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Top Data Security Practices to Protect Your Firm

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This past tax season, threat actors carried out over 100 attempts to attack accounting professionals via email. The size of your firm does not make you immune – cybercriminals target firms of all sizes to drive their own monetary gains.

Jun 16th 2022
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As cybercriminals ramp up the volume of attacks in the financial services sector, accounting firms are not immune.

Below are several key steps your firm can take today to help prevent and stay ahead of the most common cybersecurity threats.

Maintain Your Reputation

Trust is a core component of the CPA-client relationship. CPAs often take on the role of trusted advisor to businesses, with complete transparency and visibility into corporate financials, plans, and structure. The relationship can often take months or even years to foster until an individual or business places their complete trust in the hands of a CPA. And once that occurs, companies and individuals trust their sensitive data will stay within the firm.

If your firm suffers a data breach, cybercriminals will have access to critical client data. Once the data is in the hands of threat actors, there is no way to know where the data will go.

  • Will the cybercriminals post your company credentials on the dark web for anyone's viewing pleasure?
  • Will they sell your firm's information to the highest bidder?
  • Will they encrypt all your firm's data and hold it for ransom?

Every cyberattack is different and there is no way to determine how cybercriminals will choose to target your firm. But no matter what attack vector they choose, your firm will lose not only critical client data, but its reputation if you don’t have the proper safeguards in place.

Prevent Monetary Loss

The monetary demands of threat actors substantially increased in recent years, with the average ransomware demand in 2021 up 43 percent from 2020. As accounting firms seek to grow their business and introduce new value-added services, the risk of paying high ransomware demands can significantly diminish growth efforts.

When cybercriminals execute ransomware attacks, they will often hold a firm's data hostage until the ransom is paid. Even if your firm chooses to pay the ransom, there are no guarantees threat actors will not release encrypted data. In such an attack, you are trying to reason with criminals whose only motivation is their monetary gain – and that can result in substantial financial loss and reputational damage for your firm.

Protecting Your Organization Starts Within

The first step to preventing your data from being compromised is to foster a culture within your firm that priorities safe cyber and data security habits. You cannot protect your organization from threats without recognizing and acknowledging the actual risk to your firm.

Prioritizing safe cyber hygiene must start at the top of your organization, with the executive team driving the proper steps to ensure safe cyber habits and always keeping data security top of mind when making corporate decisions.  Once your executive team realizes the vital role cybersecurity plays in the business’ success, they must put systems in place to educate all employees on appropriate cyber hygiene practices.

One-off cyber training once a year is not enough in most cases. Employees must be conscious of cybersecurity best practices and evolving threats and consciously make decisions in their daily work to prioritize cybersecurity.

For some firms, fostering a culture of safe cyber practices might look like random phishing tests from an IT team. For other firms, it might look like required quarterly cybersecurity training. Remember, there is no one size fits all approach. Your firm needs to determine what works best for your structure and employees.

Beyond the Firm – Look to Your Vendors

Gartner predicts that by 2025, 45 percent of organizations worldwide will have experienced attacks on their software supply chains, a three-fold increase from 2021. The threat of attacks on your software and vendor supply chain is very real – and should be viewed as such.

No firm exists in a vacuum, especially in a post-pandemic society. Firms may rely on video conferencing software to interact with clients, or outsource payroll, document management systems and practice management to different providers. Each vendor who provides these services to your firm is critical to your daily operations and enables your firm to deliver services to customers.

Using software will drive value for your firm by minimizing time spent on mundane tasks, allowing your accountants to focus on value-added services, and enabling your firm to meet customers' evolving needs. However, data integrity must be top of mind when establishing and maintaining these vendor relationships.

Vetting vendors and providers is an ongoing process that begins when your firm starts searching for a new provider and continues throughout the entire relationship. When you are evaluating new vendors, you may typically ask questions about functionality, integrations, and capabilities – but don’t forget to also ask questions about cybersecurity protocols and data protection measures.

For example, the AICPA designed SOC 2 Type II compliance assessments to ensure businesses display adequate practices that safeguard data with proper security processes. To achieve compliance, organizations must prove to an independent third-party it is compliant with strict security policies and procedures. Choosing a SOC 2 certified vendor can give you piece of mind that they will protect your sensitive data and meet the highest levels of security and compliance.

The vetting process does not end once you have signed a vendor contract – it’s an ongoing process. Ensure vendors only receive the specific information they need to perform their tasks.

If a provider requests access to additional data or information that you feel is not necessary to perform their services, inquire further to ensure you are following the best data protection processes. Throughout your working relationship with a vendor, ensure your firm periodically checks on cybersecurity and data protection practices to minimize the possibility of an attack.

Proactively Plan to Ensure Data Integrity

Suffering a data breach can have a dramatic and negative impact on your firm. Proactively acknowledging the risk that cybercriminals pose to your firm is the first step on the journey to securing your critical data. Once your firm prioritizes cyber hygiene best practices and extends the same standards to its vendors, you are closer to safeguarding the vital corporate and customer data you have been entrusted with protecting.

With the proper proactive plans in place, your firm can focus on what truly matters – delivering the important work and value-added services your clients depend on - without the pervasive fear of a data breach or cyberattack. Once a data breach occurs, it is already too late. Act now to ensure your firm is protected.

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