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Grow Your Business Security

Data Breaches: 4 Subtle Signs You've Been Hacked

Data Breaches: 4 Subtle Signs You've Been Hacked
Credit: Sergey Nivens /Shutterstock

Most business owners are now aware that cybercriminals are becoming increasingly smart and sophisticated in their hacking methods, and they can target just about anyone. But smaller companies that think, "My antivirus software will protect me," or "I'm too small for hackers to notice me," may be setting themselves up for a devastating data breach.

Today's technology is quite advanced, said Jeremy Brant, vice president of information technology at Florida Capital Bank, and hackers know that network systems themselves are harder to penetrate. That's why more and more cybercriminals rely on human error to reach their goals.

"Systems are so locked down and the tech has really caught up with the times, so [hackers are] going after people and social engineering through phishing emails, whaling emails, dumpster diving, trying to get passwords, etc.," Brant said. "In general, it's easier to breach a machine than a network, because hackers can gain access, capture data and then move laterally throughout the network. Their end goal is to get data through administrative access."

Research by specialty insurer Hartford Steam Boiler (HSB) found that more than half of all small and midsize businesses have been hacked at some point, and nearly three-quarters weren't able to restore all the lost data. The common hacking methods Brant named above, some of which are explained further in HSB's video, "Inside a Data Breach," grant cybercriminals access to the information that leads to identity theft and stolen credit card information.

A credit card breach is fairly easy to recognize once customers of a certain company all begin reporting fraudulent charges. But by that point, a breach has already done a significant amount of damage, not just to the consumers but to the company they trusted to protect their data. Business News Daily spoke with security experts who shared some of the less-obvious signs your business data has been compromised, so you can act right away. [See Related Story: Security Solutions for Small Business]

Unusually slow Internet or computers. This could be a sign of a compromised machine that is sending out lots of traffic, or that malware or a virus is on the machine, said Scottie Cole, network and security administrator for security services provider AppRiver. Brant noted that users might notice high CPU cycles, memory usage and hard disk activity.

"If you come in one day and [your machine is] acting abnormal or not like it usually does, and it’s acting that way for a longer period of time while you're using it, there's a good chance there's been a breach."

A computer that appears to have been tampered with. If you turned off your computer when you left work and it's on or has windows and programs running when you return, someone may have been trying to steal important information. Perhaps files or folders have been moved, deleted or created, and you know you didn't create, remove or move them, said Brant. This is an especially likely scenario with internal data theft.

Eric Cernak, a cyber and privacy risk practice leader at HSB, noted that keeping your machines password-protected and encrypting any sensitive data can prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing the information.

Pop-ups and redirected websites when browsing. If a user is surfing the web and they continue to be redirected to other sites, or get intrusive pop-ups even with a pop-up blocker on, or see search results with a lot of advertising, it's a sign that the machine either has malware on it, or is attempting to get you to slip up and grant a hacker access, Brant said. Slower browsing speeds could also indicate a breach.

"Your IT department can check to see how many connections your machine is making to the internet or outside world," he said. "If they find a lot of connections you didn't make, or aren't sure where they're going or what they are, that's usually a good sign something isn't right."

Locked-out accounts. If you've ever been locked out of your email or social media accounts, you know it's usually because you typed the wrong login credentials one too many times. If you receive a lock-out message the first time you try to access an account (and you know you've typed your password correctly), you might have been hacked.

"This can mean that someone is attempting to brute force an account, or that an account has already been compromised and the password changed," Cole told Business News Daily.

In all of these instances, minor inconveniences that most people might ignore if the problem seems to resolve itself could be signs of a much more serious problem. Both experts advised keeping your antivirus software, firewalls and device operating systems up-to-date, and always remaining alert for any suspicious activity.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.