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PC users are being told to stay alert in the run up to Christmas, as research shows cyber-crime is increasing and getting 'smarter'.

Crimes committed over the internet or through email have rocketed in recent years, with spammers and code writers constantly coming up with new ways to breach IT security. Despite conservative efforts to clamp down on cyber-fraudsters, the cost of breaches continues to rise, with UK businesses directly in the line of fire.

Research by software security group Prevx, shows that a quarter of people polled had fallen victim to cyber crime at some point. The most vulnerable age group proved to be 16 to 24-year-olds, as fewer than half of this age bracket knew about automated hacking tools. This is compared with 60 per cent of 45 to 54-year-olds. Over 55s were found to be the group most aware of internet worms, registering 93 per cent against 74 per cent of the youngest age group.

People and businesses in London were also particularly vulnerable, with 35 per cent claiming to have fallen victim to online credit card scams. This compares with only 22 per cent of people living in the East of England.

In addition, separate research by security group Clearswift, revealed the extent of scams targeting email and internet users. It claims spammers are relying on 'social engineering', a process by which people are persuaded to part with their money. Analysis of 19,000 emails revealed scams involving expensive watches, phoney bank accounts and online auctioneers.

Alyn Hockey, technical director ar Clearswift, said: "It makes sense for spammers to target our weak spots. Though their success rate remains minimal, their constantly evolving tricks means organisations have to rely on robust email security software."

Both organisations forecast a steep rise in scams during the run-up to Christmas and are urging bosses and their staff to be vigilant.

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