How to prevent cyber attacks
Cybercrime represents an ongoing risk to individuals, organizations, and governments around the world. Research showed that there were 50% more attack attempts on corporate networks in 2021 than in 2020. As well as the financial losses caused by cybercrime, there are less tangible costs for businesses – such as reputational damage and reduced consumer trust. It’s easy to think cyber security is only for large organizations, but in fact, it’s vital for individuals and businesses of all sizes. There are simply too many cyber threats to ignore the risks.
What is a cyber attack?
A cyber attack is an attempt by cybercriminals to disable computers, steal data, or use a breached computer system to launch additional attacks. Cyber attacks have become more sophisticated in recent years and, as a result, cyber attack prevention is essential for every individual and organization.
Cybercrime is based upon the effective exploitation of vulnerabilities. Security teams are at a disadvantage because they must protect all possible entry points, while attackers only need to find and exploit one weakness or vulnerability. This imbalance favors attackers, which means that even large organizations can struggle to prevent cybercriminals from gaining access to their networks.
Cybercriminals may use any internet-connected device as a weapon, a target or both, which means individuals and businesses of all sizes are at risk. Arguably, because they tend to deploy less sophisticated cybersecurity measures, small and medium-sized businesses can be at greater risk than larger ones, despite seeming like less obvious targets on the surface. Small and medium-sized businesses are often third party suppliers to bigger organizations – which means that if a single password stealer enters a small company’s systems, the entire chain can be compromised.
Types of cybersecurity attacks
Common cybersecurity attacks include:
Malware, or malicious software, is an umbrella term which refers to intrusive programs designed to exploit devices at the expense of the user and to the benefit of the attacker. There are various types of malware, but they all use techniques designed not only to fool users, but also to evade security controls so they can install themselves on a system or device covertly without permission. Some of the most common types of malware include:
- Ransomware – extortion software that can lock your computer and then demand a ransom for its release.
- Trojans – a type of malware that typically gets hidden as an attachment in an email or a free-to-download file, then transfers onto the user's device. Trojans are capable of gathering sensitive user data, including credentials, payment information, and more.
- Spyware – software that enables an attacker to obtain covert information about another's computer activities by transmitting data covertly from their hard drive. Spyware is also able to function as a keylogger and can take screenshots of sensitive data.
Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks (DDoS)
A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack involves multiple compromised computer systems attacking a target, such as a server, website, or other network resource, causing a denial of service for users of the targeted resource. The sheer volume of incoming messages, connection requests or malformed packets to the target system forces it to slow down or crash – which denies service to legitimate users or systems.
A phishing attack is a form of fraud in which an attacker masquerades as a reputable entity, such as a bank, well-known company, or person in email or other forms of communication, to distribute malicious links or attachments. This is to trick an unsuspecting victim into handing over valuable information, such as passwords, credit card details, intellectual property and so on.
Spear phishing attacks are directed at specific individuals or companies, while whaling attacks are a type of spear phishing attack that specifically targets senior executives within an organization. One type of whaling attack is the business email compromise, where the attacker targets specific employees who can authorize financial transactions to deceive them into transferring money into an account controlled by the attacker. The FBI estimates that $43 billion was lost between 2016 and 2021 because of business email compromises.
SQL injection attacks
The majority of websites are database-driven, and are therefore vulnerable to SQL injection attacks. An SQL query is a request for some action to be performed on a database. A carefully constructed malicious request can create, modify or delete the data stored in the database, as well as read and extract data such as intellectual property, personal information of customers, administrative credentials or private business details.
Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks
XSS enables an attacker to steal session cookies, allowing the attacker to pretend to be the user, but it can also be used to spread malware, deface websites, create havoc on social networks, phish for credentials and—in conjunction with social engineering techniques—perpetrate more damaging attacks.
A botnet comprises a collection of internet-connected computers and devices that are infected and controlled remotely by cybercriminals. They are often used to send email spam, engage in click fraud campaigns, and generate malicious traffic for DDoS attacks. The objective for creating a botnet is to infect as many connected devices as possible and to use the computing power and resources of those devices to automate and magnify the malicious activities. Thanks to the growth of the Internet of Things, botnet threats are one of the fastest growing categories of threats.
What to do during a cyber attack
For businesses experiencing a cyber attack, it’s important to act fast. The goals should be to stop the attack and mitigate its impact:
Mobilize your teamThe first thing to do is mobilize staff who have responsibility for cybersecurity. Ideally, they will have been trained to know how to respond in the event of an attack.
Identify the type of cyber attackKnowing what type of attack is occurring will ensure you know where to focus your attention and how best to contain and recover from the attack. As well as establishing the type of attack, it’s important to understand its likely source, the extent of the attack and its probable impact.
Contain the breachIt’s essential to identify and shut down all access that attackers might have into your systems. With any type of cyber attack, you should move promptly to:
- Disconnect the affected network from the internet
- Disable all remote access to the network
- Re-route network traffic
- Change all vulnerable passwords
The objective should be to prevent attackers from having access to your system. You can then work to return the system to a more secure working condition.
Assess and repair the damage
Once the attack has been contained, you need to determine whether any critical business functions have been compromised, what data may have been affected by the breach, which systems have been accessed, and whether any unauthorized entry points remain. Compromised data may need to be restored from backup copies, systems may need to be reinstalled, and any damaged hardware replaced or repaired.
Report the attack
You may need to report the attack to the proper authorities, which will vary by jurisdiction. If your business has cyber liability insurance, contact your insurance provider for advice on what to do next.
Communicate with customers
It’s likely that you will need to notify customers, especially if the attack has impacted any customer data. Depending on the scale of the attack and the nature of your business, you may need to issue a press release. You need to be honest and transparent about the attack to maintain public trust.
Learn from what has happened
After the attack, it’s important to carry out an investigation and determine how to change your systems and procedures to minimize the risk of future attacks. Use this incident to get smarter about your company’s cybersecurity.
Cyber attack prevention
So, how to protect your organization against cybercrime? Some of the best ways to approach cyber attack defense include:
Educate staff about cyber security
For all businesses, making sure that staff are aware of the importance of cyber security is essential. Provide regular, updated cyber security training so that users know to:
- Check links before clicking them
- Check email addresses from received email
- Think twice before sending sensitive information. If a request seems odd, it probably is. Check via a phone call with the person in question before actioning a request you are unsure of
User training, education and awareness will reduce the likelihood of social engineering attempts being successful.
Encrypt and backup data
Companies often collect and store personally identifiable information, which can be obtained by cybercriminals and used to steal identities and therefore further compromise business data. In the event of a cyber attack, it’s important that your data is backed up to prevent serious downtime, loss of data and financial loss. If ransomware attacks and wreaks havoc, your backup software could itself be attacked which could corrupt your backup files, even if you have robust security measures in place. Make sure you encrypt all sensitive data, including customer and employee information.
Conduct regular audits
Although you cannot remove the risk of cyber attacks altogether, you can put measures in place to review your cyber protection on a regular basis. Review your cybersecurity policies and regularly check software, systems, and servers to ensure your business is fully secured. Access backed-up files and download them to see how the recovery process will work for your business. Identify potential vulnerabilities, devise ways to overcome them and confirm whether the backed-up files have been corrupted in any way. Remove unused software to reduce the risk of cybercriminals exploiting it to steal or destroy your data.
Be mindful of insider data breaches
As insider data breaches become more prevalent, create a comprehensive data use policy that’s clear for all to use. Put access restrictions in place. For example, think about the risk involved in having freelance contractors carrying unscreened devices into your organization without a full access procedure and take steps to address it.
Restrict admin rights
Minimize the risk of getting hacked by restricting admin rights to a selected number of staff and installing a system that offers security from employee to employee. User access control means limiting normal users’ execution permissions and enforcing the principle of least privilege needed to fulfil necessary tasks. One of the risks for businesses is having employees install software on business-owned devices that could compromise your systems. Preventing staff from installing or even accessing certain data on your network is beneficial to your security.
Install a firewall
Placing your network behind a firewall is one of the most effective ways to defend yourself from a cyber attack. A firewall system will help to block brute force attacks made upon your network or systems before they can do any damage.
Keep software, devices and operating systems up to date
Often, cyber attacks take place because systems and software are not up to date, leaving weaknesses. Hackers exploit these weaknesses to gain access to your network. To overcome this, some businesses invest in a patch management system that will manage all software and system updates, keeping your system robust and up to date.
Ensure a best practice password policy
Ensure that an appropriate password policy is in place and followed. A sensible and enforced password policy will prevent users from selecting easily guessed passwords and should lock accounts after a specified number of failed attempts. Employees should create strong passwords using letters, special characters, and numbers. They should also enable multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access to their devices. Companies may opt to use passphrases instead of passwords to provide additional system security. It’s important not to use the same passwords or passphrases throughout the company and remember to set a password to secure your Wi-Fi network.
Ensure endpoint protection
Endpoint security is the process of protecting devices like desktops, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets from malicious threats and cyber attacks. Endpoint security software enables businesses to protect devices that employees use for work purposes either on a network or in the cloud from cyber threats. You can read more about endpoint security and endpoint protection here.
FAQs about cyber attacks
Do firewalls prevent cyber attacks?
Firewalls and proxy servers can block unsecure or unnecessary services and can also maintain a list of known bad websites. You can ensure additional protection by subscribing to a website reputation service.
Why is it important to prevent cyber attacks?
A successful cyber attack can lead to substantial data loss and theft of proprietary, employee, and customer information. Hackers can use digital weapons, such as malware, botnets, and distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, to disrupt business operations, and it can be difficult to get infected systems running smoothly again.
It takes significant time, money, and effort to recover from a cyber attack, and you may need to work with the relevant authorities to resolve the issue and set up new systems to thwart future threats. Businesses suffer reputational damage if they lose customer data or fail to alert them early about a breach. Companies that rely on your business for their operations will also be affected if you are attacked.
How can small businesses prevent cyber attacks?
Some of the steps you can take to protect your business from cyber attacks include: educating your employees on the risks involved and how to mitigate them; understanding what is (and isn’t) sensitive data; securing your hardware; making sure you have the right platforms in place, such as firewalls; and restricting staff and third-party access to IT equipment, systems and information to the minimum required.