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How to Protect Your Organization and Your Customers from CyberAttack

Protection from cyber attack isn’t a priority for the smallest organizations.

For many small businesses and non-profits, it’s easy to dismiss the threat of cyber attacks. After all, the news usually only covers high profile breaches against big corporations with lots of assets and huge attack footprints.

But the truth is, small businesses are at even greater risk than much larger well-resourced firms. And with cybercrime growing at an alarming rate, it’s essential for every organization, regardless of size or industry.

Small businesses and non-profit organizations can be enticing targets for cybercriminals. While targeting large companies can lead to big rewards, small businesses are much easier targets. And, there are many more of them to target.

No matter how small your organization, a cyberattack could cripple your operation, so it’s important to take some basic steps so you know how to defend against cyberattacks and how to respond quickly to minimize the risk and damage.

Here is what leaders of small organizations need to know to protect their assets, their employees and their customers.

What Cybersecurity Is and Why It's Important for Small Organizations

What's Covered in This Guide

Cybersecurity broadly describes the practices, processes and techniques of protecting secure systems and networks from outside threats, such as unauthorized access, damage or theft. This especially includes the data that’s stored in and used across these systems.

From a business perspective, a cyber attack can seriously compromise your organization’s sensitive information, like customer data, financial records and business plans.

This can have a significant impact on your customer’s trust in your business, marring your company’s reputation and leaving you open to potential legal action.

Additionally, a cyber attack can have crippling financial impacts due to lost revenue from system outages, costs of remediation, and compromised business information and assets.

Why Would Hackers Target My Small Business?

You may wonder why anyone would target you. The truth is, small businesses are easy targets for cybercriminals because they know that most small firms have weaker security measures.

Certain types of attacks–social engineering attacks, like phishing, for example–are much more commonly aimed at small businesses, likely because they lack the tools, training and basic procedures to prevent such attacks.

And cyber attacks against the smallest organizations are on the rise.

Here are some sobering statistics:

  • According to the 2023 Verizon Data Breach Report, organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees experienced over two thirds more breaches than those with more than 1,000 employees.
  • In 2022, small businesses reported a record jump in cyberattacks: 73% of US small business owners reported a cyber-attack, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC).
  • In 2021, poor cybersecurity cost the small business sector nearly $3 billion. And if your business was among the targets, you paid $826 to $653,587 for remediation.

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Why Small Organizations Are Vulnerable to Cyberattack

One of the biggest reason cyber criminals target small businesses is a lack of resources. Most small businesses don’t have in-house experts to secure their systems and network. In fact, many small organizations don’t have any IT employees at all and 47% of businesses with fewer than 50 employees have no cybersecurity budget.

Meanwhile, these same businesses usually don’t have the financial resources to pay outside cybersecurity firms, which explains why 75% of small businesses couldn’t continue operating if they suffered a ransomware attack.

Example: Ransomware

In a ransomware attack, cybercriminals leverage phishing attacks and exploit weak security to break into your network and encrypt your data. This effectively blocks you from accessing critical business information. The criminals then extort you for a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key.

Without proper security and response measures, the odds of you paying a ransom are high. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll regain access to your data.

Meanwhile, hackers also break into small business systems to steal sensitive customer information as they’re well aware that 51% of small businesses leave sensitive customer information unsecured. If your business systems were breached, you’d lose more than half of your customers.

Many small business owners do not see themselves as targets and don’t prioritize their limited time or money in a cybersecurity plan. They do not think that they would be a victim of a data breach.

As a result:

  • Budgeting for cybersecurity is minimal or non-existent.
  • Employees aren’t trained on basic data protection and password hygiene.
  • Systems become outdated and unsupported.
  • Special software needed for outdated devices is no longer supported.

Another reason cyber criminals target small businesses is that they often serve as a gateway to larger organizations. Since small businesses are typically part of a supply chain, attackers can exploit them to gain access to bigger corporations that they may do business with.

Even if your business may not seem like a valuable target on its own, it can still be used as a stepping stone for attackers to reach more lucrative targets.

If you’re serious about protecting your business, it’s important to prioritize cybersecurity measures. By doing so, you can mitigate many of the most common threats that businesses face today.

73% of US small businesses have experienced a cyberattack.

Top 5 Cyber Threats to Your Small Business

Cyber threats are real and the consequences of ignoring them can be devastating. The costs of leaving valuable business and customer information unsecured far outweigh those associated with implementing a robust cybersecurity strategy.

To give you an idea, here are the five leading threats businesses face today:

  • Ransomware: Ransomware describes a sophisticated attack that leverages malware and other techniques for breaking into systems, encrypting data and extorting businesses for ransom payments. This approach is both effective and highly profitable for criminals, making it the leading threat to small businesses.

  • Malware: This is malicious software created to disrupt, steal or otherwise cause damage to computer systems, either directly or indirectly. Like other software, malware describes a variety of tools that cybercriminals use to steal sensitive information, destroy data or gain unauthorized access to systems.

  • Viruses: A computer virus is a type of malware that’s designed to replicate itself and spread from one computer to another. Viruses damage or steal sensitive information, disrupt network operations and even remain undetected, all while using a business’s systems for other nefarious purposes.

  • Phishing: This describes a social engineering technique used by cybercriminals to trick individuals into providing sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords, with the use of emails or websites. Phishing is often the first phase of further, more advanced cyber attacks.

  • Account cracking: Account cracking involves the use of automated tools to discover passwords or answers to security questions to gain unauthorized access. Once they gain access, cybercriminals can steal sensitive information or use the account to launch attacks on other accounts or networks.

 

These threats are real and costly, which is why it’s essential for small businesses to approach cybersecurity as a priority, not as an afterthought.

This means establishing security policies for credentials, safeguarding data regularly with encrypted backups and ensuring employees follow best practices when using business systems. However, these considerations only scratch the surface of a comprehensive cybersecurity plan.

What are the Risks to My Organization?

Now that you know how cyber attacks usually happen, you might be wondering how they can impact your organization.

Unprepared small businesses may deal with overwhelming financial repercussions as well as hits to their reputation, productivity, and much more.

Here are the most common potential consequences of not protecting your business from cyber crime, breaches and data privacy issues.

Data loss

This includes customer’s confidential information such as credit card numbers and crucial business information. A successful cyberattack could lock you out of your company’s databases – or even worse, hold it hostage for a ransom. Or, a malware attack may alter, erase or overwrite vital information, costing time and money to recover.

Financial loss

The costs from cyberthreats can add up quickly. Cyber attacks cost small businesses $8,300 (median), according a 2023 Cyber Readiness Report from insurance carrier Hiscox.

Direct financial costs might include:

  • Handling immediate damages and repairs
  • Paying the ransom costs of a ransomware attack
  • Additional customer service costs
  • Customer refunds or losts business
  • Paying fines

In addition to the immediate economic costs of operational losses and incident response, there are several intangible consequences such as operational disruption, slowdowns in innovation and reduced competitiveness that might cause significant long-term impact.

Disruptions and outages

A cyberattack might force you to temporarily stop business as you work to access data and get websites and systems working again. System access may be disrupted so badly that you are unable to continue operating. The size of the outage and productivity loss will vary depending upon the nature and scope of the attack.

Loss of intellectual property

Cyber-enabled fraud leads to monetary losses and distribution of stolen data on the Dark Web can exacerbate the costs.

Fines, legal harm and loss of business

In addition to direct costs, there is the risk of monetary penalties and loss of business for organizations that fail to comply with regulatory requirements and industry best practices.

Reputational damage

Loss of customer and stakeholder trust can translate directly into a loss of business, as well as devaluation of the brand you’ve worked so hard to build.

Are You Prepared to Respond to a Cyberattack?

Cybersecurity incidents are now a matter of when, not if. And their business impacts are becoming worse.

Don’t wait until you have experienced a cyber attack to implement a realistic and functional incident response plan. Doing so significantly increases the probability for impact to your business.

Reduce your risk by having a reliable response plan in place before attacks happen. There are several reasons to start planning now:

  • Proactive protection of assets —security incidents happen without warning, so it’s essential to prepare ahead of time.

  • Resiliency — teams can respond in a repeatable manner and restore the business more quickly.

  • Coordination — the plan provides clear direction for coordinating your response as quickly as possible to control damage during a crisis.

  • Risk reduction —having a plan, then exercising it exposes security gaps before attacks occur, then helps to reduce damage after attack.

  • Compliance — clear planning and documentation reduces an organization’s liability and provides evidence for compliance auditors and other authorities.

How to Build a Comprehensive Cybersecurity and Data Protection Plan for Small Organizations

Just as there’s no guaranteed method to prevent someone from stealing your car, there is no bulletproof approach to cybersecurity. A comprehensive approach to cybersecurity is about much more than password policies and strong firewalls: It also includes established policies for responding to and recovering from potential attacks.

In this regard, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework is the gold standard. Widely utilized across businesses, the NIST framework is a streamlined structure used to develop and implement a comprehensive cybersecurity plan.

The NIST framework provides a template for five key steps in creating a comprehensive cybersecurity plan:

Steps

What It Means

Identify

Determine business assets, systems and data that require protection and evaluate the risks to these assets.

Protect

Implement safeguards to protect the assets identified in the first step.

Detect

Monitor systems and networks for security events and potential threats.

Respond

Develop and implement plans to respond to cyber-attacks and other security incidents.

Recover

Develop and implement plans to recover from incidents and restore normal business operations.

 

The framework is customizable to your business’s specific risk profile and provides a flexible structure for preventing and managing cybersecurity risks.

By following this plan, small businesses can create a structured approach that’s tailored to the organization’s needs. This approach not only helps protect your business and customers from cyber attacks, but it also demonstrates a commitment to data protection and cybersecurity that enhances your company’s reputation.

5 Ways to Protect Against Cyberattacks at Work

Implementing a cybersecurity program following the NIST framework is the best way to safeguard your organization against cyber threats over the long-term. That said, there are several steps you start taking right now to help protect your company and customers from the impacts of a cyber attack.

#1. Train your employees in security principles.

This one is at top of the list because it one of the easiest, yet can still have a huge benefit. Consider this: a whopping 80% to 95% of data breach incidents are caused by employee mistakes and lack of training. So, establishing basic security practices and policies for your employees is the best place to start.

This includes requiring strong passwords (on all devices including smartphones), and establishing appropriate internet use guidelines. Set rules and guidelines for handling and protecting customer information and critical business data.

Simply providing some training can be an effective method of preventing the most common threats such as phishing attacks, that trick an employee to open an attachment or click a link that is harmful.

If they’re trained to look out for suspicious emails and messages, they won’t become unwitting participants in an attack. Training should include techniques for spotting phishing emails and how to avoid suspicious links and attachments.

80% to 95%  of data breach incidents are caused by employee mistakes and lack of training.

#2. Deploy multi-factor authentication.

In addition to strong passwords, you can add email authentication technology to help prevent phishing emails and other intrusions from reaching your company’s network in the first place. Multi-factor authentication (MFA or 2FA) enhances account security considerably by requiring multiple forms of verification, such as usernames, passwords, fingerprints and text messages.  Adding 2FA to your business can be relatively easy when using cloud-based business services and software.

#3. Keep systems and software updated regularly.

Hackers often leverage vulnerabilities in old and outdated software to launch attacks. By keeping their software regularly patched and updated, small businesses reduce the chances of this happening. Always install the latest patches and updates. This includes mobile devices as well.

#4. Backup data regularly.

The goal of many cyber threats is to gain access to business data to leverage for extortion attempts. If your small business keeps regular, secure backups, cybercriminals have no leverage on you if they happen to target your company. If phishing attack, data breach or some other attack happens, you can restore data and your operations more quickly.

#5. Secure Wi-Fi networks and mobile devices.

Most organizations now rely on Wi-Fi to conduct business, especially when you team is working remotely. So make sure any Wi-Fi networks used are secure and password protected. These rules also apply to using public networks on mobile devices.

Makes sure all smartphones are password protected and have the ‘find my phone’ option turned on so you can track it in case it is lost or stolen.

For Help, Consider an IT / Cybersecurity Provider

If you’re like most small businesses, you probably don’t have the resources to hire a full-time IT staff, much less a cybersecurity expert. So partnering with an outside firm is the best route to achieving comprehensive cybersecurity.

These firms provide a range of services to help small businesses identify vulnerabilities, implement appropriate security measures and establish procedures for responding to attacks.

They can also help you write and implement policies to manage your systems and data. Many also provide 24 hour monitoring, threat detection and incident response services.

When you’re choosing a provider, it’s important to consider each firm’s industry experience and area of expertise. Look for providers with industry-standard credentials, such as Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Information Security Manager (CISM).

Another consideration is a firm’s range of services and industry expertise. Consider seeking a firm that has worked with similar organizations and who can provide references. Some provide data security, providing businesses with off-site encrypted backup services, while another company may specialize in intrusion prevention.

Meanwhile, other firms function as consultants, interfacing between your business and other providers to find the best and most cost-effective solutions for every aspect of your company’s cybersecurity strategy.

Don't Leave Your Small Business's Cybersecurity to Chance

You simply can’t afford to leave your small business’ cyber welfare to chance. The risks associated with attacks are too great, and the costs of an incident could devastate your company.

But by approaching cybersecurity as essential and implementing a comprehensive plan with a trustworthy cybersecurity provider, you’ll not only enhance your company’s reputation, but you’ll also go a long way toward protecting your livelihood.

For more information, we recommend the many resources provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for added guidance and other best practices. The SBA’s cybersecurity portal includes valuable information and guides, such as a cybersecurity planning guide and training outlines for employees.

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