First things first: There are way more than five ways that cyberthieves can break into your business. (They’re surely thinking up new methods as you read this.) Often they use more than one approach in a single attack.

Even so, small-business hacks tend to fall into a few categories. We turned to security professionals and "ethical" hackers--they help businesses identify their vulnerabilities--to find out the most common methods used and what you can do to protect yourself and your brand.

Weak Passwords

How It Works: With a $300 graphics card, a hacker can run 420 billion simple, lowercase, eight-character password combinations a minute.

Risks/Costs: 80% of cyberattacks involve weak passwords. 55% of people use one password for all logins.

Notable Scams: In 2012, hackers cracked 6.4 million LinkedIn passwords and 1.5 million eHarmony passwords in two separate attacks.

Your Best Defense:

  • Use a unique password for each account.
  • Aim for at least 20 characters and preferably gibberish, not real words.
  • Insert special  characters: @#$*&
  • Try a password manager such as LastPass or Dashlane.
  • Check out password alternatives.

Malware Attacks

How It Works: An infected website, USB drive, or application delivers software that can capture keystrokes, passwords, and data.

Risks/Costs: 8% increase in malware attacks against small businesses since 2012. Average loss from a targeted attack: $92,000.

Notable Scams: In February, hackers attacked about 40 companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Twitter, by first infecting a mobile developer’s site.

Your Best Defense:

  • Run robust malware-detection software like Norton Toolbar.
  • Keep existing software updated.
  • Use an iPhone--Android phones are targeted more than any other mobile OS.

Phishing Emails

How It Works: Bogus but official-looking emails prompt you to enter your password or click links to infected websites.

Risks/Costs: 125% rise in social-media phishing attacks since 2012. Phishers stole $1 billion from small businesses in 2012.

Notable Scams: Scads of small businesses were targeted in 2012 with phishing emails designed to look like Better Business Bureau warnings.

Your Best Defense:

  • Keep existing software, operating systems, and browsers updated with the latest patches.
  • Don’t automatically click on links in emails to external sites--retype the URL in your browser.

Social Engineering

How It Works: Think 21st-century con artist tactics, e.g., hackers pretend to be you to reset your passwords.

Risks/Costs: 29% of all security breaches involve some form of social engineering. Average loss: $25,000 to $100,000 per incident.

Notable Scams: In 2009, social engineers posed as Coca-Cola’s CEO, persuading an exec to open an email with software that infiltrated the network.

Your Best Defense:

  • Rethink what you reveal on social media--it’s all fodder for social engineers.
  • Develop policies for handling sensitive requests like password resets over the phone.
  • Have a security audit done.


How It Works: Hackers hold your website hostage, often posting embarrassing content like porn, until you pay a ransom.

Risks/Costs: $5 million is extorted each year. The real cost is the data loss--paying the ransom doesn’t mean you get your files back.

Notable Scams: Hackers locked the network at an Alabama ABC TV station, demanding a ransom to remove a red screen on every computer.

Your Best Defense:

  • As with malware, don’t click on suspicious links or unknown websites.
  • Regularly back up your data.
  • Use software, such as Kaspersky Internet Security 2014, that specifically checks for new exploits.

Sources: Symantec, Kaspersky, Verizon, CSO, LastPass,, Osterman Research, Neohapsis Security Services