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Vulnerabilities / Threats

8/26/2014
12:00 PM
Chris Weltzien
Chris Weltzien
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Top 5 Reasons Your Small Business Website is Under Attack

There is no such thing as "too small to hack." If a business has a website, hackers can exploit it.

I was recently looking for a place to board our cat this summer, and one business had on its home page, underneath the name of the company, the words “Viagra discounts” in small but legible type. Assuming the company isn’t branching out from felines to pharmaceuticals, why would this appear on its website? The answer, of course, is that the company didn’t put it there, and was probably unaware of it altogether.

When small business owners think about website security at all, their attitude is usually something along the lines of, “Why would anyone attack us? We’re not a bank and we don’t store credit card data.” Once the company sets up its website, it “sets it and forgets it.” It may check its search ranking once in a while to be sure it hasn’t been blacklisted by Google, but that’s as far as it is likely to go. However, hackers are attacking small business websites with increasing frequency and sophistication: In the cyber-attack ecosystem small business websites are both an attack platform and an attack target.

Unfortunately, the current upward trend of small businesses managing their own websites will only amplify this problem. The National Small Business Association 2013 Technology Survey found that nearly two-thirds of small businesses maintain their own websites, up 15% from the 2010 report. Meanwhile the report indicates that 64% of companies consider the time required to simply maintain the site “a major challenge.”

If you work in, or provide security services to, a small business, below are five points that you need to understand in order to effectively defend your website from attack.

5. New vulnerabilities threaten your business every day: Small business owners need to understand that vulnerability discovery and disclosure is dynamic. Just because a website hasn’t been updated lately doesn’t mean that new vulnerabilities aren’t a threat. In fact vulnerabilities in existing code are more likely to appear on websites that haven’t been updated. According to anonymized aggregated customer data we analyzed at 6Scan, for companies using Web content management systems this issue is even more critical. At any given time between 70% and 80% of WordPress users are running an outdated version which can contain critical, and well documented, vulnerabilities.

4. Your site is under attack 24/7: Many small business owners check their traffic figures daily, pleased to see any increase. They might not be so happy to learn, as we did from our analysis, that, on average, 7% of the traffic to their site is actively attacking it, attempting to detect and exploit vulnerabilities. A site that gets 100 unique visitors per day (placing it approximately at Alexa’s 100,000th most trafficked site) is a target of two breach attempts every hour of every day -- almost 20,000 attacks per year. With these numbers it’s not a matter of if a vulnerability will be exploited but when.

3. Hackers are more efficient than ever: Cisco’s 2014 Annual Security Report referred to hacking legitimate websites as a “high-efficiency infection strategy.” Once a site is compromised, it turns into an attack platform, giving hackers the freedom to choose what devices to attack, what viruses to distribute, even what date and time to launch the attacks for maximum effect.

Back in my days at Zone Labs (one of the early desktop firewall vendors) malware email attachments were all the rage. Now bad guys don’t need to go through all the effort to push malicious attacks with a single payload -- they just hack legitimate websites and the victims to come to them. If they want to beta test a new iOS exploit, they can run that for a few days. If they want to build a botnet with proven malicious code, they just pop that up. The victims will just keep showing up, not knowing the site has been compromised. This ruthless strategy puts the “viral” back in viral marketing.

2. Your site -- no matter how small -- is valuable to hackers: There is no such thing as “too small to hack.” If a business has a website, hackers can exploit it. Stealing personally identifiable information from users and visitors is one way they derive value. But even without credit card data, user/password credentials can be valuable when used as part of a bigger scam.

Hackers also breach legitimate websites to post phishing pages -- this is essential to get around anti-spam software that will flag a link to a blacklisted IP. According to the Websense 2014 Threat Report, 85% of all malicious Web links are hosted on hacked legitimate sites. A third way attackers can use a hacked site is to host malicious content used in phishing scams.

1. Your reputation gets hacked as well: Being blacklisted by Google damages a small business’s brand, but it pales in comparison to being used as a platform to attack its business partners -- and this is not a spy-movie, spear-phishing scenario. Last year the networks of Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Apple were compromised in “watering hole” attacks. In these attacks, cyber criminals hacked into small business Web sites that are known to be frequented by employees of the targeted companies. These specific attacks focused on small mobile application developers, but the model works for any industry.

The days of small businesses putting up a few web pages and relying on “security through obscurity” to protect them are gone forever. Hackers have great incentive to unleash sophisticated -- and often highly automated -- attacks on even the smallest sites. Small business stakeholders must begin to regard website security as a necessary part of operating in an online world, or their customers and partners will pay the price.

Chris is CEO of 6Scan, a pioneer in automated website security, and he has been building successful security businesses for the past decade. Prior to 6Scan he was President and Chief Operating Officer of website security firm Exploit Prevention Labs, which was acquired by AVG ... View Full Bio
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MikeR519
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MikeR519,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2014 | 2:59:39 PM
a good read - important for small business owners
Good read, Chris.  Hacking and phishing attacks are happening all the time.  This morning, I got an email from an attorney I know, asking me to look at something on Google Docs.  The link to the supposed "doc" went to a script on a Canadian Maui Beach rental site.  Neither the attorney nor the small business in Canada knew that their accounts or websites had been attacked.  It's happening all the time and the attacks are getting better and better.  I never click anything without pasting the URL to Notepad first and examining it to make sure it points to where I think it should.

 

 
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 3:12:18 PM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
Thanks for the input Mike! Your example is straight from the hackers playbook. By taking control of one small vacation rental site they can wreak havoc. Now scale that by 200,000,000 active public facing websites and you see the scope of the threat! The Cyber Vor guys hacked 450,000 sites (about 0.5% of the total universe) and stole BILLIONS of credentials.
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
8/26/2014 | 4:41:54 PM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
Chris, What do you think is the worst mistake small businesses make when it comes to securing their websites?
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 6:46:51 PM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
Good question Marilyn. Unfortunately, we see many "worst mistakes" being made. The best catch all advice is for a small business to treat their website as if it were a PC. Everything that has been hammered home about PC security applies to the website -- admins need to have secure passwords, applications need to be updated, daily security scans should be scheduled and problems need to be fixed -- and someone needs to have the explicit responsibility within the company for making sure this happens.
wkilmer
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wkilmer,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2014 | 7:53:02 PM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
Chris, you laid out the issues well.  I have worked with a lot of company boards recently and have been interested at how concerned they are about vulnerabilities and website hacking. Without those assurances that come from vulnerabiltiy scanning I think many companies run the risk of losing potential customers that may not even do business with them.  Is there, in your opinion, a way for small businesses that do take their website security seriously to make that an advantage for them with regards to winning new customers over their competitors?
DarkReadingTim
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DarkReadingTim,
User Rank: Strategist
8/29/2014 | 9:25:41 AM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
A key reason for continued attacks on SMBs is their bank accounts. An SMB can get a significantly larger line of credit than an individual, yet most SMBs don't track their "identities" as closely as individuals do. And oh, by the way, banks don't simply reimburse SMBs for fraudulent charges as they do for individuals.
RyanSepe
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RyanSepe,
User Rank: Ninja
8/31/2014 | 8:37:37 AM
Re: a good read - important for small business owners
Is the reason for why they are typically less vigilant with their bank accounts due to lack of resources? I feel their should be a finance analyst that would track changes to the account on a daily basis.

Also, how come the same fraud measures aren't taken for SMB's?
Howard Fried
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Howard Fried,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2014 | 5:08:02 PM
Keep your website fresh, valuable and alive!
Not only is your guidance "on point", but it is also a good reminder that you should never ignore your website. If you "set it and forget it", likely so will your readers or potential customers. Keeping the content on your website relevant and up to date is just as important as keeping it safe for your visitors. By paying attention to your content and message on a regular basis, you engage your visitors and bring them back again. It is hard enough to get the first visit, so don't blow it by getting your site visitors infected with malware or trojans. As you clearly demonstrate, getting your website hacked can happen easily to anyone. Setting up automated monitoring is a powerful step toward keeping everyone safe. Valuable and timely article.

 

 

 
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/26/2014 | 10:13:11 PM
Re: Keep your website fresh, valuable and alive!
Exactly, Howard. Its a dynamic world, and small businesses in particular need to make sure their websites as up to date with information and security. 
Corey Bridges
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Corey Bridges,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2014 | 7:57:51 PM
Sobering!
Good lord--I had no idea that sites were so vulnerable. I've got several small sites--and one soon-to-be-big site; I had definitely been in the "We're too small to be a target" mindset, but now I consider myself schooled. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised--the game of "leapfrog" between hacker and defender is ongoing.
Paul V.W825
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Paul V.W825,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/26/2014 | 10:22:25 PM
What about solutions?
Small business owner have other things to worry about than defeating "hackers" (like thier actual business). Don't website hosting providers have something in place so that I don't have to worry about this stuff?
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 12:52:35 AM
Re: What about solutions?
Paul you point out a common misconception. Most hosting companies provide security only for the web server itself, not the websites that reside on the server. Often small business owners don't have the time or resources to drill down on this critical delineation. Fortunately, there is an early trend in the hosting space to offer 3rd party website security services tailored for this market (the cost for hosting companies to keep repairing hacked sites is becoming a significant burden). At 6Scan our automated service is an advanced low-touch solution designed for small businesses and there are a few other options including SiteLock and Sucuri.
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
8/27/2014 | 7:05:13 AM
Re: What about solutions? >Early Trends in Hosting
I find it really interesting that web hosting companies are looking to offer 3rd party website security services tailored for the small biz market because of the increasing cost for them to repair hacked sites....  That's something to consider when choosing a web hosting vendor. 
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 12:48:54 PM
Re: What about solutions? >Early Trends in Hosting
Exactly. The incremental premium for a hosting service that takes security seriously is negligible compared to the lost revenue/reputation if your company's website gets placed on the Google blacklist/blocklist.
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Moderator
8/27/2014 | 9:38:51 AM
Re: What about solutions?
I'm surprised we don't see more small business solutions around Web Application Firewalls (WAF) or DDoS.  These are great ways to limit the risk of malicious traffic and can be offered as hosted solutions.
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 12:37:11 PM
Re: What about solutions?
WAFs are a valuable layer in website security. Companies that don't have dedicated IT resources may want a "security suite" approach that includes vulnerability and malware scanning and remediation as well. On the DDoS side its not a particular concern for smaller businesses, the bigger threat for them is being hacked and co-opted into a botnet that will participate in the actual DDoS attack.
Biffster
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Biffster,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/27/2014 | 9:48:17 AM
Automation
Nice article.  What I like about the author's company 6Scan, is their emphasis on automation to improve website safety and security.  It is a complicated world out there.  Thanks for making it a little simpler.  Imagine how effective the air bags in your car would be if you had to operate them manually.  Automation is the key, especially for small business sites.
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 12:38:08 PM
Re: Automation
I like the analogy. I may borrow that one. Thanks!
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
8/27/2014 | 12:17:52 PM
Don't bother without security
This is why I feel like I'm stomping on people's ideas everytime a friend tells me they've come up with a clever business idea that involves a website. If they don't know how to handle security themselves and can't afford to hire someone to do it for them, it seems doomed to fail. 

When your reputationo can be ruined so easly, it's going to become much harder to startup internet based businesses, without some serious capital funding to help shore up defenses, preemptively and after the fact. 
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 12:45:37 PM
Re: Don't bother without security
Unfortunately security is often the last thing to be addressed in a website launch plan (if it's addressed at all) and the more dynamic a site is, the greater the attack surface is likely to be. We're hoping to raise the awareness that big names make the big news (Target, etc) but the majority iof attacks target smaller businesses. The cost is also coming down so it should be attainable for almost all start-ups.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
8/28/2014 | 2:49:48 PM
Re: Don't bother without security
Unfortunate indeed! Delivery of secure technology, and not just delivery of technology itself, should be a top priority for a business that includes an internet presence as part of their operational and strategic goals. However, without proper communication of the importance of security, organization heads will not place that kind of priority on security. It is therefore imperative that security professionals learn the art of effective business communication if they are to push the security agenda forward. FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) based messages have gone the way of the boy who cried wolf. Tough sell though, for a small business that has limited resources to begin with.
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/28/2014 | 3:12:31 PM
Re: Don't bother without security
Great point. With proactive security the cost/benefit analysis focuses on value of the assett being secured. Two examples we see are small companies that service larger customers and small businesses that run transactional models. 

If you serve larger clients (who interact with your site) the cost of being a watering hole -- hacked and infected as a means to attack your larger customers -- can be measured as percentage of the value of your current clients. Also, if the attack became public, competitors would use it to take new business. To stay competitive would then require  marketing to off set the damage. 

On the transactional side the calculation would include lost revenue if your site is blacklisted by browsers or toolbars (Chrome, Firefox, AVG, etc) and the near destruction of all SEO/SEM efforts. Years of optimization can be undone with a single malware detection and it can take months to get it back. 
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
8/28/2014 | 3:15:27 PM
Re: Don't bother without security
A lot of the problems I've found when working with smaller businesses, is there's often a lack of understand not only of security itself, but who to hire to help with it. There are pleenty of freelancers I've worked with who claim to be well versed in Wordpress (or similar CMS) security, only to have them charge for hours of work with little results, or for them to clear out the affected files but not fix the loophole.

Very frustrating for everyone involved. I'd love to see some sort of accreditation that could be earned perhaps that was well known enough that even those unfamiliar with web security at an even basic level could understand and hire the right people. 
cherr552
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cherr552,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/27/2014 | 8:02:34 PM
How do non-techie small businesses get security advice?
Many small businesses have a web presence, but no tech expertise--their web sites are developed by designers or consultants, who rarely return to maintain what they've built. 



In the setup-and-forget model, the site builders make recommendations about the hosting provider, and they should be able to recommend a security provider as well.  After all, their reputation depends on building sites that perform well (for their customers--the small businesses).
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
8/27/2014 | 9:57:16 PM
Re: How do non-techie small businesses get security advice?
This rather common -- a small company has a problem with their site but the developer did it as a one-off project and is no longer actively engaged. You make a great point, when hiring a developer companies should ask for an ongoing plan to maintain the security of the site.
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 8:00:11 AM
Re: How do non-techie small businesses get security advice?
Or the web hoster should be more proactive about raising the awareness of the small business about potential website security issues that could cause serious damage.
Biffster
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Biffster,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/28/2014 | 3:24:10 PM
Re: How do non-techie small businesses get security advice?
Agreed! Or perhaps Web Hosters should be more proactive in enforcing safe secure website behavior, sorta like the "click it or ticket" campaign for seat belt enforcement. Unsecured sites are the online equivalent of an attractive nuisance that can harm many others.
JosephL208
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JosephL208,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/1/2014 | 9:28:53 AM
RE: Solutions
So, what are the solution? The real soutions? As a small business owner, I don't really have the time to dedicate to protecting my systems especailly given how fast the hacking evolves. Yet, I also can't afford to have my reputation and data compermised. So, what are the solutions?


Capital LookUp - www.capitallookup.com/
Chris Weltzien
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Chris Weltzien,
User Rank: Author
9/2/2014 | 6:37:08 PM
RE: Solutions
Hi Joseph -- at 6Scan we provide a free scanning service availble at www.6scan.com/signup. We will identify vulnerabilities and existing website infections and we provide paid remediation services to fix any problems. We try and keep the process as smooth and affordable as possible. Solutions are also available from SiteLock and Sucuri.
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