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How to Implement Security Awareness and Training Across Your Financial Firm

According to the 2023 IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index, the finance industry is among the five most-attacked sectors of the global economy. Now, the 2024 cyber threat landscape suggests that the financial services industry is increasingly susceptible to security incidents caused by phishing, social engineering, and other methods that exploit human error.

“People remain—by far—the weakest link in an organization’s cybersecurity defenses,” according to Verizon in their 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report. In financial services, it’s critical firms have a comprehensive security awareness and training program in place that can both prepare them for new cyber threats and ensure they practice good cyber hygiene in their day-to-day work.

In this article, we provide an overview of the importance of security awareness and training in the financial services industry. We also provide an analysis of cybersecurity threats for which financial firms need to prepare, with a step-by-step guide for implementing successful security awareness and training across their departments and teams.

More Cybercriminals Are Targeting Financial Firms

The financial services industry is one of the most breached industries in the world, where financial institutions paid $5.97 million for each breach on average, Banking Exchange reports. Countless attacks have been the result of human errors—not among security professionals; among regular employees.

For example, malicious actors take advantage of workers’ misuse of technologies—such as cloud-based applications and shared storage solutions—to gain access to sensitive data. Employees’ use of personal devices—such as laptops or smartphones—may also create opportunities for attackers to exploit.

In 2024, the financial services industry is likely to see more sophisticated attacks from cybercriminals. More and more, these attacks are subtle and simple to execute—they arrive in the form of unsuspecting emails, links to malicious websites, or phishing attempts. These methods are effective; they cast a wide net across an organization where only one simple mistake is required for the attack to succeed.

Why All Your Employees Matter

Ultimately, 82% of breaches across industries originate from “the human element,” says Verizon, which describes the errors and vulnerabilities associated with non-security teams. Ignorance, carelessness, and even apathy can make a breach all the more likely. For example, employees can:

  • open malicious emails and click on infected links
  • forward sensitive information when prompted by a convincing third-party
  • access company digital resources via unsecured networks
  • use unapproved devices or outdated applications
  • circumvent security measures for the sake of convenience

One of these missteps can quickly become an enterprise-wide incident, exposing the entire organization to losses, costly penalties, and reputation damage. What’s more, investment in security expertise and software alone cannot prevent employees from making these mistakes. That’s why security awareness and training are at the foundation of cyberattack prevention—for all team members, not just security professionals.

Key Elements of Successful Awareness and Training

Fortunately, “the idea of cyber hygiene is surprisingly straightforward,” says Banking Exchange. “It entails a number of measures and practices that, when consistently followed, keep us safe and our devices functioning as they should.” Formalizing how you discuss security awareness with staff and implementing a specific set of practices can help your organization stay protected.

Here we consider the key components of effective security preparations, and why they’re critical to any financial firm:

  • Risk & Outcome Awareness. Employees should understand the potential risks of their online activities, and how those risks may affect their job or the business. Training should emphasize the potential consequences of cyberattacks and data breaches, as well as information on current threats in the industry.
  • Security Procedures & Protocols. Employees must understand their organization’s specific security protocols and policies, such as how to identify and report suspicious activity, use strong passwords, and maintain physical security in the office.
  • Data Security Practices. All team members should understand the importance of data integrity and privacy, as well as their organization’s specific policies around handling customer information. These practices may include how to securely store documents, how to share files or content with third parties, or what protocols must be followed for data disposal.
  • Sharing Threat Intelligence. Employees need relevant threat intelligence and updates on the latest trends in cybercrime. This should include details about specific strategies used by malicious actors, such as phishing, ransomware, or other types of attacks.

These are goals which financial firms can target as they prepare to roll out their security awareness and training programs. But training efforts themselves must be strategic and ongoing—otherwise, security priorities quickly fade from employees’ memories as they continue to take on their primary responsibilities.

5 Steps for Successful Security and Awareness at Your Financial Firm

Now that we’ve established the crucial role of security in the financial sector, let’s consider practical implementation. In the following section, we guide you through a step-by-step strategy for rolling out a successful security awareness and training program at your financial firm.

Step 1: Form a committee to assess the current state of security awareness.

Financial services leaders can begin by taking a holistic look at the current state of security awareness in their organization. They should begin by forming a committee to lead the security awareness assessment, as well as develop a deep understanding of the industry’s latest security best practices. This means consulting HR, IT, and other departments to identify any existing or potential gaps in understanding and knowledge on the subject.

Employee surveys, interviews with security teams and team members from different departments, and exercises featuring common incidents are just some of the initiatives the committee can prioritize as part of the assessment. Company stakeholders can partner with a financial services security specialist to develop the appropriate methodologies and approaches to ensure their efforts yield results.

Step 2: Develop a comprehensive training program.

With the outcomes of their assessment on hand, the committee should develop a comprehensive security training program that helps employees understand modern security threats, how those threats relate to them, and best practices for protecting themselves and the organization. 

The committee should begin by prioritizing groups that are most responsible for protecting sensitive records, such as security teams, senior executives, and any team or department that has already suffered a breach attempt.

With the support of a third-party specialist, the committee can develop training materials that cover elements such as password safety, anti-phishing best practices, approaches to malware protection, and secure information disposal.

Step 3: Implement the training program with stakeholder support.

Once the training program is in place, the committee should work to roll it out across all departments. This will require engaging stakeholders from different teams and levels of the organization, such as IT security, HR, Communications, and Legal.

“Educating teams through end user training, social engineering awareness campaigns, and human vulnerability testing with simulated phishing attacks empowers all members of an organization to understand their role in cybersecurity,” As Crain Communications describes.

Step 4: Schedule regular format assessments and updates in response to emerging threats.

Security stakeholders should schedule regular assessments of the new awareness and training program, and update materials in response to emerging threats. This may involve holding both new and “refresher” courses or simulations where employees can practice their understanding of security best practices. This will help them stay vigilant and aware of potential threats, as well as any changes to security policies. A third-party expert will be well-positioned to help develop the specifics of these plans, in each instance and on an ongoing basis.

Step 5: Commit to continued employee evaluation and improvement.

Once the committee has established its program and scheduled its recurring assessments and updates, The committee and its partners should establish appropriate metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of their security awareness and training program.

Not only will this help identify where new materials or refresher courses are needed, but it can also be used as an opportunity to reward employees for their mastery of best practices and general compliance with security protocols. This may involve features such as gamification, awards, or other incentives—all of which have been proven to be effective in motivating employees to stay vigilant and aware.

By taking a proactive approach to security awareness, financial firms can ensure their teams are prepared for the latest cyber threats. With the right strategies and tools in place, they can create an environment of informed compliance and secure operations that safeguards their organization against data breaches and malicious actors.

You’re Not Alone, and Neither Are Your Teams

It’s common to feel overwhelmed by security awareness and training efforts; but keep in mind, business leaders everywhere share this challenge. What’s critical is that leaders at financial firms communicate to their employees that they too aren’t alone in this cybersecurity journey. With the support of your company leaders, your firm can create a robust safety net, reinforcing the collective efforts required to fortify your company against escalating cyber threats.

Partner with Option One Technologies for Your Cybersecurity Initiatives

Option One Technologies specializes in cybersecurity technology, training, and consulting for the financial services industry. Contact us today for more information or assistance on implementing security awareness and training at your firm.