The Anatomy of a Cyber-Attack

The threat of cyber-attacks poses significant challenges to businesses of all sizes and industries. These incidents are not just nuisances; they can lead to substantial financial losses, damage to reputation, and even legal consequences. To safeguard against these threats, it’s vital for businesses to comprehend how cyber-attacks unfold.

By understanding their anatomy, organisations can take informed measures to prevent them. In this article, we will unpack the stages and costs of cyber-attacks, and explore strategies to shield your business from potential harm.

Common Cyber-Attacks and How They Work


Phishing is a deceptive technique where attackers pose as trustworthy entities, often via email, to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information. These emails may contain malicious links or attachments, or they might direct users to fake websites that mirror legitimate ones, all with the aim of capturing login credentials or other vital data.


Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts a victim’s files, rendering them inaccessible. The attacker then demands a ransom from the victim to decrypt the files. If the ransom isn’t paid, the victim risks permanent data loss.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)

In a DDoS attack, multiple compromised systems – often botnets – are used to target a single system, overloading a website or online service. This flood of incoming traffic overwhelms the system, causing it to crash.

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM)

MitM attacks occur when attackers secretly intercept and relay communication between two parties. This can happen in unsecured public Wi-Fi networks where attackers can eavesdrop on the data being sent or received.

SQL Injection

This attack targets databases using malicious SQL code. Attackers exploit vulnerabilities in a website’s code to force the site to reveal information from its database, which can include customer data or login credentials.


Malware is an umbrella term for various malicious software, including viruses, worms, and spyware. These programs can steal data, monitor user activities, or disrupt computer operations.

Zero-Day Exploits

These are attacks targeting vulnerabilities in software that are unknown to the software provider. Since the vulnerability isn’t known, there’s no fix available, making these attacks particularly dangerous.

Drive-By Downloads

These occur when a user visits a compromised website, and without their knowledge, a malicious software is automatically downloaded to their device. This can happen without any user interaction or even clicking on anything.

The Cost of Cyber-Attacks

Cyber-attacks are not just a technical challenge; they have real-world consequences for businesses. The impacts can be immediate and long-lasting, affecting various facets of a company’s operations. IBM reports that the average cost of a cyber-attack in Australia has grown by 32% in the last five years, reaching AUD$4.03 million in 2023.

This financial damage can result in several ways. Ransomware attacks may demand payment to unlock vital business data, or data breaches can lead to fines, especially if personal customer data is compromised. There’s also the cost of rectifying the breach, which includes system repairs and potential compensation to affected parties.

Another severe consequence is a loss of customer trust. The fallout from a security breach may lead to customers, partners, or vendors leaving, and can have a lasting impact on a company’s reputation.

Businesses have a legal obligation to protect customer data, and a breach can lead to legal penalties, especially if it’s found that the business was negligent in its cyber security practices. In Australia, the Notifiable Data Breach (NDB) scheme requires businesses to report certain data breaches, with potential penalties for non-compliance – lawsuits and fines, for instance.

Breakdown of a Cyber-Attack

1. Reconnaissance

Before launching an attack, cybercriminals often spend time gathering information about their target. This phase involves researching a business’s online presence, understanding the software they use, and even studying their patterns of online behaviour. The more data they collect, the more tailored and effective the attack can be.

2. Weaponisation

Once they’ve gathered enough information, attackers move to the weaponisation phase. Here, they will develop an attack method they believe will best infiltrate the business’s defences based on knowledge gathered during the recon phase. For example, they may exploit software or system vulnerabilities, or craft phishing emails that target the employees.

3. Delivery

Attackers then need a way to deliver the attack to the target. If it’s a phishing attack, a deceptive email will be sent to trick recipients into downloading attachments or clicking links. They may infect websites that automatically download malware when visited, or even send physical devices like infected USB drives.

4. Exploitation

When the malware reaches its target, it seeks out vulnerabilities in the system to exploit. These can be gaps in software security, outdated systems, or the right employee.

5. Installation

Upon successful exploitation, the malware instals itself on the victim’s system. It can then operate undetected, gathering data, or preparing for further malicious actions.

6. Command and Control

Most sophisticated malware needs a way to communicate with its creator. In this phase, the installed malware establishes a link to an external server, allowing attackers to control the compromised system remotely, often without the victim’s knowledge.

7. Actions on Objectives

This is the endgame for cyber-attackers. Depending on their goals, they may start stealing sensitive data, locking up systems and demanding ransoms, or causing other types of damage or disruption to business operations.

Protective Measures to Prevent Cyber-Attacks

Regular System Updates

Software developers frequently release updates to patch known vulnerabilities. By keeping all software, operating systems, and applications up-to-date, you minimise the risk of attackers exploiting outdated systems.

Employee Training

Many cyber-attacks, like phishing, prey on human error or trust. Equip your team with the knowledge to recognise suspicious activities through regular workshops and training sessions to keep their skills sharp.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Using multiple forms of verification ensures that if an attacker gains login credentials, they’ll need another form of authentication, like an authentication app or fingerprint, to access the system.

Firewalls and Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS)

Firewalls act as barriers between your network and potential threats from the internet, while an IDS monitors network traffic for suspicious activities, alerting you to any potential breaches.

Regular Backups

Ensure you have a routine backup system in place. Store copies of essential data in multiple locations, including off-site and in the cloud. In the event of data loss from an attack like ransomware, backups allow for quick recovery and business continuity.

Vulnerability Assessments

Regularly evaluating your systems for potential weaknesses gives you a chance to address them before attackers can exploit them. This can be done using automated tools or by hiring cyber security professionals.

Access Controls

Not every employee needs access to all information. Assign access rights based on roles, so individuals can only access the data necessary to do their jobs.

Data Encryption

Encrypt all data when at rest and in transit. Encryption scrambles data and makes it unreadable without the decryption key, ensuring that even if intercepted, unauthorised parties can’t understand it.

Strong Password Policies

Implement a strong password policy that encourages employees to change passwords regularly and use strong, unique combinations.

Stay Secure Against Cyber-Attackers with Expert Support

Understanding how cyber-attacks work is only the first step in preventing them. Implementing the right cyber security solutions and continuously adapting will enable your business to counter challenges as they evolve.

Pronet is a leading provider of cyber security solutions, from basic monitoring and vulnerability assessments, to security awareness training and disaster recovery. We’re dedicated to delivering the comprehensive protection and insights needed to keep your operations secure. Reach out to us today for a free consultation.

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