Businesses are more worried about the risk of suffering cyber attacks than they are the aftermath of leaving the European Union under Brexit.
A regional survey of 500 bosses of small to medium enterprises, known as SMEs, revealed that almost a third more identified online security as a greater fear than exiting the EU.
The findings were made by the North-East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) in a questionnaire to its members with workforces of up to around 250 staff.
Feedback also revealed that SMEs fear they are targets for hackers because they don’t have the IT departments that larger organisations employ to deter cyber criminals.
Ben Powick, a policy advisor at the chamber, said: “We had a survey of around 500 businesses, and 44 per cent came back saying that cyber crime was a concern, while 34 per cent said Brexit.
“That says a lot about how deeply members feel about cyber crime, because they certainly have passionate opinions about Brexit.”
Mr Powick added: “While larger companies are not immune from attack, quite often they have the IT departments to repel any attacks immediately without suffering any damage to their systems or losing data.
“With SMEs, the internet is still a vital part of what they do in so many ways, although a firm with only five or six staff won’t necessarily have the resources to protect themselves in the way larger companies do.”
With cyber criminals using improved software to select targets, smaller businesses are among their new prey.
One recent example saw a Hartlepool business contacted by email from fraudsters pretending to be representing Microsoft - which in reality does not make unsolicited contact - asking for login details.
Once they had these, they monitored emails from customers, deleting them before the victim saw them and responding to them with a request to direct payments to a new account.
Detective Constable Ian Turnbull, from Cleveland Police’s cyber-unit, said: “The business lost several days’ business until they started receiving complaints from customers about failed services.”
Impersonating or taking over an email address is known as “spoofing”, while ransomware demands, in which attackers paralyse computer systems and ask for payment to unfreeze them, are another concern.
Mr Howick added: “Seventy-five per cent of SMEs national report some sort of breach nationally, and I don’t think the North-East is any different to anywhere else.
“While I don’t know of any horror stories as such, what we say to members who find themselves a victim of an attack such as ransomware is to not give in to any request for money and to contact us.
“We have members who are IT experts who can support them. The advice might be free at first and then tailored at a cost to what they require, but don’t give in without seeking help.”
The NECC, which represents around 4,000 businesses in the region, has also negotiated a £25 discount for members off the cost of Cyber Essentials.
Often described as a “cyber MOT” for both businesses and its customers, the Government-backed scheme sees accredited bodies ensure that business computer systems meet robust standards in five separate areas.
These cover boundary firewalls, secure configuration, user access control, malware protection and patch management.
Prices normally start from around £300, depending on the type of certification a firm requires, with one advantage being that approved businesses can apply for Government contracts.
Further details are available by telephoning (01494) 452450 or email@example.com.