The Metropolitan Police will be hosting a meeting of security and insurance firms next month to discuss methods of curbing computer thefts in the capital. The number of computer thefts in London has been estimated to have doubled over the past year, with the Apple Macintosh topping the burglars' shopping list.

The police initiative, hosted by the Metropolitan Police's three-area, covering north-east London, comes as preparations are made to launch Mactrac,

a system developed to help to track down stolen Apple computers - staple tools used by London's extensive design and media community. According to Chris Cain, of Personal Computer World, 'Part of the success of Apples is that they are amazingly easy to use.'

Many small- and medium- sized creative firms are suffering because of the increasing reluctance of insurance companies to insure offices using Apple Macs because of the increasing rate of theft.

Entitled 'Computer Theft and Its Prevention', the seminar will draw together victims of computer theft, the Association of British Insurers and security advisers. Police from Hertfordshire, Essex and the Thames Valley will also be present, along with businesswatch representatives.

As well as information on the latest security technology to prevent theft, delegates will be told that victims of computer crime could face up to six months' imprisonment as a maximum penalty if the information they have lost in the theft is subject to the Data Protection Act.

The Data Protection

Agency has yet to bring any prosecutions under the act, mainly because of the legal difficulties encountered in identifying the sole person responsible for keeping the data.

Tony Saunders, the crime-prevention officer organising the seminar, told how top-of- the-range computers, such as the Apple Mac, have ended up in the hands of architects and engineers, who were probably not be aware that they had purchased stolen property.

'We are not singling the Macs out at the seminar, but because of their higher price, those computers are more alluring to the criminal.

'People look at a room full of computers thinking there is nothing to take. They disregard the tools of their trade - it's only after the equipment has been stolen three times that they realise they have something worth stealing,' Mr Saunders said.

Nigel Taylor, one of a growing band of entrepreneurs developing security gadgets for computers, launches his brainchild, Mactrac, next month. Computers in the scheme are tagged and barcoded, and the names and addresses of owners are inserted into a national database, which can be accessed by police. Mactrac stickers, rather like neighbourhood-watch stickers, act as an additional deterrent.

Design companies, advertising agencies and publishers in Covent Garden, Soho and the City have become such a 'soft' target for thieves, who steal the computers to order, that one insurance company, Eagle Star, now refuses to provide cover. Several other insurance firms are raising premiums by thousands of pounds.

A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers warned that many other computer users, including universities and hospitals, may soon become uninsurable: 'Any company with more than the odd Apple Mac will be looked at very closely by their insurance company. We are trying to carry on covering the print industry, but the risk of being raided is now so great.'

Earlier this month, two local papers based in north London, the Hendon Times and the Barnet Press, found themselves the targets of Macintosh thieves. The Barnet Press lost 20 computers and the Hendon Times lost six hard disc units worth several thousand pounds.

Brian Machale, the London manager for insurance company Applied Technology Adjusting, said: 'In some areas of London, putting up an Apple Mac sign has become the same as saying, 'come and rob me'.'

Some of the equipment goes to Eastern Europe and developing countries, police believe.

Mr Machale said: 'I have heard of cases where computer hardware is being traded for drugs and even small arms.'

Older buildings in central London have been identified by insurers as particularly vulnerable to theft. Centaur Communications, a publishing company in the heart of Soho, has been raided four times in

the past month, losing an

estimated pounds 60,000 of equipment. McBride's, a design consultancy in Vauxhall, has been hit twice in one week.

Gus Coulton, the managing director, believes the thieves knew what they were after. He said: 'They were ruthless in their methods of entry and knowledgeable about what to steal. It is not the loss of equipment that has cost us, but the work in them and the time it takes to replace everything.'

Brian Machale described moves to place the problem higher on the agenda as 'positive', but added that the measures would come too late for many. 'Insurance companies have been reluctant to share

information with competitors and the co-operation between them and the police has been disappointing so far. I hope that will change now.'

(Photograph omitted)