15 August 2016 | By Paul Clarke Community

Cybercrime: how to spot an attacker

How understanding the threat is the first step for SMEs to protect their business

Cybercrime is a risk for companies of all sizes, but according to a recent Barclaycard survey, almost half (48 per cent) of small businesses have been affected in the last year alone – and just over half (54 per cent) are concerned that they are at risk of an attack in the future.  

Firms don’t just need to put the right measures in place to protect themselves, they must also remain vigilant to spot and stop a cyberattack if it takes place. This makes understanding motives for an attack – in most cases to gain valuable information or goods – and identifying the most common attacks vital.

Barclaycard’s research revealed three particularly common forms of attack amongst SMEs: cyber fraud, phishing and hacking through exploitation of passwords:

Cyber fraud

Cyber fraud happens when a criminal obtains goods online using a debit or credit card that doesn’t belong to them. A third (33 per cent) of small businesses have accepted payment for goods or services funded by stolen card details. In those cases, the merchant is often solely responsible for refunding the amount to the victim, which can have a direct impact on their bottom line.

Understanding what to watch out for can help a business identify a fraudulent transaction before it’s too late. Although the definition of “business as usual” varies from retailer to retailer and each merchant knows their customers best, there are some common red flags to watch out for.

First, keep an eye out for purchases where the delivery location is different to the cardholder’s address. Out-of-the-ordinary activity, such as abnormally high value transactions or spikes in sales, could also suggest a fraudster is taking advantage of a weak point in an online business. Finally, be wary of new customers that keep returning to your site in a short space of time. While they may be genuine, it could be a fraudster returning to make another purchase.

Fraud screening providers are easily installed and can help merchants spot fraudulent transactions by using several different automated tests to assess validity.


Phishing – when criminals send an email pretending to be someone else – was the most common form of attack cited in the Barclaycard research, with four in 10 businesses saying they experienced it in the last 12 months. Such emails might ask the recipient to share sensitive information or click on a link, which in turn will install harmful software on their machine.

To prevent this type of attack, businesses need to look out for several tell-tale signs. For example, if an email invites the recipient to click through to another website, they should take a look at the address bar – if it doesn’t start with http:// or https:// it’s not secure, and no sensitive information should be entered. Poor spelling and grammar or bad presentation are other red flags. 

Exploitation of weak passwords

Passwords are the first line of defence when it comes to protecting the sensitive information a business holds. Yet almost a quarter of businesses (22 per cent) have been attacked because their passwords were simply too weak.

It sounds simple, but every password should be completely unique and contain a mix of letters, numbers and symbols. They should never include any personal information or common words which could be easily deduced by criminals.

Businesses who suffer a phishing attack, or are exploited because of a weak password, can inadvertently reveal sensitive data which could include anything from company IP to customer payment details.

To protect everyone involved, retailers should have an instant response plan in place. This should include details of those who need to be contacted in the event of an attack – both internally to escalate and deal with the issue, and externally to ensure customers are aware of the steps the business is taking to bring the matter under control.

Communicating the facts is crucial: what happened, what the business is doing to fix the problem, and what support is being offered to affected parties.

And while cyber fraud, phishing and exploitation of passwords are the most common forms of attack, businesses should monitor their online transactions for any form of suspicious activity. Understanding the nature of the threat and the tactics criminals use can really help businesses spot the warning signs before it’s too late.