Most of us look at summertime as a time for vacations, casual Fridays, longer lunches and extended breaks where we can get out and enjoy the weather. But for one of my clients, summertime will always be remembered as the time she was almost forced out of business…by a hacker.
Susan (not her real name) runs a twenty-person CPA firm in center city Philadelphia. She’s smart, hard-working and successful. She’s a great CPA and she’s pretty good with technology too. But, like many of us, she’s got a lot of balls in the air, and sometimes things get ignored. Like her company’s computer network.
Although a strong advocate of the cloud her people still maintained many office files internally and on their devices. Her accounting system – QuickBooks – was also resident on a server in her office. She had an outside IT consultant who sporadically appeared for mostly break/fix work. Up until that fateful summer of 2017, she had always “assumed” her systems and software were up to date. Well, she learned during that summer that they weren’t.
In mid-July, a ransomware virus attacked her firm. You know what this is, right? The virus, once unleashed, attacks files on any device and servers on a network and encrypts them – basically, locks them down. Users are then delivered a red warning screen that informs them that their files are encrypted and to unlock them they need to enter a special code. How to get the code? From the ransomware creator (don’t worry, an email and sometimes even a phone number is offered). What’s the catch? You have to pay…$100 in Susan’s case. Oh, almost forgot: payment is due anonymously in bitcoin.
Susan, of course, didn’t have a whole lot of bitcoin laying around. Even so, a $100 doesn’t seem like a lot of money and it really wasn’t for her. But regardless, she was furious – her entire business was taken down by some random hacker in God-knows-where and she wasn’t about to pay that person for the right to take back her data. Plus, she was concerned about whether paying would truly be an end to the problem or just a temporary reprieve. Would he return? Did he have friends? What about a backup of her data? Yeah, right. To her dismay, a good one hadn’t been taken in months. No one checked.
So what did Susan do? For five grueling days in July, she had her IT person try everything. She brought in another consultant. She shelled out a few thousand dollars to avert dealing with the hacker. During all of this, business was a standstill. Client files couldn’t be accessed. Meetings had to be cancelled. Invoices couldn’t be tracked. Payments couldn’t be recorded.
“Things were teetering on the brink,” she told me weeks later. “I had no options to fix this and a business to run.”
Ultimately, Susan caved to the hackers. She grudgingly paid the hundred bucks. She got the encryption key. She got her people back to work. She learned her lesson. So this is what she did next.
She fired her IT person and her IT consultants, and outsourced her IT so that the latest security software could be on every device that touched her network and monitored by a team of experts. And, Susan moved all of her files – and even her accounting system, QuickBooks Desktop – to a cloud-based hosting service.
Will the data be 100 percent secured by Susan’s new services? No one can promise that. But at the very least she can take comfort that the people holding onto her data specialize in cloud services and have the resources to do the best job possible.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years,” she said to me recently. “Is that there are some things I do well, and some things that are best left to experts.”
The good news is that Susan is back on track. Business is good and the incident is behind her. Susan now even gives talks to her clients on the importance of working in the cloud to stay safe. Will she ever forget that experience from the Summer of 2017? Not likely.
Think your client, colleague or customer would find this valuable? Share it now…