More than two-thirds of UK businesses were victims of high-tech crimes last year, costing them millions in down time, systems damage and client loss, according to a report released by the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU).

In a survey of 201 large and medium-size companies, 83 percent said that they had experienced some form of high-tech crime last year. Although widely defined as virus attacks, fraud and criminal use of the Internet by employees, such activity cost them more than £195 million, the NHTCU said.

However, NHTCU head Len Hynds estimated that the real loss was in the billions, since 90 percent of UK businesses are small enterprises, not accounted for in the survey.

The survey asked companies to consider factors such as employee and business downtime, client loss and erosion of public image as contributing to their losses. Of the £195 million reported lost by the companies surveyed, £60 million alone was lost by three financial institutions that experienced fraud and extortion, Hynds said. The report kept the names of the institutions confidential.

The highest incidents of high-tech crime reported were related to virus attacks, however, with 77 percent of surveyed businesses saying that they had suffered attacks last year. Of these, companies said that they experienced on average 254 attacks.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of the companies surveyed said they experienced denial-of-service attacks, and 11 percent said they experienced system penetration. Seventeen percent of companies reported financial fraud and 11 percent experienced data theft.

On the security front, 77 percent of the companies surveyed carried out regular security audits, and 31 percent had formal crisis management teams.

The NHTCU, was created as part of the National Crime Squad in 2001 to track down cyber criminals both locally and abroad and has formed partnerships with crime enforcement officials in 169 countries. Eastern Europe has been a particularly popular location for cyber criminals, Hynds said. However, he warned that the unit had now forged alliances with law enforcement officials in the ten countries that are due to join the EU on 1 May 1.