Police believe they have smashed one of the biggest computer crime rings in the South-east.

Detective Inspector John Shatford, in charge of the area three Opertation Bumblebee team, revealed yesterday that an operation involving four forces had led to the arrest of a dozen people, several from one Islington family.

The family had used a warehouse in Bow, east London, to ring computers, much in the same manner as stolen cars are disguised and sold.

Speaking at a seminar organised under the umbrella of Operation Bumblebee, the Metropolitan police initiative to tackle burglary in the capital, Mr Shatford said that the

family, who had previously claimed unemployment benefit, had earned pounds 3m in one year.

Two other warehouses containing stolen computers were uncovered. Barcodes and serial numbers had been changed.

Mr Shatford criticised manufacturers for the ease with which criminals could ring computers. 'I find it absolutely amazing that the only identification with such computers is a flimsy serial number on the back that you can tear off to reveal the barcode,' said Mr Shatford. 'The thieves were able to replace the barcodes on the back of computers. They were replacing them with barcodes from computers which had been already stolen. They were recloning them.

'How on earth is it that computer manufacturers with all the ingenuity they have, can not install some preventative measure is extraordinary and frankly appalling.'

The officer said Apple Macintoshes were popular because they were user-friendly and fetched a good price.

Offices were the favourite target followed by schools, estate agents and solicitors' offices and hospitals. Some criminals did not take computer casings, just the specific chips.

'This is draining police resources and making a mockery of the insurance system. But we are all victims because at the end of the day we all have to pay higher premiums.'

Commander Tony Comben, co-ordinator of Bumblebee's area three, said computer crime had been taken under the wing of the larger Bumblebee project, which police believe has cut burglary by 18 per cent.

The forces involved in the operation were south Wales, Wiltshire, Kent and Nottinghamshire.

(Photograph omitted)