Specialists consider computer crimes cost Europe's small firms about 22 billionn euros a year (£14.7 billion) to clean up and recover from.
Research by Network Associates has found out that Europe's small firms are vulberable to viruses, spam and hackers. A virus attack can knock out company computers for days and it on average cost 5000 euros to clean them up.
"For a small business that's a significant amount of money," said Sal Viveros, Network Associates spokesman. Mr Viveros also said many heads of small firms had a very "old" view of computer viruses and were ignorant of the latest techniques used to infiltrate malware on to target computers.
Many of those interrogated did not apprehend that viruses could send themselves to all the contacts in the address book it finds on a PC now that some malicious programs turn machines into relays for spammers.
As a result few had firewalls, anti-spam software, intrusion detection systems that many larger businesses are adopting to protect themselves against attack by the web.
Many small firms were also failing to adopt simple techniques to protect themselves against attackers found the research. Given that 2004 has already seen more and more severe virus outbreaks than in the whole of 2003, this attitude was dangerous, said Mr Viveros.
Just over 20% of those questioned said they had to shut their offices to cope with a virus outbreak. The survey found that small firms in the UK and France were most likely to have out-of-date anti-virus software.
It also revealed that 11% of German businesses have no anti-virus software. Paradoxically more than one-third of small European businesses feel more at risk from virus attack than a year ago but few still consider computer security to be a priority.
Among the UK firms questioned 45% said technology security was a low priority for them. In the last year 40% of UK small businesses said they were infected by a virus. Worryingly a quarter of companies admitted that they infected partners and customers with viruses.
"If you are a customer that keeps getting viruses from your vendor you may well switch vendor," said Mr Viveros. "They could take their business elsewhere."
"They are not equating the fact that if they get hit by a virus there's going to be a real impact on their business," he said.
The research was carried out in winter 2003 and involved 500 small businesses with fewer than 20 employees in the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Netherlands, and Germany. Crime Research