The greatest threat to a business in the 21st century could come from an unknown person on the other side of the world. Hacking attacks cost the average American firm $15.4 million, according to a 2016 report by HP and the U.S.-based Ponemon Institute of Cyber Crime.

The recent WannaCry ransomware attack infected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries and six continents while crippling thousands of businesses that rely on technology. This latest major computer virus thrives on the vulnerability of Microsoft's Windows operating system used by an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide.

Protecting information is at the forefront of small business. The best way to guard against hacking is to take precautions from having malware enter your computer system in the first place. Here are some important ways to combat malware and boost cyber security:

1. Beware of email

  • Do not open or click on any email attachments, files, links or pop-ups from unknown/suspicious sources. The way malware spreads into a computer most frequently is through email attachments.
  • If you receive an email from someone you know that seems out of character ("I've lost 30 lbs., find out how I did it!"), delete it - and certainly do not click on any hyperlinks.

2. Use discretion on the internet

  • Be wary of free online software, such as PDF converters, from unknown or untrusted sources.
  • Avoid free online photo editing sites. Spend the money on a reliable photo editing software instead.

3. Keep your antivirus software up to date and run it regularly

  • What good is having anti-virus software, if you do not run it?
  • Run your anti-virus protection at least once a week. Schedule it during a down period (ex: Sunday evening) to minimize disruption.

4. Secure Your Financial Data

  • Do not store financial data on hard drive or in email. If your computer becomes infected by a virus, your information becomes vulnerable.
  • Store financial data in a secure cloud site, such as DropBox. Biz2Credit.com offers a secure file-sharing system called DocVault for free. Data is exchanged via a secured hyperlink, which increases safety dramatically.

5. Hire an Experienced IT Specialist

  • Securing your company's data is not something you should attempt on your own, especially if you're not very tech-savvy.
  • Hire a professional who has experience in securing data, installing protective firewalls, and monitoring network performance. Bring in the professionals to handle cyber security and you'll be less likely to have those regrets in the long run.

What to do if infected

If you suspect the data on one of your company's devices may have been compromised, address this issue immediately. Time is of the essence. This is not an area in which to try and pinch pennies. If your data is lost, your company could suffer irreversible damage. As the landscape of business continues to evolve, so does the complexity of malware. Use as much caution as possible.

A tip that most people rarely consider: during off-hours, do not keep computers on the internet. Also, if you have a local firewall, remember to change passwords frequently. If someone has left your company on less than good terms, revoke their login privileges to reduce the risk that they could compromise your data.

Published on: May 23, 2017