Cybersecurity threats and HOAs: 10 ways to safeguard your data
Condo and homeowners association (HOA) boards oversee many aspects of property management, and one of their crucial responsibilities involves data security. Thanks to our ever-increasing reliance on digital technology, protecting your association from cybersecurity threats (also known as cyberthreats) is more important than ever. A cybersecurity attack such as a data security breach can wreak havoc on an association, exposing sensitive details like emails, addresses, credit card information, etc. This can result in a cascade of problems, ultimately causing financial losses for the association and its members. As a board member, you must take steps to protect your association's data against potential cybersecurity threats. Becoming familiar with some of the most common online threats is an excellent place to start.
Potential cybersecurity threats
The most common threats that organizations face include phishing attacks, ransomware, and data breaches. And as technology advances, these threats are becoming more prevalent and sophisticated. Let’s examine them below.
Phishing attacks are one of the most common cybersecurity risks that condos and HOAs face. These attacks involve using carefully crafted emails and websites to deceive victims into providing sensitive information such as login credentials or other personal data. An example of a phishing attack is when an attacker sends a fraudulent email posing as a reputable entity. This could be a bank or a popular online service. The email is persuasive, often creating an urgency, and usually includes links or attachments. The recipient is tricked into clicking the link or opening the attachment, which leads them to a fake website designed to steal data. Phishing attacks can also involve social engineering techniques, where attackers attempt to manipulate individuals into disclosing sensitive information by posing as trustworthy entities.
Ransomware is another form of cyberattack that condos and HOAs should guard against. In a ransomware attack, cybercriminals encrypt files on an organization's network and demand payment for the decryption key. Once the ransom is paid, the cybercriminals promise to unlock the encrypted files. This could result in unauthorized access to HOA data such as email addresses, bank account numbers, and social security numbers.
Data breaches occur when unauthorized individuals access confidential or sensitive information without permission. This can occur through various means, such as hacking into computer systems, exploiting software vulnerabilities, or physically stealing devices (such as laptops) containing sensitive HOA data. Associations store a wide range of personal information, including residents' full names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and payment information. If this information falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to commit identity theft, credit card fraud, and other financial crimes. And the impact of such a breach extends beyond monetary losses and legal repercussions. Compromised personal information can also affect a person's emotional and psychological well-being.
The repercussions of a phishing attack, ransomware attack or a HOA data breach can result in a breakdown of trust in an association’s governance and financial management. It can also escalate into legal disputes and damage the association's reputation. Fear not, there are proactive measures you can adopt to guard against cyberattacks. It all starts with a risk assessment.
Assess your risk
Have you evaluated your association's susceptibility to cyberattacks? Assessing your risk and vulnerabilities involves thoroughly evaluating your association's digital infrastructure. It also involves examining your network for potential entry points to identify loopholes and weaknesses. By undertaking a comprehensive evaluation and following the 10 recommendations below, boards can gain insights into their risk levels and take proactive measures to protect against cyberthreats.
1. Establish a robust cybersecurity policy
Establishing a robust cybersecurity policy involves defining and categorizing the information your association manages, such as sensitive data, intellectual property, and other critical information. The policy should include protocols for securing your organization's network, firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and regular monitoring of unusual activities. Including these components will help to protect against potential cyberthreats and enhance your association's overall resistance.
Read Association Policy: Why Communication is Key for information about how to develop and enforce good association policy.
2. Implement access controls
An essential part of securing data from breaches starts with managing and restricting access to the data itself. Board members typically have access to sensitive association data. However, committee members, for example, should only have access to data relevant to their role or position. Ensure that access privileges are assigned on a need-to-know basis, with appropriate permissions, and that access is immediately removed when a person leaves their position.
3. Educate your staff
Is your team well-informed about cybersecurity risks? Do they know how to recognize and handle phishing emails? Would they know how to navigate and respond to a ransomware attack? Consider providing cybersecurity awareness training to educate your board and staff on how to identify, prevent, and respond to cybersecurity threats. Training should cover many topics, including password management, malware, and data breaches. Equipping staff with comprehensive information about risks enhances their ability to identify potential threats and respond to them effectively.
4. Secure your Wi-Fi network
Protect your condo or HOA's Wi-Fi network with unique, solid passwords and strong encryption. Encryption ensures that even if unauthorized individuals intercept the data, they cannot easily decipher or manipulate it.
5. Regularly Back Up Critical Data
Frequently backing up critical data enables quick recovery in the event of a cybersecurity incident, such as a ransomware attack or a data breach.
6. Use Multi-Factor Authentication
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security system that requires multiple forms of identification from an individual to grant access to a device, system, or application. MFA enhances security by adding an extra layer of protection beyond just a username and password.
7. Keep software up to date
Updates, often released by software vendors, often introduce new security features or enhance existing ones. These features are designed to better protect your system against evolving cyberthreats and provide additional layers of defense.
8. Use robust passwords
Using robust passwords is a fundamental aspect of protecting yourself from cyberattacks. Robust passwords are complex and include uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. This complexity makes it significantly harder for attackers to guess or crack passwords using automated tools or brute-force attacks, a method employed by cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to a system or account by systematically trying all possible combinations of passwords or encryption keys until the correct one is found.
9. Partner with a professional management company
Solid management companies have policies and protocols in place designed to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and security of sensitive information related to homeowners and the association's operation.
“FirstService has adopted the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) cybersecurity framework,” said Chris Cady, vice president of IT Security at FirstService Residential. “NIST provides a set of guidelines, best practices, and standards designed to help organizations manage and improve cybersecurity risk. We also work to keep our teams up-to-date on the latest data security trends allowing us to empower boards with the knowledge necessary to safeguard their data effectively. This proactive approach aligns with our dedication and commitment to safeguarding the data of the communities in our care.”
It is important to note that FirstService’s policies and standards pertain exclusively to data stored on its company servers. Your association should establish its policies and procedures and engage third-party IT vendors to protect your association's data.
10. Consider purchasing cyber security insurance
Cybersecurity insurance (also known as cyber liability insurance) provides organizations with a combination of coverage options to mitigate financial losses and liabilities associated with cyber incidents and data breaches.
“As a business necessity to mitigate potential liabilities, FirstService advises our clients about cybersecurity insurance,” said Pamela Malfavon, director of financial products and services at FirstService Financial. “Some associations may have coverage under their directors' and officers' insurance policies but for those that don’t – given the unique risks and complex nature of cyberattacks – securing a separate, standalone policy is advisable.”
Lowering the risk that your condo or HOA experiences cyberattacks requires a proactive and comprehensive approach. Implementing the 10 measures above can significantly enhance your association's resilience against cyberattacks, your operation's integrity, and your residents' trust.
If your association needs a reputable IT vendor, contact FirstService Residential for assistance.