BUSINESS leaders from across the county were given a stark wake-up call about the threat hackers can pose to their firms.
Small businesses were warned they will have to step up the way the protect confidential data.
A presentation at 1000 Lakeside, in North Harbour, saw legal and cyber security experts from Coffin Mew Solicitors and Vermont, giving companies tips on how to shore up their defences.
It comes ahead of a new set of EU-led rules, known as General Data Protection Regulation, that will come into force next year.
The rules, which will apply in the UK from May 25, 2018, will give people more control over their data.
But, more importantly for small firms, it will mean that any organisations who breach the rules will face tougher financial penalties.
Speaking at the event, cyber security guru Chris Ward said many companies did not have adequate systems in place to prevent modern-day attacks by hackers.
And he said the attacks could prove costly, as some cyber cheats hold critical data ‘hostage’ until firms pay a ransom demand.
Mr Ward, who is the managing director of Vermont Systems, said: ‘There are people out there actively attacking your business, trying to steal data that might be used as a ransom.
‘They can stop your computer systems from working until you pay a ransom.
‘The organised crime gangs have now figured out how they can monetise their activity.
‘Small businesses represent the low-hanging fruit.’
Mr Ward urged companies not just to rely on an anti-virus programme for protection.
Instead, he told firms to invest in new email filter and web filter systems – which can identify malware – as well as advanced firewalls and back-up and recovery.
Mark O’Halloran, head of commercial services at Coffin Mew also advised companies to look at improving staff training.
‘The number one weakness in any system is human fallibility,’ he said.