In just a few keystrokes, cybercriminals can do an immense amount of damage to an unsuspecting business’s finances, customer base, and reputation. It’s imperative that businesses do all they can to protect themselves from these cyber menaces. But before you start thinking defense, it’s best to better understand how hackers operate in the first place.

Information security tunnel

How cybercriminals attack

There are literally dozens of ways cybercriminals can hack into your system. Here are some of the most common methods used to infiltrate your network.

Spamming: Today, spam is still the No. 1 entry point into a network, simply because people click links they shouldn’t. Spam also becomes a challenge when the sheer volume of unwanted e-mails crowds out your important business and personal messages.

Phishing: While most everyone can spot a spam e-mail at a glance, phishing is much more difficult to discern. The reason is because phishing uses realistic e-mails in an attempt to trick recipients into sharing passwords and other sensitive information.

Ransomware: Ransomware is a type of malware (malicious software) that holds your computer system and sensitive information hostage until you pay the ransom for the decryption key. Ransomware is typically introduced to a system through a single employee who opens something they shouldn’t. Because it is often hidden in attachments, ransomware often looks very innocent. However, when it’s opened, the malware makes it impossible to open any other documents or applications until the ransom is paid.

Spyware: Spyware is another type of malware that can be downloaded as easily as ransomware, through the same unassuming kinds of e-mail attachments. Most spyware is used in conjunction with adware to monitor your Internet and social media habits. But it’s a huge privacy and security threat. Spyware can actually be used to gather personal information for the purposes of identity theft and fraud.

Adware: Adware is not as dangerous as it is merely irritating. However, it does have the capability of undermining your security settings and tracking your activities while slowing down your computer performance.

Worms: Worms don’t need interaction to spread to other computers. Once it gains access to a network – like clicking on an innocent-looking attachment in an e-mail – the worm quickly spreads, relying on technical vulnerabilities to infiltrate the network. While worms themselves are rarely dangerous, they often create backdoors in the system that allow a hacker to launch more serious malware attacks.

Trojan Viruses: Trojan viruses introduce dangerous malware to a computer or network while hiding within plain sight, in seemingly harmless programs. These advanced forms of malware survive because they go unnoticed. While there, they can collect information, create holes in your security or take over your computer and lock you out.

Social Engineering: As societies become more educated about how to detect malware and viruses, cybercriminals must become more sophisticated to sneak into your inbox and entice you to click. Similar to phishing, social engineering is far more personal. With social engineering, the attack can range from something as simple and direct as posing as a coworker with a seemingly legitimate e-mail and asking for a password, to developing relationships online or even in person, or viewing social media pictures of where a potential victim frequently visits and targeting them outside of work. The more advanced the social engineering process, the more likely someone will unknowingly invite malware into your network and business.

Given the number of ways a cybercriminal can penetrate a business’s network, it’s imperative to take a proactive approach toward protecting your network. The more defenses you put now between your network and cybercriminals, the more likely you’ll avoid becoming a cybervictim.

How you can protect your business

The first way to protect your business is to become knowledgeable. Make sure you understand how your network is being protected, and put in the time to understand just how much monitoring and protection a network for your business’s size needs. Although it’s sometimes hard to prioritize expenditures that may seem like overkill, the money a business spends on keeping its networks safe is much less than what it could cost the business – in lost time, in sales, in reputation – if it did fall victim to a hacker.

Developing policies and procedures that can help keep malware and viruses off your network is also crucial – especially given that in most cyberattack cases, the malware or virus was able to infect a network because of some action taken by a user. Much malicious content can be found hidden in innocent-enough-looking files like screen savers, enhanced web browsers, emoticons, games, music files, sweepstakes or drawings, or any software that requires you to accept certain conditions. By agreeing to those conditions, usually outlined in small print, you are agreeing to accept third-party software.

Executable files are notorious for hiding viruses and malware. They tend to be formatted with an .exe ending, but thankfully at this point most email providers, including Gmail and Microsoft Outlook, block any emails coming in with .exe extensions. HTML emails, once commonplace, are now being used as well to hide Trojans and worms, so many servers block these emails also.

Text files, PDFs and document files are all commonplace these days, and most people open attachments in these formats without a second thought. Still, because nefarious material can be hidden in these files as well, it’s a good idea not to open any files that you weren’t expecting, or that come from someone you don’t know. In particular, text files with a .vbs extension (i.e., .txt.vbs), links within PDF files, and document files that end .docm (instead of .doc or .docx) should all be avoided. Make sure any image files you receive in .jpg format also display the complete file extension to lessen the risk of a harmful attachment.

Audio and video files should also be treated cautiously, especially if you’re not expecting them or don’t usually receive them in your daily business. While .mp3 files tend to be safe, .wav files are not compressed, making them much larger in size and therefore easier to hide malware. Large video files (with extensions that include .mpg, .mpeg, .avi, .wmv, .mov, and .ram can also serve as a great hiding place for destructive content. Compressed files (.zip and .rar) should also be confirmed by the recipient before opening, as they can contain viruses that become active as soon as you extract them. 

In addition to email attachments, other entry points into a business’s network can exist. Given this, it’s crucial to have the most up-to-date security patches and virus definitions installed. Similarly, a good firewall is essential, as it acts as the frontline defense against hackers by blocking access to unapproved websites, protecting the network from malicious code, providing VPN services, and giving you better control of your bandwidth in the process.

Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) are another critical element of your cybersecurity efforts, as this helps members of your team understand how they can actively protect the business from cybercrime. AUPs help to ensure the safety of users, protect the business from legal action, safeguard the business’s reputation, enhance ease of use and productivity, and better regulate employees using their own personal devices. Encouraging employees to create stronger passwords, learn how to identify malicious emails, and communicating any unusual activity to the whole team so they can be extra vigilant as well are also keys to getting everyone on board with protecting your organization’s network. 

Old, discarded equipment is another gateway for potential hackers. Obsolete computers should not only be wiped clean before being trashed or donated, their hard drives should be completely destroyed. This proactive measure should also be done to printers or any devices that store data for any length of time.

Protecting your WiFi network by creating a separate guest WiFi and restricting bandwidth and distance, and encrypting emails with sensitive information are additional strategies for a strong line of cyberdefense. And, in the case that ransomware should get through, make sure you have a separate and regularly updated backup system in place. This is also helpful in cases of employees accidentally (or intentionally) deleting or overwriting files, as well as in natural disasters, fire or water damage, and hardware failures, to name a few.

Cyberattacks impact businesses of all shapes and sizes. By knowing what to look for, and how to defend your data and your network, your business can maintain its position of strength against cybercriminals’ evil intent.

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Konrad Martin is CEO of Tech Advisors, providing outsourced IT, cybersecurity detection and prevention, training, and cloud services. The firm is based in the greater Boston area.