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Nasty things began happening at Jones & Wenner not long after the Fairlawn, Ohio, insurance brokerage decided it had grown large enough to handle company e-mail in-house.
The free Web mail services the firm's 20 employees had used to conduct business no longer cut it. So the company purchased a Microsoft Outlook Exchange e-mail server.
Within weeks, e-mail spam began to inundate each employee's in-box, much of it carrying viral attachments or links to poisoned Web pages, recalls Joyce Sigler, Jones & Wenner's information technology vice president.
"We caught a virus that actually moved from one machine to another," Sigler says. "Someone just opened something they shouldn't have opened."
For companies like Jones & Wenner, the Internet is a powerful enabler of new efficiencies. But it also exposes them to savvy and persistent cybercriminals seeking weak prey.
Some attackers specialize in breaching company websites to pilfer business documents and customer information. Others are expert at poisoning a company's Web pages as a means to infect and take control of visitors' PCs.
Small and midsize businesses — so-called SMBs, those with five to 5,000 employees — face a heightened risk, because many lack the wherewithal to recover from the long-run consequences of a serious breach, says Lawrence Pingree, research director at technology research firm Gartner. So SMBs have begun to increase spending on specialized help to shore up security in basic areas, including spam filtering, website defenses, data encryption and basic anti-virus protection.
Global spending on security equipment and software by companies of all sizes is in the midst of a multiyear run of 8.9% annual growth — and is projected to rise to $85.8 billion in 2016, up from $56 billion in 2011, despite a sputtering economy, according to Gartner.
"Security spending tends to be resilient in bad economic times, as bad economics typically lead to higher rates of fraud and criminal activities," Pingree says. "Most companies continue to enhance security measures against adaptive and more heavily targeted attacks."
Sigler, for example, had to rebuild the operating systems of several corrupted PCs, causing downtime for workers who depend on their machines to provide customer service and interact with partner insurance carriers.
She went shopping for help and found AppRiver, a Gulf Breeze, Fla.-based company that filters spam and provides other hosted security services for some 45,000 clients, mostly smaller companies.
The insurance firm now routes all of its incoming e-mail to AppRiver for cleansing. "It's like night and day," Sigler says. "We're about selling insurance, so that's not really where we wanted to spend our time."
Spammers aren't expected to relent anytime soon. In the first six months of this year, spam accounted for 82% of all e-mail traffic, and the number of new viruses carried in e-mail spam continues to climb, according to AppRiver.