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How to protect your SME against cyber crime

UK small and medium businesses (SMEs) face a big problem in the digital world. Even small companies, not just big ones, are now being regularly targeted by cybercriminals.

This guide will help you understand the issues around cyber security and how to deal with online threats. We’ll look at what cyber crime is, the most common ways SMEs get attacked, and most importantly, how to protect your business.

1. What is cyber crime?

At its core, cyber crime means people using computers or the internet to cause harm. Whether it’s a hacker overseas trying to steal your sensitive data, malicious software damaging your files, or even someone spreading false information about your company online, cyber crime takes many forms.

Digital footprints of businesses have grown. With them, chances for attacks have also increased. SMEs increasingly find themselves as top targets. Why? Unlike big companies, they often lack strong security, making them look like easier victims.

2. Common Cyber Attacks on SMEs

In the huge digital space, SMEs often get targeted by cybercriminals. While the methods vary, some happen more than others and pose big threats to unaware businesses:

Phishing Emails:

These aren’t regular spam. Made cleverly, they look like real messages from banks or service providers you trust. Their goal? Trick staff to click on bad links or share sensitive details. It’s like a con artist trying to fool you into handing over your business keys.


Imagine coming to work and finding your data held hostage. Ransomware does that. It scrambles your data so you can’t access it. The crook then demands ransom, often in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, to free your data. Paying doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the data back and encourages more attacks.

DDoS Attacks:

Think of this as a traffic jam on a website. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks flood a site with so much traffic that it crashes. It’s like a crowd blocking a shop entrance, stopping real customers from entering.


This refers to harmful software like viruses, worms, and spyware. Once in your system, malware can create big problems, from messing up files to tracking your activity. It’s like a parasite that attaches to your systems and causes damage.

Data Breaches:

In a data-focused world, information is valuable. Breaches happen when unauthorised people access and take sensitive data. This could be customer details, financial records, or private company information. It’s like a digital break-in where the thieves steal your most valuable assets.

Password Attacks:

Passwords are the gates to your online property. Attackers use different ways to guess or crack them. Once in, they have free access to the accounts. Simple safety steps can stop over 70% of cyber attacks National Cyber Security Centre

3. How cyber crime hurts SMEs

While the digital world provides opportunities, it also has downsides. A surprise cyber attack can create shockwaves for your business in ways you might not expect:

Financial Impact:

Right after an attack, costs can pile up. There’s a direct loss if funds get stolen from accounts. Then there’s ransom in cases of ransomware, where crooks demand money to restore access. But costs don’t stop there. Addressing the breach, boosting security, potential legal fees, and fines can add up, straining finances.

Business Disruptions:

An attack can bring operations to a halt. Whether it’s a DDoS attack overwhelming your website or malware crippling internal systems, it causes downtime. This means lost revenue and potential contract breaches with clients or partners, causing more financial and reputation damage.

Lost Trust:

Trust is key in any business relationship. When customers give you personal or financial data, they believe you’ll protect it. A breach can ruin this trust. Even if you recover financially and operationally, rebuilding customer confidence can be a long struggle. Future clients might hesitate to work with a company that has had a major breach.

Common Mistake:

Many SMEs think having cyber insurance is the ultimate protection. While it helps manage costs from an attack, it’s not a magic solution. Insurance can cover some costs but won’t rebuild lost trust or reputation. Proactive security, constant monitoring, and staff training are vital parts of a complete defence.

51% of security leaders believe their cyber security posture needs better futureproofing

4. Protecting Your Business

Nowadays, safeguarding your business isn’t just about locking doors at night; it’s about securing your online presence too. With threats lurking everywhere, being proactive is your best defence. Let’s explore what you can do:

Train Your Team:

Your staff are on the frontlines daily. It’s vital they recognise threats like phishing emails, suspicious downloads, and unsafe websites. Regular training helps them spot risks and builds a human firewall against attacks.

Back Up Data:

Data is a modern business's lifeblood. Whether customer info, financial records, or internal documents, losing it can be catastrophic. Ensure regular onsite and cloud backups. That way, even if an attack compromises data, you can restore operations quickly.

Update Systems:

Cybercriminals often exploit outdated software to gain access. Regular updates provide new features and fix vulnerabilities. Automate updates where possible to stay protected from known threats.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA):

Passwords alone aren’t enough. MFA requires users to verify through two methods like something they know (password), have (phone), or are (fingerprint). It’s an extra barrier that deters most attackers.

Install Firewalls and Antivirus:

Think of firewalls as digital gatekeepers, monitoring and filtering traffic to block threats. Antivirus scans and removes harmful software. Together, they form a robust defence against most cyber threats.

Have a Plan:

Despite precautions, breaches happen. You need an incident response plan outlining steps if attacked - from identifying the breach to notifying affected parties and recovering data. Being prepared can significantly reduce damage and downtime.

By doing these things, you not only protect your business but also build trust with customers, assuring them their data and dealings with you are secure.

Ransomware attacks hit 1 in 6 businesses; 67% feel unable to protect against ransomware

5. What to Do If You're Attacked

Being hit by an attack can be incredibly stressful for any SME. The aftermath might feel chaotic, but having a clear action plan makes a big difference. Here's a step-by-step guide on responding:

Stay Calm:

Feeling overwhelmed is natural but panicking clouds judgment. Take a deep breath. Remember every problem has a solution. By thinking clearly and acting fast you can reduce damage and start recovering.

Get Expert Help:

Cyber security is complex. If you're not an expert, get one on board. Reach out to a cyber security firm or consultant. They can help assess the breach, contain it, and guide your next steps. If there has been a serious personal data breach, you need to report it to the Information Commissioner's Office  (ICO) within 72hrs of you becoming aware of the breach. They have prepared a handy guide for how to respond to such a data breach.

Tell Your Team and Customers:

Being transparent is crucial. Inform staff about the breach so they stay alert for suspicious activity. If customer data was compromised, you must let them know. Assure them you're taking all steps to address it and their trust is key.

Learn and Improve:

Once the threat is contained, reflect. Analyse how the breach happened and identify security weak points. Use the incident to strengthen defences, update protocols, and consider more staff training. The goal isn't just recovery but emerging stronger and more resilient.

Cybersecurity is a critical concern for SMEs in the UK. By understanding the various forms of cybercrime, the potential costs, and the necessary steps to protect their businesses, SME owners and employees can better safeguard their data and operations from cyber threats. Remember, cybersecurity is an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance and adaptation to stay ahead of emerging threats.

Resources for Cyber Security

"How to improve your cyber security; affordable, practical advice for businesses"
Cyber Security: Small Business Guide
The National Cyber Security Centre
Read it here

"Cyber security breaches and attacks remain a common threat. However, smaller organisations are identifying them less than last year."
Cyber security breaches survey 2023
UK Government
Read it here

"Guidance on how organisations can protect themselves in cyberspaces"
10 Steps to Cyber Security
UK Government
Read it here

"Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been in business for a while, here are 15 things all small businesses need to know about data protection."
15 things all small businesses need to know about data protection
Information Commissioner's Office 
Read it here

"National Cyber Resilience Centre Group (NCRCG) is a not-for-profit company, funded and supported by the Home Office, policing and Ambassador partners, set up to strengthen the reach of cyber resilience across the business community."
National Cyber Resilience Centre Group
Find Your Regional Centre

"We applied rigorous academic analysis to practical knowledge distilled from SMEs and, based on the analysis, we produced a set of practice-inspired and industry-validated recommendations for SMEs on cybersecurity investment decision-making."
Cybersecurity Investment Decision-Making A Best Practice Guide for SMEs
The Centre for Cyber Security Research, Cardiff University
Read it here 

"The new National Cyber Strategy is our plan to ensure that the UK remains confident, capable and resilient in this fast-moving digital world; and that we continue to adapt, innovate and invest in order to protect and promote our interests in cyberspace."
National Cyber Strategy 2022
UK Government
Read it here  

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