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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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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
8/26/2014 | 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.
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?
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.
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.

 

 

 
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 | 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.
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.

 

 
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