Owners must protect their businesses from ransomware before it's too late

Ransomware is a multibillion-dollar a year business and when you look at it from the aspect of the hacker you can certainly understand why. It’s the first type of malware that actually generates revenue for the attacker. When a company gets hit by a ransomware attack they’re forced to pay a “ransom” – anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars – to “unlock” the files that have been maliciously encrypted. Not doing so causes loss of data … and business.

Which is what happened to Brookside ENT & Hearing Services, a two-person medical office in Battle Creek, Michigan.

After entering the small business’s system, and after the owners understandably refused to pay the hackers’ demand of $6,500, the virus deleted and overwrote all of the practice’s medical records, bills and appointments, including backups. The impact, you can imagine, was devastating.

“We didn’t even know who had an appointment in order to cancel them,” one of the owners told the Star Tribune. “So what I did was just sort of sat in the office and saw whoever showed up. For the next couple of weeks.” The doctors were forced to close their business on 1 April after patients were left without any of their medical histories.

This year has already seen a spike in ransomware attacks hitting large companies and government agencies. This month both the city of Albany, New York, and Genesee county, Michigan, were hit by attacks that crippled their public services. Arizona Beverages, one of the largest beverage suppliers in the US was hit by a similar attack in March that caused major disruptions to its operations. The aluminum maker Norsk Hydro was significantly hobbled by a ransomware attack on its systems. And it was reported that officials in Jackson county, Georgia, paid $400,000 to cyber-criminals this week to get rid of a ransomware infection and regain access to their IT systems.

These are the attacks that get advertised. There are countless others – assaults that hit small businesses like Brookside ENT & Hearing Services – that never make the news, but still have a devastating effect. “The reality is that many victims are paying ransom and successfully recovering as a result. Ransomware is a proven successful business model for attackers, complete with customer service to facilitate payments,” a cybersecurity expert told the Star Tribune.

So what can a small business owner to protect oneself? There are three things I recommend.

For starters, make sure all of your security software is up to date, even if that means budgeting for your IT firm to come in monthly or monitor your systems remotely. This won’t stop a new attack but once these companies become aware of a problem – and they are on top of things – you will be updated with the latest protections. While you’re at it, ask your IT firm to train your people on how to best recognize malicious files and “phishing” website and how to otherwise be aware of potential problems.

Next, sign up for an online backup service. There are many good ones available at a minimal annual cost. With a good service all files are backed up from various devices and from your cloud-based systems to another location offsite. If your business is ever hit by an attack, you can wipe out your existing data and restore from your last good backup. You may lose a few hours or a day of work, but that’s better than trusting whether a hacker will live up to their promises and un-encrypt your files even after paying them.

Finally, make sure you’re running the most recent versions of all your operating systems. Hackers are notoriously looking for older systems that they can compromise, and if all of your devices are running the latest and greatest versions of Windows, Mac OS X and macOS then they may ignore you in lieu for another small business that’s easier to infiltrate.

None of these actions will guarantee your business protection from a ransomware attack. But they will significantly reduce the odds. You don’t want to lose money due to a ransomware attack. And you certainly don’t want to lose your business because of one either.