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Small Business Cybersecurity: 5 Steps to Stop Cybercrime 

Cyber Security Tips to protect your business - John Sileo

Small Business Cybersecurity Gone Terribly Wrong 

On August 12, 2003, as I was just sitting down to a tea party with my daughters and their stuffed animals, the doorbell rang. Standing there when I opened the door was a special agent from the economic crimes unit at the district attorney’s office—ready to charge me for electronically embezzling (hacking) $298,000 from my small business customers. The DA’s office had enough digital DNA to put me in jail for a decade. 

I was the victim of cybercrime, and I should have known better. You see, earlier that year my personal identity was stolen by cybercriminals out of my trash and sold to a woman in Florida. This woman purchased a home, committed a number of crimes, drained my bank accounts and filed for bankruptcy—all in my name. I learned all of this one day at the bank, right before I was escorted out by security guards.

The experience of losing my money, time and dignity motivated me to protect my personal information assets with a vengeance. Unfortunately, I didn’t apply my newfound cyber vigilance to my small business, which is how I ended up losing it. 

Like a lot of small business owners, it never occurred to me that my $2 million company would be targeted by cyber criminals. I figured we weren’t worth the effort, especially compared to large multinational companies like Target, Marriott, Google and Facebook. My naivete cost me my family’s business and two years fighting to stay out of jail. 

The fact is, cyber criminals are increasingly going after small and midsize businesses (SMBs) precisely because they are easier targets than larger organizations. According to the Ponemon Institute’s most recent Global State of Cybersecurity in Small and Medium-Sized Businesses report, 76 percent of  small and midsize businesses experienced a cyber attack in the past 12 months. The same report found that only 28 percent of companies characterize their ability to mitigate threats, vulnerabilities and attacks as “highly effective.” 

Not all hacking results in criminal charges being filed against the victim, as in my case, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant costs involved. According to last year’s Ponemon Institute study, companies spent an average of $1.43 million due to damage or theft of IT assets. On top of that, the disruption to their normal operations cost companies $1.56 million on average. 

In other words, your organization’s chances are greater than 50/50 that it will suffer a serious cyber attack in the next year or so and that the attack will have a significant negative impact on profitability. The good news is that you can eliminate much of the risk with a reasonable budget and some good leadership.

5 Small Business Cybersecurity Strategies

In my experience, good entrepreneurs begin with the following steps:

Identify All data is not created equal. Bring together the key players in your business and identify the specific pieces of data, if lost or stolen, that would make a significant impact on your operation, reputation and profitability. This could be everything from customer credit card, bank account or Social Security numbers to valuable intellectual property.

Evaluate Understand your business’ current cyber security readiness. During this step, I recommend bringing in an external security firm to conduct a systems penetration test. A good Pen Test will give you a heatmap of your greatest weaknesses as well as a prioritized attack plan. Have a separate IT provider implement the remediation plan, if possible, to provide an objective check on the security firm’s work. 

Assign Engage stakeholders from across your organization, not just those within IT. Assign a detail-oriented, tech-savvy leader other than yourself (if feasible) to oversee the analysis and implementation of your cyber strategy. Other players essential to this conversation are your lawyer and your accountant/auditor, who can help you build a breach response plan for when data is compromised. In today’s digital economy, theft and loss are part of business as usual and they should be planned for—like any other risk to your organization.

Measure Just as with any other business function, cyber security needs to be measured. Your security or IT provider should be able to suggest simple metrics—number of blocked hacking attempts (in your firewall), failed phishing attacks, days without a breach, etcetera—with which to keep a pulse on your data defense. 

Repeat Each one of these steps should be re-evaluated and updated on a regular basis. I recommend taking a look at your security during your slowest season annually. Strong cyber security thrives in the details, and the details in this realm change every year. 

The bottom line is that SMBs can no longer ignore the very real threat of cyber crime, including crime perpetrated by an insider (in 2018, 34 percent of data breaches involved internal actors and 2 percent involved partners). I learned both of these lessons the hard way. It takes an average of 73 days for organizations to contain an insider-related incident; my case dragged on for two years, during which I spent every day fighting to keep myself out of jail. 

In the end, I found out the cyber criminal was my business partner. A man I loved and trusted like a brother stole and used my banking login credentials to embezzle from our clients; he used my identity to commit his cyber crimes. He exploited my trust and then he cut the rope and let me take the fall. 

And I should have known better. So if you think your company is too small to be targeted or you’re too smart to be victimized, think again. 


About Cyber security Keynote Speaker John Sileo

John Sileo is the founder and CEO of The Sileo Group, a cybersecurity think tank, in Lakewood, Colorado, and an award-winning author and Hall of Fame Speaker who specializes in providing security-awareness training to small businesses as well as large organizations. He has shared his experiences on “60 Minutes,” “Anderson Cooper” — and even while cooking meatballs with Rachael Ray. John earned a BS with honors in political science from Harvard University. 

 

Security Awareness Programs Like Mushy Overnight Oats?

To diagnose your under-performing cyber security awareness programs, all you need to do is look at my breakfast today. My daughter introduced me to overnight oats. “It’s the perfect breakfast, Dad – full of energy, takes no time at all, packed with simple, healthy ingredients like oatmeal, almond milk and peanut butter”, she said. “That’s what I need!”, I said, “All of the power with none of the fuss”. So I took her recipe and promptly ignored it. I added cottage cheese, chia and some lemon – because if it was already good, I was going to  make it even better.

What I got was curdled mush that crawled out of the bowl like John Cusack’s dinner in Better off Dead. The theory of overnight oats was brilliant. It was my execution that made me gag.

Many security awareness programs choke on their own ingredients because, like my overnight oats, they don’t follow a recipe when they plan the program. The have no overarching security “end” in mind at the beginning, to paraphrase Stephen Covey. Empowering the human element of cyber security is the cultural ingredient that many organizations overlook. Think about tweaking your recipe a bit to make it more than palatable.

A Recipe for Effective Security Awareness Programs

One byproduct of serving as the opening keynote speaker for hundreds of security awareness programs around the world (in addition to the bottomless pit of mileage points I’ve earned), is that I have dined amidst training programs, OVER and OVER again, that leave me hungering for more substance and lots more flavor. Here is my simple recipe for a filling, enjoyable and effective Security Awareness Program:

Ingredients (For a Culture of Security that Cooks):

  • (1-3) C-Level Executive(s) who “Believe” (Ownership)
  • (1) Cross-Functional Business Case w/ Compelling ROI (Strategy)
  • High-Engagement Content Rooted in Personal Security (Methodology)
  • (6-12) Regular, Engaging Follow-on “Snacks” (Sustenance)
  • (1) Feedback Dashboard to Measure “Diner” Response (Metrics)

Ownership. Failing to have a highly-communicative Chief Executive leading your initiative is like expecting a 3-Star Michelin rating from a fast-food cook. You must have high-level “buy-in” for your program to work. I’m not talking about the CISO, CRO, CIO or CTO here – that would just be preaching to the choir. The missing cook in awareness programs tends to be a security “believer” from the executive team. Successful security awareness programs are clearly led, repeatedly broadcast and constantly emphasized from the top of the organization, all with an attitude of authenticity and immediacy. Whether served up by your CEO at an annual gathering or by your Board of Directors to kick off National Cyber Security Awareness Month, your security champion must become an evangelist for defending your data.

Strategy. Don’t expect to randomly add security ingredients to the bowl and blindly hope they mix well together. You’ll just end up with curdled oatmeal. Approach your program strategically, and devise a recipe to protect your intellectual property, critical data and return on information assets. You are competing for resources, so build a compelling business case that demonstrates the organization’s ROI in business terms, not buried in techno-babble. What did it cost your competitor when ransomware froze their operation for a week? How much would the training have cost to avoid the CEO whaling scheme that lost a similar-sized company $47 million? What do the owners of  compliance, HR and I.T. have to add to the meal? The most successful security awareness programs have a budget, a staff (however small) and cross-departmental support. Involve the business team and other stakeholders up front to leverage their expertise before rollout.

Methodology. Here is a litmus test for the potential effectiveness of your security awareness program: Does it begin by focusing on the critical information assets and devices inside of your organization? If so, it’s probably doomed. Why? Because your employees are human beings and they want to know how this affects them personally before they willingly invest time to protect the corporate coffers. Excellent security awareness kicks off by making data protection personal – by building ownership before education. From there, the training must be engaging (dare I say fun!?) and interactive (live social-engineering) so that your audience members pay attention and apply what they learn. Death-By-PowerPoint slides will permanently put behavioral change to sleep. Highly-effective programs build a foundational security reflex (proactive skepticism), and are interesting enough to compete against cute puppy videos, smartphone farm games and our undying desire for a conference-room cat nap.

Sustenance. Best practice security awareness training, like a five-course meal, doesn’t end with the appetizer. Yes, kickoff is best achieved with a high-energy, personally relevant, in-person presentation that communicates the emotional and financial consequences of data loss. But that is only the beginning of the meal. From there, your team needs consistent, entertaining follow-up education to keep the fire alive. For example, we have found short, funny, casual video tips on the latest cyber threats to be highly effective. And lunch workshops on protecting personal devices. And incentive programs for safe behavior. And so on. Culture matures by feeding it consistently.

Measurement.If you don’t measure your progress (and actually demonstrate some), no one will fund next year’s dining budget. What are your Security Awareness Training KPIs, your key metrics? How did successful phishing attacks decline as a byproduct of your program? Has user awareness of threats, policy and solutions increased? How many employees showed up for the Cyber Security Awareness Month keynote and fair? How department-specific are your training modules – or does one size fit all? When you can show quantitative progress, you will have the backing to continue building your qualitative culture of security.

And now, back to the meal. In spite of the lemon juice that further curdled the cottage cheese and ruined my oats, I was still hungry, so I ended up choking them down, vowing to listen to my daughter next time. And I hope you will listen to me this time: Approach your security awareness program like you are planning a feast for guests who matter a great deal to you. Because your uneducated employees, unprotected customer data, and invaluable intellectual capital are exactly what cybercriminals are eating for breakfast.

What are the greatest gaps you see in Security Awareness Programs? Please share your brilliance below.


John Sileo loves his role as a keynote “energizer” for Cyber Security Awareness Programs. He specializes in making security fun, so that it sticks. His clients include the Pentagon, Schwab and some organizations so small (and security conscious) that you won’t have even heard of them. John has been featured on 60 Minutes, recently cooked meatballs with Rachel Ray and got started in cyber security when he lost everything, including his $2 million software business, to cybercrime.