What every SME needs to know about hackers and cyber-security

The biggest risks to watch out for and how to protect against cyber-attacks.

It seems like not a week goes by at the moment without a new story about a large corporate cyber-security breach. Recent hacks at Ticketmaster, Fortnum & Mason and Dixons Carphone have resulted in customer data being accessed, stolen or potentially compromised.

But it’s not just large companies that are at risk and, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place, all businesses must take steps to ensure that their systems and data are protected.

Edward Whittingham is a former police officer and the founder of online security company, Business Fraud Prevention Partnership, which is accredited by GCHQ as part of the Government’s National Cyber Security Programme. He says that it’s essential that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) understand that cyber-crime is now a major part of organised crime.

“Historically, there has been a perception that cyber attacks are conducted by teenagers or rogue individuals, but this just isn’t the case,” he explains. “They’re now conducted on a large scale by serious and organised crime gangs who, for pocket change, can purchase the tools that they need to carry out attacks on the dark web.”


Mr Whittingham says that one of the biggest threats to SMEs are phishing emails, where hackers pose as trustworthy entities, such as suppliers or colleagues, and ask for sensitive information to be sent. He warns that these must not be underestimated and points to research that shows that between 90pc and 95pc of cyber-attacks begin with phishing.

“They continue to evolve and are becoming ever more convincing,” he says. “[Hackers] are on the ball and always looking to exploit the latest trend, so it’s crucial that we are, too. If there’s one thing to get to grips with, it’s ensuring that employees understand all of the different threats that phishing emails pose and how to spot the warning signs.”

Think about the data that you hold that’s absolutely business criticalEdward Whittingham, Business Fraud Prevention Partnership

Those signs are often subtle differences, explains Mr Whittingham. “Check the sender details, and not just the sender’s name, but the actual email address itself: does it look legitimate; are there subtle misspellings or additional characters?”

Other red flags to look out for include any unusual or urgent calls to action, such as a request to make a payment, confirm details or access a link or document.

Costs and expenses

The cost of a cyber-attack can be huge, but protection for small businesses isn’t necessarily expensive. Anti-virus software is a must for all SMEs and some packages ensure that the software is always up to date. The market is competitive and business owners should read reviews and take recommendations before selecting the right tool or package.

Local authorities and chambers of commerce also offer support.

Back-up your data

Firms that want to mitigate the danger of an attack can take action. Mr Whittingham says that the first step is to back up crucial data: “Think about the operational and financial data that you hold that’s absolutely business critical – what would you do if this became inaccessible or permanently lost?”

Back-ups should be made regularly (ideally daily) to a storage device separate to the ones from which you work.

Two-factor authentication

The founder also recommends the use of two-factor authentication, where software or email access requires not just a password but also a PIN number, usually sent by text.

Gmail, Dropbox and other cloud services offer this, but passwords should be improved anyway. They are all too often a weak link, he says. “Employees should be encouraged to use strong passwords made up of sequences of words, as these are easier to remember.”

IT policy

SMEs need to create an IT policy to prevent cyber-attacks and data breaches. This should be a comprehensive but easy to read document that’s adhered to by all staff members.

Unfortunately, it’s a case of when, not if, an attack will take placeEdward Whittingham, Mintivo

Chris Gough is technical director at IT consultancy, Mintivo, which works with small businesses as well as bigger companies such as Age UK and Investors in People. He says that IT policies are all too often unread and unattractive, and advises a bite-sized version to interest staff: “You can get great engagement from using a ‘Top 10 need to know’ format and promoting this alongside the full document.”

When it comes to the policy’s content, Mr Gough advises that businesses consider a wide variety of areas, including acceptable usage, communications, password policy, social media guidelines, network security, physical security, data protection, incident response and disaster recovery.

Preparation is key and cannot simply be left for the IT department, he says. “Unfortunately, it’s a case of when, not if, a cyber-attack will take place.”

Test your systems

The only way to ensure that your systems are strong is to test them – preferably before the hackers do.

“It’s important that organisations are proactive and not reactive when it comes to cyber security,” explains Mr Whittingham. “Staff training, paired with simulated phishing tests, is not only a way of educating employees; it can also identify high-risk areas within the business.”