Cybersecurity 101: What property managers & landlords need to know – Part 2

Robin Young
Robin Young | 13 min. read

Published on April 20, 2017

In last week’s post, we examined the real estate security risks that property managers face: from common misconceptions that hurt small businesses’ security, to the biggest threats that demand our attention in 2017.

This week, we’ll lay out a step-by-step plan to securing each component of your business for the purpose of data breach prevention. Have a notebook and pen handy—you’ll want to take notes!

Property managers: Discover 11 key steps to preventing data breaches on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet

Data Breach Prevention for Property Managers

Tip #1: Formalize Your Cybersecurity Policies & Emergency Plans

As you read through the following sections, each of which delves into bolstering your security in a particular area of your company, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. How will your security policies be enforced, and by who?
  2. How will potential security breaches be dealt with?
  3. Who should an employee contact with questions and concerns?
  4. How will current and future employees be trained?

Tip #2: Improve Your Password Practices

  1. Create stronger passwords:
    • You may have heard the term “passphrase”—this is a lengthy password that may consist of a short, memorable sentence (including spaces) instead of a single word. (e.g. “i love chocolate cake”)
    • You should also incorporate as many letters, numbers, and symbols as each site or app allows. (e.g. “1 l0v3 ch0c0l@73 c4k3!”)
    • Don’t use any dictionary words or names unless they’re part of a lengthy passphrase; use a mix of capital and lowercase letters. (e.g. “1 L0v3 Ch0c0l@73 C4k3!”)
    • Be sure that you’re not using one of these common passwords.
    • Keep in mind that hackers are using password-cracking software to run through thousands of possible passwords each second. You can check how long it would take a password cracker to guess your password here: How Secure is My Password?
    • I also recommend reading this article: How I’d Hack Your Weak Passwords
  2. Don’t reuse passwords. This is a step that everyone knows, but few people heed—to their detriment. We know it’s tedious, but it’s also the single most important step you can take when it comes to data breach prevention. As we discussed above, when hackers gain access to one of your passwords, they have software that allows them to test it across all of your accounts—potentially enabling them to gain access to all of your information in one fell swoop.
  3. Use password management software. This is the key to using different passwords across all sites and apps. A good password manager (our security expert recommends 1Password) will help you to create incredibly secure passwords and store them for use across all of your accounts, along with usernames, account numbers, and other pertinent information. All of my important accounts now have extremely long, gibberish passwords that no human could remember—but now, I don’t have to!
  4. Create & enforce a password policy throughout your company. Train employees on how to create strong passwords. Make it perfectly clear that the entire company’s security (and, consequently, its financial standing and reputation) could be compromised by their negligence. Passwords are the first line of defense when it comes to data breach prevention, so be sure that your employees understand that your security is in their hands. Here’s a sample policy from SANS Institute that you’re welcome to adapt.
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Tip #3: Bolster Your Software Security

  1. Update your software regularly across all devices that you and your company own. It can be tempting to put off updates when you’re busy, but keep in mind that new software versions often patch holes in their security. By saying “remind me later,” you’re choosing to continue using a weaker version, creating vulnerabilities in your company’s security. This applies across your laptop, phone, tablet, and even your router.
  2. Invest in an anti-virus solution. There are free options like Avast and AVG for personal use; but our security expert recommends investing in a full security suite for data breach prevention within your business. He suggests Trend Micro, Bitdefender, Sophos, Symantec, and McAfee.
Guilty of hitting 'remind me later' on software updates? Learn why updates matter on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet

Tip #4: Lock Down Your Data

  1. Decide who gets access to sensitive data, and who should be given administrative privileges. Our security expert’s advice is to grant access to as few people as possible, and to have a plan in place to remove those privileges the moment they leave the company.
  2. Don’t hold on to records (for your business, employees, or tenants) any longer than you’re legally required to. This significantly minimizes what could be stolen in the event of a breach.
  3. Encrypt all digital data, and never share files containing PII via unencrypted email.
  4. Back up your data to an offsite location in case your network is compromised. Keep in mind that if you back it up to the cloud, you need to take cloud security into consideration, utilizing the suggestions for vendor contracts that we include toward the end of this post.
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Tip #5: Secure Your Networks

93% of the time, attackers take just minutes (or less) to compromise a system; and intruders are in your network for an average of 200 days before they’re noticed. This makes it critically important to follow these steps as part of your data breach prevention strategy:

  1. Restrict access to your wireless network. Only employees should have the Wi-Fi password—all visitors should be restricted to a separate guest network.
  2. Decide which sites employees can access, restricting their ability to visit risky or inappropriate sites.
  3. Change the default password on your router. This is a surprisingly common oversight, but it’s incredibly dangerous—you’re essentially letting anyone access your network who bothers to test it.
  4. In the event of a data breach, be prepared to shut down your networks immediately to keep an intrusion from spreading.
93% of the time, hackers take minutes (or less) to break in. Learn more on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet

Tip #6: Manage Mobile Devices

  1. Decide whether you’ll allow employee devices to be used for work. On one hand, using personal devices (an increasingly popular movement known as bring-your-own-device, or BYOD) can increase productivity by allowing employees to bring work and communication tools with them everywhere they go. In addition, it saves you the expense of buying devices for employees when many already have them. On the other hand, allowing company data to live alongside employees’ personal files and apps is a significant risk. You’ll have to ask employees to use their devices in a certain way (such as always using a six-digit passcode to unlock their phone), and you’ll have to have a plan for pulling access to this data from their devices if they leave the company.
  2. Consider a mobile device management (MDM) solution. This software allows you to monitor, manage, and secure employee devices, from smartphones to laptops. One of the most important features is the ability to instantly lock down or wipe an employee’s phone if it’s stolen. Our security expert recommends Jamf (for Apple devices), IBM MaaS360, or VMWare Airwatch.

Tip #7: Defend Your Email

Don’t get caught up in the common misconception that your inbox doesn’t contain anything sensitive. Cybercriminals focus on gaining access to companies’ email accounts when they’re looking to extort money—remember all of the embarrassing, dangerous information uncovered from the Sony hack in 2014? Protecting your email is a vital component of your data breach prevention plan.

  1. Require extra-strong email passwords across your entire company. According to our security expert, your email tends to be the center of all of your accounts—if it’s breached, the rest of your accounts are at risk. Use the password tips that we recommended in the previous section to the max.
  1. Learn how to recognize phishing scams:
    • Never click on a link or open a file in an unsolicited email from an unknown sender.
    • Be suspicious of emails that end in a foreign extension (e.g. “”) rather than .com or .gov.
    • Don’t open files that end in .exe, .bat, or .pif unless you’re expecting the file from someone that you know. Keep in mind that even files from people that you know could be viruses if their device has been compromised, so always check with them before opening unexpected files.
    • Hover over any links before clicking on them to see where they will actually direct you.
    • Be skeptical of links that don’t begin with “https,” which signifies that a site has been authenticated and is encrypted to protect your data.
    • Be suspicious of odd grammatical mistakes, poor graphic quality, or offers that seem too good to be true.
    • Don’t trust emails that say, “Your account will be suspended unless you log in now”—and don’t click on that link or enter any account information! Go directly to the company’s website instead.
    • If you do open a suspicious link by accident, shut down the device immediately.
  1. Educate your employees. A number of companies (including Duo & Wombat) now enable you to send simulated phishing emails to groups of employees to see how they respond, then train them accordingly. It’s particularly critical to train your finance department—they’ll be the most common targets of these attacks, as cybercriminals aim to hijack your financial information and gain access to your funds.
Is that weird email a phishing scam? Learn how to recognize dangerous emails on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet

Tip #8: Bring in Experts

Hire IT & security staff, whether full-time or as contractors. They’ll review any existing data breach prevention measures that you have in place, make recommendations for how to improve your standing, and make any necessary upgrades that you can’t take care of yourself. It’s important to admit where your expertise may fall short when it comes to data breach prevention. Investing in data breach prevention efforts costs far less in the long-term than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

Our security expert recommends forming a co-op with other small businesses and jointly hiring a staff of experts to attend to your issues.

Tip #9: Iron Out Your Vendor SLAs

What happens if a vendor that you work with has a security breach—and your customer data is involved?

As a vital part of your data breach prevention efforts, you should update all of your third party contracts to specify who’s responsible for protecting your company’s data. Just because a supplier is directly handling or storing your data does not mean that you’re off the hook in the event of a breach. You’re the one who chose to place your tenants’ and employees’ data in their hands—so they’ll go straight to you with their complaints.

Have these tough conversations about data breach prevention before you sign on the dotted line. Have a lawyer review all contracts—those that you’ve already signed, as well as those that you’re considering. Have each supplier’s security practices audited to make sure that they’re actually following the protocol that your contract lays out. You’re not being nosy or accusatory—you’re protecting your company. If they don’t have strict data breach prevention measures in place, you should absolutely reconsider your relationship with them. After all, even if you’re not held liable for a data breach on their end, it’s your company whose name will be dragged through the mud.

Multifamily Executive advises:

“Contractual provisions that detail how your suppliers protect sensitive information and address data breaches should be strongly negotiated by both parties to ensure the agreements reflect the realities of today’s challenging cyber landscape. […] This can be achieved through a data security questionnaire or a formal [request for proposal] process that requires suppliers to provide specific information on these issues. Clients may also ask for any assessments the suppliers have conducted (and the results and mitigation plan) or certifications they may have. […] Apartment firms should establish an internal review process to ensure that adequate protections are included in all supplier contracts that have the potential to deal with sensitive information. […] Your contract provisions should have explicit details on:

  • Data use approval and sharing obligations
  • Data security and privacy standards
  • Accountability and liability
  • Breach notification obligations and disclosures
  • Investigation cooperation expectations
  • Indemnification
  • Compliance audits
  • Cyber insurance requirements”
If a vendor you work with has a data breach, are you liable? Find the answer on the #BuildiumBlog! Click To Tweet

Tip #10: Consider Cyber Liability Insurance

This is an area of insurance that is rapidly evolving to cover the risks of doing business in our hyper-connected world. Insurance companies can’t adapt to changing technologies at the pace that they need to, but some coverage in this area is likely better than nothing. General liability insurance typically won’t cover the impacts of a data breach on your company. The closest that standard policies come to covering these events is providing business interruption insurance, which still comes up short.

Data breach prevention is a topic worth discussing with your insurance provider. Experts advise that if the subject has never come up, it’s safe to say that you’re not covered for anything.

Tip #11: Fight Data Breach Fatigue

We’ve all been inundated with headlines about cyberattacks in recent years; and it’s simultaneously made us paranoid and complacent about our own security. There’s a phenomenon known as “breach fatigue” that describes the way that our reactions to data breaches shift over time, gradually devolving from outright panic to apathy. We all have to consciously fight this instinct, especially as business owners—because, as Consumer Affairs reminds us:

“Such an attitude only benefits the hackers. It’s one thing to deal with breach fatigue by deciding ‘To heck with these hackable credit cards, I’ll just use cash,’ but another matter entirely to deal with it by deciding ‘I’ll continue using credit cards, but I can’t be bothered to check whether they’ve been breached or not.’ Various forms of ‘can’t be bothered’ fatigue is exactly what certain types of scammers count on to make their dishonest profits. […] Yes, you’re tired of all those reminders to inspect your credit card statements and look for fraudulent charges and change your account numbers and passwords every time a hacker might’ve seen the old ones. But hackers and scammers want you to feel this way. Their intention is to spy on or steal from you, and if you give in to breach fatigue, you’ll only make it easier for them to succeed.”

Read it on the #BuildiumBlog: Cybersecurity 101 for property managers & landlords! Click To Tweet Read more on Team
Robin Young

As Buildium’s Senior Researcher, Robin leverages her background in social science research and interest in real estate economics to identify trends in the rental market. She combines intensive market research with insights gleaned from surveys of property managers, renters, and rental owners to examine topics like shifting renter demographics, the housing affordability crisis, and the transformation of property management during the pandemic. She's best known as the author of the annual State of the Property Management Industry Report.

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