It is ranked as one of the fastest-growing areas of crime in the world by Interpol.

Cyber criminals are increasingly exploiting the speed, convenience and anonymity of modern technology to target individuals, corporations and governments.

"Cyber crime and hacking is much more rife than is understood by the lay person or politician … There's actually a game of catch-up being played, it hasn't really hit home yet just how rife this problem is, just how much hacking is going on - be it industrial espionage, cyber crime, hacking between governments, frauds, every single type of hacking and digital fraud is going on."

- Jason Moon, an 'ethical hacker'

And the global nature of the internet means their illegal activities can be carried out virtually anywhere, and at any time.

Jonathan Evans, the director-general of Britain's security service MI5, described cyber crime as a global threat to safety and security.

Evans said: "The extent of what is going on is astonishing with industrial-scale processes involving many thousands of people lying behind both state-sponsored cyber espionage and organised cyber crime."

In the third quarter last year, internet monitoring company Akamai Technologies says it recorded cyber attacks from 180 countries.

In its State of the Internet report Akamai says half of all cyber attacks are coming from China, the US and Russia, with China alone accounting for one-third of them.

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, has warned how cyber attacks could have dangerous, more far-reaching consequences, what he called a "cyber-Pearl Harbor that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyse and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability."

But just as cyber crime becomes ever more sophisticated so do the methods used to catch those responsible.

"The systems that protect us are, in many ways, broken. Passwords, for example, just don't work very well because people tend to reuse the same passwords .… Just in the last two years we've seen well over a dozen very large breaches of passwords … the password system isn't really working."

- Adrian Mars, a technology journalist

On Thursday, three suspected bank robbers were charged after a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the FBI.

Prosecutors held a news conference to give details about a virus used to infect more than one million computers around the world.

The so-called Gozi virus was used to steal millions of dollars from back accounts in the US and Europe.

Earlier this month, Russia's computer security firm Kaspersky announced it had discovered a global cyber spy ring.

The digital espionage network dubbed Red October is said to have targeted diplomatic, government and scientific research organisations around the world.

So, how real a threat is cyber crime? And how can countries combat cyber attacks?

Joining the discussion with presenter Hazem Sika on Inside Story are guests: Keith Vaz, a British Labour member of parliament and the chairman of the UK parliament's home affairs select committee; Jason Moon, a technology expert and so-called 'white hat' or ethical hacker; and Adrian Mars, a technology journalist.

"One of the problems is that the public is simply not aware of this [technological hazards]. They are so delighted to get the new gadget and to be able to use it. They are so thrilled about being able to see the endless opportunities of the power and the force that the internet can give them that they're not aware of how this can be breached."

Keith Vaz, a British MP

Source: Al Jazeera