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What Is a Cyber Attack?

Eduardo Vasconcellos
Eduardo Vasconcellos
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Sep 20, 2022

Discover the type of damage a cyber attack can do to any business, and some of the top ways to prevent them.

Few things can stop a company’s daily operations immediately like a cyber attack. Businesses rely so much on their digital operations that becoming the victim of a cyber attack can have devastating consequences. Not only can it hurt your bottom line and tarnish your business’s reputation, but depending on the type of attack, you can also lose essential company data and suffer legal ramifications.

What is a cyber attack?

A cyber attack is any action performed to gain unauthorized access to a computer, an information system, or a network in order to damage, steal or expose personal or corporate information. An attack could take the form of someone trying to gain access to your LinkedIn account, or it could be more large-scale, such as the sophisticated Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that occurred earlier this year and caused the company to halt all operations and shut down its IT system for almost a week.

Any company or individual employee is vulnerable to a cyber attack at any given moment, through a mobile device, a laptop computer or a desktop machine. It could come through an email, or it could be a concerted effort targeting corporate servers. But there are also some great ways to protect yourself and your business.

Let’s take a look at some of the threats, the impact of an attack and how to prepare your network.

TipTip: In order to see where your business is most vulnerable, you should conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment, which can help you identify weak points in your cybersecurity.

The 5 most damaging effects of a cyber attack

Cyber attacks can have a wide range of negative effects on your business. 

Financial loss

Some cyber attacks focus on the actual theft of corporate funds, while others end up costing a company scores of cash, simply as a side effect. According to IBM, the cost of an average data breach caused by a cyber attack is around $8 million.

A simple data breach can quickly turn into a devastating financial loss for any business, with the potential of impacting compliance on scores of regulations, which could lead to legal issues, fines or the expense of resolving customer issues. The costs associated with your information technology (IT) managers updating the security protocols for the entire corporate network, as well as the physical security of individual worksites, can add up remarkably fast. 

A tarnished reputation

Everyone says, “I never thought it would happen to me.” But that’s the trick – nobody expects a cyber attack. That’s why they’re so effective. Since not everyone experiences a cyber attack, those who do often find clients doubting their business. Trust becomes a very real concern after an attack; potential customers and clients might scrutinize the losses and gaps in security, which could lead to lost business.

Extensive business disruptions

Once a cybercriminal successfully breaches a corporate network, there are multiple ways they could overwhelm your business. One cyber attack may focus solely on siphoning funds, while another might attempt to disrupt a supply chain. Other attacks, like a distributed denial of service (DDoS), may focus on overwhelming your system to cause the failure of each individual service or application you offer. Recovering from a cyber attack could take days, or even weeks, and could cost millions.

Legal liabilities

After any major data breach, an organization will have to prove its compliance with any state, federal or regulatory standards for its specific industry. For companies that keep meticulous records and conduct regular audits, they should have a paper trail that shows that all the required steps were followed. For companies that don’t keep such thorough records, legal fees could add up. Worse yet, even if a business followed all the rules and regulations, clients and partners could still pursue legal action when a data breach includes certain information.

Data loss

Perhaps the most destructive effect of a cyber attack is the loss of sensitive corporate data. Information theft could have lasting effects that incorporate many of the other cyber attack impacts listed above. One well-placed attack could reveal information like patents, source code to major products and customer information. Once a cybercriminal has that kind of information, they could easily cripple any business.

With the source code of an application, a cybercriminal has all they need to break the software outright or weave in vulnerabilities to exploit unsuspecting users. Users could potentially reveal other flaws in their own network that a cybercriminal could utilize, unintentionally giving a cyber attack a way to increase the damage it causes. That’s when a business becomes liable – potentially leading to financial loss, a damaged reputation and a laundry list of legal ramifications.

FYIFYI: It is important to understand the ways a data loss prevention program can keep cybercriminals from accessing your information, whether it’s at rest, being emailed or actively accessed throughout your network.

5 most common types of cyber attacks

Cybercriminals can attack your business in many ways, but some are more common than others.

Malware

Malicious software (malware) can come from anywhere and take any form. These malicious applications can infiltrate a system simply by the opening of an email attachment or the installation of an EXE file from a suspicious site. And once malware gets through your corporate gates, it’s difficult to contain.

Malware comes in many forms, such as spyware, ransomware, keyloggers and viruses. For example, ransomware is used to lock users out of applications, networks or even their own personal computers, and then offer to restore access at a cost, like we’ve seen with the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.

TipTip: To protect your business against malware and other forms of cyber attacks, implement top internet security and antivirus software.

Phishing

A phishing attack is a message intended to trick someone into revealing personally identifiable information (PII) that would give access to your accounts. Phishing attacks used to be easy to spot – like those emails from a foreign prince who wants to give you millions of dollars. That’s a phishing scam to get your bank account information.

This type of cyber attack has become more sophisticated in recent years, coming from email servers spoofing official corporate email addresses, applications on hijacked web pages or even phone calls from criminals claiming to be government officials. For the most part, these types of attacks tend to focus on fear or greed, so if something seems too good to be true, it should be treated with caution.

DDoS attack

A DDoS attack gives cybercriminals a way to overload a network with unwanted traffic that eventually overwhelms and disrupts live services. It’s like a crowd blocking you from your favorite store, preventing anyone from going in and keeping away a business’s actual customers. These types of targeted attacks usually focus on larger organizations, including banks or other financial gateways, essentially allowing hackers to ruin those companies.

SQL injection

A Structured Query Language (SQL) injection allows a hacker to exploit weak web forms by using malicious commands to steal data, delete or modify records, or even take over an entire website – all through a relatively simple process. An SQL exploit is often thought of as one of the more avoidable breaches because it usually comes from broken code on a database or a website. Through a process of trial and error, a skilled cybercriminal could potentially get access to customer information like credit card numbers, home addresses and email addresses.

Zero-day exploit

One of the more effective types of cyber attack is the zero-day exploit, which is a recently discovered bug or vulnerability that can be easily used to attack, overwhelm or take over a system. Once a zero-day exploit is discovered, the clock starts ticking. Worst of all, some zero-day exploits may not be discovered by corporate IT departments for weeks or months after the first breach.

How do I protect my business against a cyber attack?

1. Enforce strong password security practices.

Believe it or not, people are still using remarkably weak passwords for their various accounts. According to Security.org, the most common password today is “123456.” A strong password is the first line of defense against a cyber attack.

Some best practices for passwords include using at least one numeral and one special character, like a hashtag or a question mark, in it. Other good practices are using a unique password for every account you have, changing those passwords regularly and using a password manager.

2. Always use the latest software.

Cybercriminals use exploits like a zero-day attack through older versions of an application, and all types are vulnerable, from an email program to a media player to an instant messenger. As a matter of fact, a lot of application updates include security fortifications to shore up known issues and prevent similar bugs from being exploited in a future cyber attack. If you’re running the latest version of software, it’s probably secure.

3. Use a virtual private network.

When your business is equipped with a top virtual private network (VPN), you get a direct pipeline to the internet that keeps your information hidden from prying eyes. A VPN filters your traffic through various servers to hide your activity or location from cybercriminals, or even your internet service provider (ISP). While there are some drawbacks to even the best VPN, such as slower network speeds and IP blacklisting, the benefits – such as added security, anonymity and access to geo-blocked content – outweigh them.

Did you know?Did you know? A business VPN provides the ability to encrypt the connection between a device and server, and it can protect you from cybercriminals.

4. Use a reliable cybersecurity insurance service.

Cybersecurity insurance is a service to help any business recover from the effects of a successful cyber attack, whether it’s financial assistance, logistical support or additional IT resources. Once a breach occurs and exposes employee or customer PII, a cybersecurity insurance policy will activate and help notify the necessary parties of an incident, while helping mitigate a company’s liability.

Cybersecurity insurance policies can cover fraud and theft, as well as the forensic work necessary to expose the network’s weaknesses, and help prevent future incidents. These types of policies can also help recover extorted funds and assist with the loss and restoration of data.

TipTip: Learn more about top cyber insurance providers in our review of CNA and Chubb review.

5. Regularly back up and encrypt your data.

Have you ever forgotten to save a document before you closed it? It’s awful to lose all that work you put in because of a moment of absentmindedness. Now imagine you saved all of your data, but it’s all been deleted by a rampaging hacker who wants to do harm. It’s even worse to lose all that work because of a targeted attack. The good news is that it’s perfectly preventable.

By regularly backing up your data to an encrypted location, you not only add security to your corporate documents, but also prevent data from being truly eliminated. If you keep multiple copies of your documents behind a secure server or external drive, it stops hackers from finding them in the first place.

Image Credit:

fizkes / Getty Images

Eduardo Vasconcellos
Eduardo Vasconcellos
business.com Contributing Writer
Eduardo Vasconcellos is a veteran copywriter, creative content producer and marketing communications specialist with over two decades experience, able to take complex concepts and turn them into something simple and memorable. By focusing on customer psychology and product benefits, his specialty is crafting full marketing campaigns that follow industry best practices while authentically speaking to a customer’s need.