ONE in six commercial businesses in Hong Kong is paying money to triads, according to a report to be published early next year. But as many as a third of all shops outside upmarket shopping malls could be paying thousands of dollars a month to prevent damage or personal violence. The true picture is almost certainly more serious, says the author of the report, City Polytechnic criminologist Dr Lo Tit-wing. When details of the report are revealed early next year, they will show that the triads target street-level businesses more than those in higher-security shopping malls. Overall, 15.7 per cent of 700 owners interviewed admitted being victims. However, Dr Lo said many would not take part in the survey out of fear of triad consequences. He and a colleague conducted the survey between February and April this year. ''These were just the people that were prepared to tell us,'' said Dr Lo. ''Some of them didn't want to talk, so I think there could be a lot more. ''Commercial premises at street level where there is less security are more vulnerable. ''I think the research will show as much as 30 per cent admitted being victims.'' Dr Lo said these figures represented just the tip of the iceberg with fear of retribution keeping many lips sealed. Other details of the report, conducted from a scientifically random sample, will not be made public possibly until early next year. But they show the extent of extortion in the territory and that it is not just confined to certain areas such as construction and entertainment. On Saturday, police arrested 24 suspected triads and claimed to have smashed a construction industry extortion racket operated by the notorious Sun Yee On, which has more than 60,000 members. Detectives believe construction sites in Tuen Mun, Sun Yee On's stronghold, paid up to $3 million protection money during the past year. Dr Lo said he hoped his report would highlight the extent of the problem, showing that organised crime had seeped into every area of the territory and almost every walk of life. ''From the arrests last week, it has become very obvious that the extent of the extortion problem in Hong Kong is very serious. But there has been no detailed study carried out before. ''The police always deny the problem is all that serious. They want us to feel at ease and that Hong Kong is a peaceful place. ''But we want to show from our figures that it is not safe. I hope when the report is published the police will admit the problem and do something as a remedy.'' Detective Chief Superintendent Chan Tit-kin, head of the Organised Crime and Triad Group (OCTG), admitted the problem was widespread, but said the criticism was unwarranted. ''You could put any figure on it. There are some areas where extortion is widespread and others where it isn't,'' he said. ''We never try to hide any problem. The more we hide a problem the worse it gets. ''Would these one-in-six stand up in court and testify?'' The police said commercial businesses could be asked to pay anything from a few hundred dollars a month upwards, with franchised and larger operations expected to pay a lot more. The Acting Superintendent of the OCTG, Dave Grant, said the main problem was people failing to come forward. ''I'm certainly not shocked by these figures,'' he said. ''Extortion is very much endemic and ingrained in society here. The problem is getting people to admit it.'' He said it was well known that street hawkers, restaurants and bars, construction sites and mini-bus drivers were especially vulnerable, but that every business was a target. But even when police videotaped hawkers handing over protection money during an operation in 1991, many were reluctant to admit they were victims, he said.