Accountancy firms can face a greater risk from cyber criminals due to the sheer amount of valuable and sensitive financial data they hold – including client details, bank account details, payroll data and tax ID records.

Many accountancy organisations are making life easier for hackers by underestimating the threats they face. As we all adapt to a more remote workforce, according to Accounting Today, there has been a 300% increase in cyberattacks on accounting practices of all sizes.

A cyberattack can create potentially devastating risks and exposures for an accounting firm. A breach could lead to reputational damage and costly losses, as well as a direct loss of turnover.

A gateway to valuable information

With the amount of valuable data that accountancy practices hold on their clients, hackers often see them as a gateway to obtaining sensitive information. They can be perceived as a soft target with fewer security barriers and often have minimal in-house expertise for a hacker to circumnavigate. The more information a cybercriminal can access, the better a picture they can build of a business or individual whose bank account they intend to target.

Hackers look for vulnerabilities in accounting software, knowing there is a high reward to be had by exploiting any weakness. Accountancy firms often use similar software, so if a criminal can find a vulnerability that can be exploited elsewhere, it leaves firms wide open to a cyberattack.

Attacks can be sophisticated and often strike when accountants work at the year-end or when tax return deadlines are due. Securus has compiled some top tips to help accountancy firms minimise the risk of a cyberattack.

1. Back up your data regularly

Many companies are now completely reliant on the data stored on their network servers, PCs, laptops, mobile devices and in the cloud. Much of this data is likely to contain confidential company and client information.

There is a common misconception that, because you use Office 365, Microsoft backs up your data. Microsoft operates Office 365 under a shared responsibility model, meaning that although they maintain platform availability, preventing actual data loss is the sole responsibility of the user.

Back up your data regularly

Data backup goes hand in hand with business continuity. The safety of customer data is a business-critical issue for every accounting firm. If valuable accounting data is lost and there is no back up strategy, any delays in processing tax returns due to data loss can result in serious penalties and other ramifications, for the accounting firm as well as for the client.

Don’t keep data for longer than you need it. Getting rid of redundant data will free up storage space and there will be less personal and confidential information at risk if you suffer a cyberattack or data breach.

Ensure all business-critical data, including customer and financial information, is securely backed up on all company devices. Establish a robust backup strategy that includes regular, automated backups of critical data, and ensure your backup isn’t connected to your live data source, so that any malicious activity doesn’t infiltrate your network.

It is advisable to store backups in a secure, off-site location to ensure data recovery in case of a cyber incident. Offsite backup provides redundancy by storing data in geographically separate locations. In the event of a disaster, such as a fire or flood, your data can be safely recovered.

2. Deploy a firewall solution

Firewalls are a fundamental part of a cybersecurity strategy for accountancy firms. They provide a robust defence against a range of cyber threats, safeguarding sensitive financial data, maintaining client confidentiality and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.

Firewalls act as a barrier between the internal network and external threats, preventing unauthorised access to critical, confidential data. They establish access controls and rules to allow or deny traffic onto the network, based on predefined policies, to safeguard the integrity of the network infrastructure and prevent malicious activity.

Deploy a firewall solution

With the increasing trend for remote working, accountancy firms may have employees accessing the network from various locations. Firewalls secure remote access through technologies like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), ensuring that connections are encrypted and authenticated.

Patching vulnerabilities have become a demanding, time-consuming task due to the constant discovery of new security threats. Firewall-as-a-Service (FWaaS) is a cloud-based security solution that provides firewall functionality as a service, eliminating the need for organisations to manage and maintain physical on-premise firewalls.

With FWaaS, the firewall infrastructure is hosted and managed by a third-party service provider, like Securus, offering fast, scalable and flexible firewall protection.

Standard security features such as network security monitoring, packet filtering and data encryption are all supported. FWaaS also inspects data on the move to identify, alert and defend against malware, ransomware and other potential threats, in real time.

3. Implement endpoint security, including anti-virus/anti-malware software

Endpoint security is a suite of security services designed to secure the growing number of end-user endpoint devices. Endpoint devices such as laptops, desktops and mobile devices are becoming prime targets for virus, malware and ransomware attacks. Preventing these entry-point devices from being compromised by a malicious cybercriminal attack is paramount for overall network security.

Anti-virus/anti-malware software is designed to detect, prevent and remove malicious software, including viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware and other types of malware.

Endpoint security is a suite of security services designed to secure the growing number of end-user endpoint devices

The continuous monitoring of anti-virus software performs regular scans of files, applications and the overall system to identify and eliminate potential threats, responding to emerging threats in real time. Anti-virus solutions often include features to detect and block phishing attacks. Given that accountancy firms may receive emails asking for financial information, anti-virus software helps prevent employees from falling victim to phishing scams that could compromise sensitive data.

The Securus Endpoint Protection Platform (EPP) allows you to fully manage endpoint security from a single, easy to use, cloud-based GUI. Securus will centralise the monitoring of on-premise or remote endpoints, providing complete transparency of your infrastructure, wherever your employees are located.

4. Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Most organisations now expect to access data seamlessly across multiple devices and locations. This user base extends beyond employees to include business partners, suppliers and customers, all of whom require instant access to software and data.

The primary challenge faced by accountancy firms lies in striking the right balance between data security and accessibility. Traditional password protection falls short, given issues such as lax password discipline, sophisticated password-cracking programmes and the prevalence of social engineering tactics.

To ensure that those entering the IT infrastructure are genuine users, especially when client information is highly confidential, the implementation of MFA becomes crucial. It introduces an additional layer of security by requiring at least two forms of authentication to validate a user’s legitimacy. Even in cases where passwords are compromised, achieving unauthorised access becomes significantly more challenging for malicious actors when MFA is in place.

5. Promote a security awareness culture

Make sure that your organisation embeds a cyber-conscious cultur

Make sure that your organisation embeds a cyber-conscious culture. Staff should receive regular cybersecurity awareness training to update them about the latest threats, highlighting ways to stay secure in the office and remotely.

Conduct regular penetration tests, also known as ‘pen tests’ or ‘ethical hacking’. Penetration testing raises awareness among employees and stakeholders about the importance of security by carrying out a simulated cyberattack against your organisation’s system. The objective is to identify vulnerabilities within your organisation, and to realise the impact of those vulnerabilities on your technology, people and processes.

The most common attack on businesses is phishing. A simulated phishing exercise is one way to improve your business’s resilience to attacks and, by training your employees to spot what a phishing attack looks like, it makes them more likely to identify and report scams.

6. Ensure regulatory security compliance

Security compliance is particularly crucial for accountancy firms due to the sensitive nature of the financial information they handle. Compliance builds trust with clients who rely on accountancy firms to handle their financial information securely. Demonstrating compliance enhances the reputation of your firm and fosters long-term client relationships.

Ensure regulatory security compliance

It’s important to ensure that your security measures align with relevant industry regulations and compliance standards, such as GDPR, HIPAA or PCI DSS. Accountancy firms must also comply with Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulations, which involves implementing due diligence procedures, reporting suspicious activities and maintaining necessary data records.

7. Implement access controls and monitoring

Minimising the number of individuals with access to sensitive information is crucial, especially when key financial client information is at stake. Roles such as global administrators should be kept to an absolute minimum, and wherever possible, privileged admin roles should not be permanently assigned to your users.

Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is instrumental in defining access based on roles and attributes, reducing the risk of compromise. It focuses on resource management and defining which roles or attributes determine that a user gains access to particular resources.

In summary

Cybersecurity is an ongoing process. Regularly reassess your security measures, stay informed about emerging threats and adapt your defences accordingly to stay ahead of cyberthreats targeting your accountancy firm. Only by developing and implementing an integrated threat management strategy can you mitigate internal and external security breaches.

Securus can help with all aspects of cybersecurity and prevention with solutions such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and VPNs. We monitor the network infrastructure for signs of malicious activity, then respond quickly to any incidents that may occur.

To find out more, call our security experts on 03451 283457.

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