Watch Out! Cyber Criminals Preying on Small Businesses in Growing Numbers

11 Sep


Cyber criminals are going after small businesses more than ever, with startups at the greatest risk. Targeted attacks on small businesses increased 42% in 2012 from the previous year, according to a new report by the $6.9 billion security software giant Symantec Corp, headquartered in Mountain View, California.

Symantec’s 2013 Internet Security Threat Report, Volume 18, highlighted cumulative data of attacks in 2012. One of the main findings was that 31% of all targeted attacks are directed at small businesses with less than 250 employees. Moreover, cyber attackers target startups as quickly as two months after a new business sets up its website and exchanges its first emails and instant messages. Within 10 months, most startups have been infected with malware, the report states.

Small businesses are easy targets for cyber criminals for several reasons; one being the lack of security practice. Small business owners are mistaken in believing they don’t have what cyber attackers want and thinking that they are immune to attacks targeted at them, says Kevin Haley, director of product management for Symantec Security Response, a worldwide team of security engineers, threat analysts and researchers.

What cybercriminals want most is money, which they try to get their hands on by collecting various information including bank account numbers, customer data, and intellectual property. According to Symantec, this information can be accessed when cyber attackers use sites to redirect users to malicious sites, or when they send emails with links to bad websites. The threat report further showed that roughly 32% of all mobile threats steal information.

Criminal activity is often driven by crimes of opportunity. Attackers know small businesses are less careful in their cyber defense than larger enterprises and they use this to their advantage. Symantec’s threat report also revealed that attackers use small companies to lure in larger companies. Being that a larger company’s defenses usually stop attackers from gaining access to their data, they often target a smaller business that has a relationship with a larger company in order to gain access.

Haley offers the following six tips on how small business owners can protect their companies from cyber attacks:

1) Know what you need to protect. Most businesses have customer information that would cause harm to the business if lost or stolen. Others have intellectual property. One data breach could mean financial ruin for a small business. Look at where your information is being stored and used, and protects those areas accordingly.

2) Use a reliable security solution. Antivirus alone is not enough. Small businesses need to leverage security solutions that employ a defense-in-depth approach, relying on multiple technologies such as intrusion prevention, browse protection, and behavioral-based malware detection in addition to traditional signature-based protection. Today’s solutions do more than just prevent viruses and spam; they scan files regularly for unusual changes in file size, programs that match known malware, suspicious email attachments and other warning signs. At a minimum, you need a solution like Norton Internet Security or Symantec Endpoint Protection. If your company manages its own network make sure you have appropriate security at the gateway and the mail server.

3) Stay up to date. Be sure to keep computers up-to-date with the latest patches and updates to increase resistance to attacks. Unpatched systems give attackers easy ways to force themselves into your environment. And a security solution is only as good as the frequency with which it is updated. New viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other malware are born daily, and variations of them can slip by software that is not current.

4) Educate employees. Develop Internet security guidelines and educate employees about Internet safety, security, and the latest threats. It’s essential that employees learn to spot the telltale signs of social engineering tricks, which include undue pressure or a false sense of urgency, an offer that is literally too good to be true, a bogus “officialese” in a attempt to make something look authentic.

5) Enforce strong password policies. Using passwords with eight characters or more as well as a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols (e.g., # $ % ! ?) will better help protect your data.

6) When in doubt, throw it out. Links in emails, tweets, posts, and online advertising are often the way cyber criminals compromise your computer. Get rid of anything that is out of the familiar.


4 Tips to Manage Your Student Loans

11 Sep


One of the happiest moments in most students’ lives is crossing the stage at commencement and receiving their degree. However, this joy can quickly turn into dread once a steady flow of notices start pouring in, announcing the first student loan payment is due. This can be the ultimate nightmare, especially if you have little knowledge of how to manage student loan debt.

Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert, once owed $125,000 in student loans from Duke University School of Law School and was facing 30 years of $1,200 monthly payments. Fortunately, Jarvis sought help and was able to pay off her debt through the school’s loan-repayment assistance program. As a result of her experience, Jarvis focused her professional work on reducing the financial barriers to practicing public-interest law. She also dedicated her professional efforts to advancing public-service loan forgiveness. Jarvis emphasizes that students who plan to depend on student loans to fund their education need to know the importance of managing that debt upon graduation.

“Realistically estimate how much you can afford and borrow no more than you need. The federal government has unparalleled collection powers so it’s important to stay on top of your loans,” warns Jarvis.

As of July 1, the interest rate for federal student loans doubled from 3.4% to 6.8%. However, Jarvis says federal loans are still less expensive and less risky than private loans. She also says deferring student loans isn’t the best option.

“Deferment gets expensive because interest adds up over time. The income-based repayment options can provide an affordable alternative.”

Student loan borrowers can also receive help from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB offers guidance to borrowers seeking tips on dealing with debt collectors or reporting violations made by loan servicers. The CFPB posted sample action letters on its website for borrowers to consider using when corresponding with debt collectors.

Jarvis says the CFPB advocates fairness for and transparency in the system and provides excellent information for student loan borrowers.

“You can log complaints if you encounter problems with lenders, servicers, or collection agencies,” Jarvis says. “They also have some great tools for understanding your options.”

The letter topics range from requesting more information on debt, to filing complaints, to notifying a loan servicer where and when to contact the borrower. The CFPB will respond to complaints made by borrowers within 15 days and settle any complaints within 60 days.

Here are four tips from Jarvis on how to manage your student loans:

Get a clear inventory of your debt by visiting the National Student Loan Data System.
Consider income-based repayment plans if needed.
Understand that the longer it takes you to repay your loans, the more you will pay in interest over time.
Avoid private student loans whenever possible; look first to federal loans.