A significant number of people suffer losses from computer viruses, computer fraud, identity theft and computer-related crimes. If you have not suffered a loss from any of those sources, the odds are you will someday. These types of loss situations can sneak up on you.

A computer virus, for example, remains hidden until the damage occurs. Businesses lose files and key data all the time, but they don't find out about the virus that was planted in their computer until it's too late.

The problem is twofold: 1) the damage is severe (how much would it cost you to recreate all your business records?); and 2) it is occurring in epidemic proportions.

It is truly a war. The people who put viruses in software operate much like terrorists. They strike against innocent people who are simply trying to do their jobs, run their businesses or maintain records. They strike without regard to who the victims might be. They infect, damage or destroy software, data and sometimes complete operating systems. And despite continuing enforcement efforts, they often escape to strike again in other computers - sometimes affecting the operation of hundreds, thousands and, occasionally, millions of computers.

The motivations of these criminals vary, although I must admit I can't understand some of the “whys” behind these despicable acts. Some attacks attempt to sabotage masses of citizens' computers. Others are purely criminal acts designed to illegally obtain money, credit card authorizations or complete identity theft. Once you are a victim of these war-like acts, it will cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars to recover from the damage.

No matter what the source or motivation, you and I lose - unless we are knowledgeable and vigilant.

An Ounce Of Prevention...

The only way to protect yourself is through preventative measures. Without a system and proven practices to minimize the potential loss, we are risking disruptions in our business as well as financial losses.

One of the simplest (and not very costly) ways to protect your computers is to always use licensed software. Avoiding the use of “bootleg” software, besides dodging criminal penalties for stealing someone else's property, will assure that your computer does not have software that could have been subject to a virus from some other person's computer.

Your best protection is to get software from the manufacturer or approved vendor so you know it is original and virus-free. You never know where a disk of pirated software has been, where it could have had viruses installed on the disk that will be transmitted to your computer.

Another good idea is to update your software when newer versions are available. Not only do you get the latest features, but you get software with some of the “bugs” removed. Since most software has some glitches in it when it is released, newer versions correct initial release oversights and usually improve the effectiveness of the product.

Some of the operating system software updates these days include more anti-virus protection, too. Keeping control of the source of the software you use on your computers will improve the odds of avoiding attacks from viruses that circulate on all uncontrolled computers.

Seal The System

When you control the environment surrounding your computer files, you are sealing your system from the criminal attacks of viruses. One of the ways you can help seal your system is to use quality anti-virus software, including all the updates. Anti-virus software companies are on 24-hour alert for new viruses and update their software frequently. If you are a legitimate subscriber, you will have access to these updates and be able to ward off new strains of a virus. New viruses pop up all the time; you don't want to be left unprotected.

Toxic E-mail

Electronic mail (e-mail) has become so common and accepted as an easy way to communicate that we often take it for granted. And we take its integrity for granted, too. However, e-mail is the vehicle by which many of these virus attacks occur. Besides pirated software, e-mail transports the files necessary to corrupt our computers - and we are not even aware of it. Worse, we send responses and forward notes to others, all the while transporting the virus.

That's why it's so important to keep your system sealed, because you may be assisting in infecting dozens - if not hundreds or thousands - of other computers, simply by using your e-mail.

Since e-mail is so convenient, we are not likely to stop using it; instead, we have to make certain that all incoming and outgoing messages are screened. Good anti-virus software can take care of that process. It will also notify you of recent updates and alerts for new virus threats. It's an investment that will repay the cost many times. Everyone is exposed to these viruses, so it's the protection system you implement that will keep your files safe.

Back-Up Plan

It's too late to reconstruct or recover files once they have been destroyed. How would your business suffer if all the computer records were corrupted or destroyed? It happens. Knowing that there is that kind of risk out there every day, you must take defensive action against the attack. Back up your files. If you have a routine and system in place to back up your files, you can save your business records in the event the original files are destroyed. Without such a system, you are playing roulette with the files you have on your computer, risking losses that are difficult to measure.

Backing up files will also pay off in the event of other disasters, too, such as a fire, tornado, earthquake, theft, etc. So it's not just virus threats that you protect yourself from by backing up files. It's easy, not costly and can potentially make the difference between saving a business and an untold disaster.

I believe backing files up on a daily basis is a good policy. That way you are never more than one day behind if you suffer from a virus or other loss. One day's loss you can survive - still a nuisance - but you can survive. More than that amount of time and it might be impossible to completely reconstruct or replace files to keep the integrity of your business records. At best it would be very costly and disruptive for your business.

Password, Please

Another weapon in the arsenal of anti-virus protection systems is the use of passwords. A lot of companies use passwords to protect entry into their computer systems or software. The weak spot is that the passwords are frequently left intact over long periods. If your company has the same passwords as they did a year ago, you may be exposed to intrusions into your system. The risk of a system break-in from disgruntled former employees and hackers is real. “I didn't think it would happen to me!” has been the cry of more than one business owner who has been the victim of system break-ins.

Don't wait until the risk is present to take precautions. Specifically, I recommend that you: 1) change passwords frequently; 2) restrict access to the passwords so only those who need access to the system can get into the critical files; and 3) monitor who is accessing your records (frequent intrusions that are not explained may indicate a problem).

Identity Theft

If someone acquires all your business or personal information, they can take your assets with impunity. Bank accounts and credit cards are available through an open door for thieves if you're not protected. Stopping them is difficult, so prevention is the only safe approach.

Some of the ways you can prevent this new kind of theft are avoid placing full account numbers on payments to credit card companies; and immediately report losses of any credit cards to the company, and also file a report with the police. Additionally, you can attempt to halt further fraud by notifying the credit bureaus, so a thief doesn't try to get more credit in your name. Following is a list of the bureaus and their phone numbers:

  • Equifax: 800/525-6285
  • Experian (TRW): 888/397-3742
  • Trans Union: 800/680-7289
Using caution in your computer system use and the people who have access to it will give you the edge in this war on our business records. Hoping it won't happen to you is not enough. Hire professionals if your company has a sophisticated server system. Threats to your systems are real. Be vigilant and you will be safe.