It seems like every day word comes of a new cyber attack or data breach involving a major corporation or government agency. These breaches not only put consumers and their private information (social security numbers, birthdates, addresses, etc.) at risk, but they also can cost affected companies millions of dollars. While the student housing industry has yet to see a major cyber security breach, we must make sure we are taking steps to protect our data and our residents’ private information from cyber thieves.
These data breaches have a cost — not just to consumers but also to companies. A 2015 study conducted by the Ponemon Institute and sponsored by IBM surveyed 64 U.S. companies and found that, on average, a single breach involved nearly 30,000 records. The total average cost of a single data breach in the United States was $7.01 million while the cost of just a single record’s loss or theft came in at $221.
Student housing and property management companies gather confidential information during the rental application stage, so it is very important that this information is handled appropriately and kept secure at all times. Because of this, one of our industry’s biggest concerns is taking steps to protect that information from being compromised. Our company, Asset Campus Housing, takes cyber security very seriously and is continually looking at our security systems on our server, in-house systems and third-party vendors.
Paper rental applications are easy to safeguard by exercising normal precautions such as keeping locked file cabinets in locked offices. However, with our current use of technology to accept and process resident applications, it is more difficult to have complete control of the security of the data. The skill of current hackers makes it critical that all precautions possible are used to protect our data. This involves securing our servers and also vetting any software used during the rental process to make sure it also provides security for the data. Part of this process is to make sure the software used encrypts sensitive data such as social security numbers.
When choosing property management software such as Entrata, which is what we use, you need to look for a software platform in which maintaining the security of its platform and of its clients’ data is an ongoing priority. Make sure sensitive information (i.e., personal identifying information, banking account, billing information and credit card information) is encrypted and that the vendor holds current third-party certifications from SOC 1, PCI and EI3PA. These certifications include annual internal and external penetration tests, as well as comprehensive audits of policy and security controls.
Other steps student and multifamily housing companies should take to help protect them and their data from cyber security threats include:
- Invest in Virus Protection Software — Invest in the best virus protection software you can to help prevent unauthorized access to your system and data.
- Provide Secure Access for Employees — Maintain firewalls and also make sure employees working remotely have firewalls and encrypted access to the internet. Never use free Wi-Fi on company computers. Free Wi-Fi at hotels and airports is a prime location for unauthorized access to your system. Traveling employees should have hot spots with encrypted password access to help guard against security breaches away from the office.
- Limit the Installation of New Software — Make sure all company-issued computers have restricted access to installing software. This helps prevent employees from accidentally installing programs with malware or viruses that can affect the whole network.
- Train Your Staff in Safe Internet Use — Educate your employees on safe practices, including warning signs to watch for.
- Hire a Good IT Team — You need someone on staff who has a complete understanding of areas vulnerable to attack, both internal and external. The role of the IT person has grown into one not only of supporting systems but safeguarding the company from a cyber attack.
- Back up, Back up, Back up — Make frequent backups of your data and store offsite.
Data security is probably one of the more important areas all companies need to be looking at in this day and time. With the sophisticated hackers out there, we have to constantly try to improve and increase security of the data entrusted to all of us by our clients.
As senior vice president at Asset Campus Housing, Wanda Norrick supervises the project management team, which is tasked with finding and vetting new products in an effort to stay on the cutting edge in the student housing industry, training staff on software systems and managing the back-end of the company’s software platforms.