Armed with available Web technologies, criminal elements are just a mouse-click away and there is virtually no defence. This grim scenario sets the stage for at least one incident of 'economic mass victimisation of thousands of Internet users' by the end of next year, according to a new study by research firm Gartner Group. It expects the perpetrator of this world-scale, Internet-based theft to get away with it due to lack of adequate preparation by international law enforcement agencies. 'Converging technology trends are creating economies of scale which enable a new class of cyber-crimes aimed at mass victimisation,' Gartner analyst Richard Hunter said. Global law enforcement agencies were poorly positioned to combat these trends, leaving consumers vulnerable to online theft. 'Using mundane, readily available technologies which have already been deployed by both legitimate and illegitimate businesses, cyber-criminals can surreptitiously steal millions of dollars, a few dollars at a time, from millions of individuals simultaneously,' he said. 'Moreover, they are very likely to get away with the crime.' Gartner's study estimated the economic value represented by cyber-crimes would increase by 1,000 per cent to 10,000 per cent - through to 2004. It is expected to occur due to inadequate cyber law-enforcement, increasing opportunities for cyber-criminal activities, and increasing awareness of those opportunities among criminals. Last year in Hong Kong, the number of computer-related criminal offences - which mostly included hacking, obtaining property by deception and the distribution of obscene material - rose about 9 per cent, to 380 cases, according to a recent report by the Commercial Crime Bureau. It said the cases were becoming more technical and complicated, especially those involving the Internet. As such, the demand for its officers to attend crime scenes with computer exhibits and conduct computer forensics examinations had increased as sharply as the information technology boom in Hong Kong, it said. The Gartner study projected law-enforcement funding to be inadequate to police cyberspace through to 2004. It cited the annual United States budget for funding cyber-crime related training, investigation and enforcement, saying it was unlikely to exceed 1 per cent of the overall Federal law-enforcement budget - 'an amount insufficient to fund even necessary cyber-crime research'. Internationally, attitudes towards 'cyber law-enforcement' varied widely and were inconsistent from country to country. This further complicated attempts by police to enforce existing laws. Gartner noted there was no common international legal code for cyber-crime, nor any organisation chartered and authorised by governments to create one. A report from Forrester Research weighed in on that same issue. In general, government intervention on the future of the Internet was inevitable due to the exploding volume of online commerce, the increasing magnitude of change brought on by innovative Web business models, and the integral role of the Internet in daily life. 'Although the Internet has become a staple of modern life, businesses and consumers will look to government to guarantee a secure online experience,' Forrester group director of Internet policy and regulation research John McCarthy said. 'Consumers need to feel comfortable and protected before shopping online, and companies desire guidance as they modify business models or invest in Web-based technologies.' Forrester believes calls for government intervention on the Internet will include rules for e-business - including access, privacy and security, e-commerce, and sovereignty. Because the talent and technology required to commit online crime is easily exported, lawbreakers can jump borders to evade law enforcement or to take advantage of more lax environments. This capability could turn a localised crime into one of global proportions.