What are Cyber Threats and How to Prevent Cyber Attacks

Cyber threats and cyber security have been hot topics in the news due to reported increases in various forms of cyber attack. Around 68% of business leaders think that their cyber security risks are increasing and 62% of businesses actually experienced phishing and social engineering attacks in 2018. Yet remarkably, on average, only around 5% of companies’ data folders are properly protected.

The recent COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have resulted in an explosion in home-working and it has been claimed that this change has resulted in 20% of businesses suffering security breaches due to the actions of remote workers. In this post, we examine the most common forms of cyber threats and look at what businesses need to do to remain secure.

Cyber Threat Types

When thinking about the various types of cyber threat that exist today it’s important to remember that the number and variety of cyber threats are continuously expanding as criminals and others develop ever-more cunning ways to cause disruption and commit crimes. But here are the primary cyber threat types that all businesses, big and small, need to be aware of.

Social Engineering Attacks

The term ‘social engineering’ refers to the use of deception to manipulate people into doing something or divulging confidential or personal data. For example, social engineering might be used to gain access to personal or business accounts.

Phishing and spear-phishing attacks are examples of cyber-attacks which have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Phishing typically refers to the sending of email messages which purport to be from trusted sources. Such messages may often include attachments which at first glance appear to be innocuous, maybe a document or an image. But when the attachment is clicked by the recipient it then installs a piece of malware on the computer and possibly on the company network.

Spear-phishing refers to a more targeted form of the same attack in which the attacker has gained valuable insight that enables their messages to appear even more legitimate. Email spoofing, wherein the attacker spoofs information in the ‘from’ section of an email message, making it appear to be from a known, trusted source. Another commonly employed technique is website cloning wherein a known, trusted website is copied to fool people into entering their personal information (usernames and passwords).

Malware

The term ‘malware’ refers to malicious software. This can be any and all forms of harmful software that may include backdoors, viruses, spyware, ransomware and much more. Malware might be used to cause damage, steal private data, gain access to secure systems or eavesdrop on communications.

An example of a malware attack that’s become more prevalent recently is ransomware. Cybercriminals use malware to gain and block access to victim’s files and data, then demanding ransoms to remove the blockage or hand over compromised data. In 2017 the UK National Health Service (NHS) was brought to a standstill resulting in the cancellation of numerous operations and appointments due to a ransomware attack.

Denial of Service

Denial of service (DoS) attacks involve overloading targeted servers or networks with lots of traffic, thereby denying them their service providing ability. A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack involves the use of multiple infected computers to simultaneously flood targeted servers or networks with traffic, thus consuming all of the available bandwidth and preventing legitimate services being supported.

Attacks of this nature can be enormously impactful on businesses that rely on online transaction capabilities such as e-commerce websites.

Web Application Attacks

Web application attacks enable cyber criminals to exploit vulnerabilities in web application code in order to gain unauthorised access to data or use websites for nefarious purposes. Open source web applications, such as WordPress, can be used by criminals to identify core vulnerabilities and exploit them.

An example of a web application attack is cross-site scripting (XSS). This involves an attacker embedding malicious JavaScript code that enables them to gain access to the website database.

Another web application attack technique is called SQL injection (SQLi). This involves an attacker using the database Structured Query Language (SQL) to inject code that again enables access to the website database and possibly view, alter, delete or create records.

Top 5 Harmful Cyber Threats

As noted, cyber attacks and threats are continuously evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated. Here are just 5 of the most harmful cyber threats that all businesses need to be aware of right now.

Pandemic Related Phishing

Exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic by criminals seeking to gain access to personal and business data is likely to continue for some time. The frequency of such attacks tends to increase alongside news stories such as surges in new COVID-19 cases and changes in government guidelines. The primary objective of such attacks is to get the unsuspecting victim to click on a malicious link or attachment.

SMS Based Phishing (Smishing)

SMS based phishing (Smishing) is a form of phishing that’s exclusively via SMS, whereas phishing generally involves email and websites.

The similarity is that an SMS based phishing attack will convey a link which, when clicked, starts the attack process. This attack technique has been gaining ground as email phishing scams are increasingly detected by email providers and programs. Typical examples may be an SMS message from a delivery company requesting a delivery time-slot or an apparent business asking for what appears to be legitimate information to be submitted.

Ransomware Attacks

It has been predicted that many businesses, large and small, will become victims of ransomware attacks which criminals recognise as profitable and relatively simple to perpetrate.

Social Engineering

Some have suggested that social engineering is the biggest cyber security risk today as it relies on social interaction which involves real people with real emotions who can potentially be influenced and manipulated.

A common technique is to exploit our human inclination to help one another. If an attacker is able to impersonate a fellow worker, for example, they might then ask for secure documents or data to be shared thus breaching business data security.

Why is Cyber Security Important

Businesses of all sizes are currently having to speedily adapt to rapid changes in their working practices. Cyber threats were already escalating before the COVID-19 pandemic with as many as 75% of large businesses experiencing attacks or security breaches over the past 12 months. Digital transformation means that businesses are now accumulating vast quantities of valuable data which requires rigorous security.

The costs to businesses arising from cyber attacks vary enormously but are always significant. The cost of a data breach to even a small organisation can exceed £100K and easily reach as much as £1 million. And IBM has determined that the cost of data breach to larger organisations could be as high as £3 million.

How to Prevent Cyber Attacks

Businesses of all sizes need to be prepared for the inevitable. Sooner or later you will be on the receiving end of a cyber attack so it’s essential that you are prepared. Here are some top level guidelines that will help ensure that your business doesn’t suffer from a costly cyber attack.

Partner with Cyber Security Professionals

Without doubt, the most effective strategy that businesses can follow to avoid becoming cyber attack victims is to use the expert services of reputable cyber security professionals. As noted, cyber threats to businesses are constantly evolving and developing so your business needs the most up to date advice and guidance from people who are extensively experienced in this field.

Employee Training

Ensuring that all members of staff are fully aware of cyber threats, how they appear and how they can potentially harm your organisation is vitally important. And given that many people are now working remotely it’s essential that everyone is fully trained in how to remain safe and secure under these circumstances.

Keep Systems Up To Date

Out of date applications and software can lead to vulnerabilities which criminals will exploit. It’s vitally important that all software and systems are rigorously maintained and all updates are applied as soon as possible.

Backup Your Data

Backing up your valuable business data should already be a standard aspect of your business practices. Review your backup procedures and processes and consider exactly how your business would be able to operate if a data breach occurred.

Install Anti-Virus and Firewall Security

Your business should already be using up to date antivirus software and a rigorous firewall to prevent unauthorised access to your business network. But what about your remote workers and their laptops? Ensuring that all machines are robustly protected should be a top priority.

Concluding Summary

Unfortunately, the frequency and severity of cyber attacks on businesses is only likely to increase. If your business hasn’t yet experienced an attack you have been lucky. Cyber threats are on the increase for businesses so it's essential that you take steps to keep your data and your business secure.