audacious.

Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Darlington police, on (01325) 467681.

Witnesses can also call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.

A spokesman for Darlington Building Society said the company would not be making any comment about the incident.

The building society, which is run from the head office, has two branches in Darlington and others throughout the North-East and North Yorkshire.