Police have said they had "barely scratched the surface" of a worldwide fake marriages racket following the conviction of three people in a cash-for-weddings ring.

They still believe that there is a multi-million pound network set up across Britain designed to cash in on the desperation of people from across the globe to come to the UK and be allowed to stay here by whatever means possible.

The charges for which Ibrahim Patel, Safraz Dudhwala and Mohammed Nassib were sentenced for stated that they had played a part in helping illegal immigrants attain residency in Britain.

Their actions broke the law under the Immigration Act section 25i.

For police at Preston Crown Court, the sentences were the result of four years work in what they have described as a 'protracted and meticulous investigation.'

They first took action in the investigation in September 1998, raiding two addresses in Blackburn, including the Dartford Close home of Ismail Pirbhai.

Despite being a self-proclaimed pillar of the Muslim community, Pirbhai was no stranger to the law -- having been taken to court by both Jack Straw and former county council leader Louise Ellman after her slandered them. His house was provide police with a wealth of documents which set them on the trail of what Judge Boulton described as a 'highly-sophisticated' operation aimed at breaking immigration law.

The evidence in one of the houses helped police document dozens of sham marriages dating as far back as 1995.

The offences fell into two categories. Either support was given to people trying to seek residency in Britain from a foreign country or to immigrants looking at extending their stay in the country.

Investigating the former took the police operation to Bombay.

Self-confessed community leader Ismail Pirbhai or Ibrahim Patel, the other main player in the operation and described by Judge Boulton as the 'chief lieutenant' of the racket, set up marriages for people wanting to come to Britain.

They would take young men or women to Bombay and take pictures at a staged ceremony to convince the High Commission in Bombay that a marriage had taken place.

For immigrants wanting to extend their leave in Britain, marriages would take place at local register offices in Lancashire, including Accrington, Blackburn and Preston.

Once the wedding had taken place, the immigrant and partner would go their separate ways. Pirbhai and Patel would continue to help them by providing letters from bogus employers and from the hired wife or husband, which were designed to prove the immigrant had a job and that the marriage was genuine. Both Mohammed Nassib and Sarfaz Dudhwala were lured to Bombay to become pretend husbands after being offered cash. Jacqueline Grahams, who has been convicted for playing wife in four marriages, and Salma Chowdhury, convicted for her role in one marriage, were also recruited.

The documents found at the two raided addresses -- along with information from immigration officers -- led to the arrest of six people last May.

A seventh arrest also came about as the result of the documents found at Pirbhai's home -- Robert Pickles, a well-known local solicitor. Sponsorship forms, used normally to back an immigration claim, were found, blank, already stamped and embossed by Pickles. He shouldn't have let them out blank and embossed and as a result ended up in court alongside the other six.

DC Tim Maddox, who led the investigation, said today: "We are very pleased at the first sentences given out.

"It has been a long and protracted investigation which has had up to five officers working on it at any one time.

"However, this isn't even the tip of the iceberg. Our intelligence suggests that it goes on all over the country."