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A Guide to E-commerce Website Security


E-commerce website security is a vital element of any online business. Aside from the fact that a chink in your armour could be costly in terms of income, reputational damage can be even greater. It is extremely important to invest in e-commerce website security and continue to monitor and update going forward. 

Scammers and fraudsters are getting increasingly innovative and any e-commerce website could come under attack from numerous angles. 

E-commerce website security should be considered in a similar fashion to home security. Unless each of your windows and doors are locked, there is a potential entry point for uninvited third parties. Just one weak element in your website security could turn out to be extremely damaging.

Why is website security especially important in an e-commerce context?

Growth in online retail has increased dramatically in recent times, as you can see from the graph below. At the turn-of-the-century, e-commerce sales accounted for just 0.8% of overall retail sales. By the middle of 2020 this figure was 16.1%, with a sharp increase on the back of the coronavirus pandemic. E-commerce sales in the second quarter of 2020 came in at $212 billion, a huge amount of money and one which is expected to continue growing in the coming years.

Source: Statista

Any service or retail business will live and die by their reputation. The situation is even more acute when it comes to online e-commerce operations. A client data hack, compromised website or inability to identify potentially fraudulent activity can ruin a business reputation overnight. However, e-commerce companies such as Amazon continue to lead the way with impressive annual recurring revenue as you can see from the chart below.

What threats do e-commerce websites need to protect themselves from?

There are many threats to be aware of when looking to secure your e-commerce website. Keeping pace with the fraudsters and scammers is not easy. Some of the more common threats to e-commerce websites include:

SQL injection

While this sounds very complicated, it is very easy to carry out but also very easy to protect against. It is simply a case of monitoring the input of unexplained SQL injection commands. These commands allow attackers to communicate with your website databases. For example, you may have seen a number of bizarre commands in your website form pages. These tend to be structured in such a manner as to prompt your database to carry out a particular action, which could be anything from destroying information to allowing hackers access to your website.

Cross-site scripting

Cross-site scripting has been a major issue for many websites in recent times. This is basically the posting of executable code into the comments section of a blog post. If your security is not able to filter out such executable code, there could be serious consequences. Once access to the backend has been gained, the hackers can then download an array of restricted information. Updating your site and server modules, together with constant scanning of your website, will help you avoid such issues.

Brute force attacks

While there are some extremely complex hacking strategies today, brute force attacks are still as effective as any. Using complex computer networks, brute force attacks will use common passwords to try and gain access to the inner workings of your site. There are a number of actions you can take to combat brute force attacks such as:-

  • Use passwords containing random numbers, letters and symbols
  • Introduce two-factor authentication
  • Add captcha code to deter hackers
  • Change your passwords on a regular basis

As the term suggests, brute force attacks are extremely basic but can be very effective if you fail to introduce even the simplest security measures.

DoS and DDoS attacks

Denial of Service (DoS) and Distributed DoS attacks (DDoS) will flood your server with junk traffic and spam. The idea is simple; overload your server, crash your website while looking for additional security flaws to gain access via the back door. Due to the use of bots, DoS and DDoS attacks can last many hours and cause serious problems. There are ways and means of protecting your website, such as using filters to redirect junk traffic requests. Just make sure you use them!

Online fraud

While hacking strategies have become more innovative, old-fashioned online fraud is still alive and kicking. Despite the availability of fraud detection software, many e-commerce websites still suffer from chargeback fraud. The fraudster will acquire goods from your website, enter their payment details but then immediately request a chargeback from their bank. Unless there is fraud detection software, the chances are the goods will be dispatched before you are even aware of the chargeback. 

Considering the massive growth in cybercrime complaints in recent years, this is definitely something e-commerce websites need to keep an eye out for.

Source: Insurance Information Institute

Tips to best secure your e-commerce website

There are many simple actions you can take to improve the security of your e-commerce website. In isolation these actions are helpful, but the cumulative impact can be huge. There are many things to consider such as:

Secure hosting server

Whether you are using shared hosting, a virtual private server, cloud hosting or a dedicated server, a secure server is a vital part of any business. Some of the vital elements to a secure server include:

  • Enhanced e-commerce SSL certificates
  • HTTPS platform as opposed to the unsecure HTTP
  • Strong firewall
  • Server to browser encryption
  • Traffic filter to combat DoS attacks
  • Monitoring website traffic

These are issues you need to discuss with your web hosting provider, but in the modern era they are standard for e-commerce businesses. Many companies will robustly test their e-commerce websites before release, by what are known as usability tests. While these tests can be carried out in person, there is a modern trend towards remote usability testing. This ensures that a wider audience is able to test the security of your website without any influence.

Use third-party payment processing systems

Over the last few years there has been a strong trend towards regulations to protect customer data. The CCPA guide gives an insight into the new California Consumer Protection Act. This is the US equivalent of European General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) which came into effect in May 2018. Together these acts create regulations and financial penalties for companies who do not protect their customer data. One important element of customer information is payment processing data, which can prove costly in the wrong hands.

Therefore, using third-party payment processing systems means that no financial data is held on your server. In effect you are utilising the extremely secure systems used by modern day payment processing companies. However, general account data for your clients is still covered by the new regulations. It is not just the potential financial penalties to think of; overnight you could lose a reputation it took you years to build.

Change your passwords on a regular basis

We all know we need to change our passwords on a regular basis, so why don’t we? Simple, it is one of those things we assume will never happen to us. However, there are many e-commerce businesses out there which have crashed and burned due to this simple oversight. So, when installing a new e-commerce shopping cart, design for your website or eye-catching widget, change the default password immediately. It could happen to you!

When it comes to guessing passwords for your website, customer accounts, bank accounts and any others online services, where do you think the fraudsters might look? A quick browse through your social media account might tell everybody:

  • Your pet’s name
  • Your parent’s name
  • Your favourite football team
  • Partner’s name

Have you ever come across one of the many social media quiz widgets? Ever wondered what they were for? Well, next time you see one, take a closer look at the questions they ask. Do you think any of the answers could be used to guess your passwords?

Make sure to make regular backups

There are so many automated systems around today, that there is no excuse for not making regular backups of your website. You often find many web hosting companies now do this as standard-it is in their best interests for you to continue trading and paying hosting fees. However, while in the past a simple backup was all that was required, the situation is somewhat different today.

The vast majority of e-commerce companies now hold their website backups (many of them taken daily) on third-party servers. This ensures that in the event that your website server was to crash, losing all data, there would still be a recent backup held separately and safely.

The world of e-commerce is littered with companies that failed to take this simple action, often paying the ultimate price. The frequency of your backups will depend upon the size and volume of business carried out. However, assuming your backups are relatively frequent, restoring your website from your most recent backup will have you back up and running in no time.

Ensure all communication is encrypted

When a user logs onto your website, there is a raft of information passed between the browser and your website server. It is extremely important that this data is encrypted. This will help to avoid what are known as man in the middle attacks or third man interceptions, which are strategies used by hackers to intercept private and confidential data, passed between customers and e-commerce websites.

Some of this data may include credit card details, bank account data and other sensitive financial information. The problem with this type of hack is that you will never know it has happened, until your bank account has been cleared!

Keeping the E-commerce World Secure

The huge growth we have seen in the e-commerce sector is set to continue. As a consequence, this area of the online marketplace has become a magnet for hackers and scammers. It is a constant battle for e-commerce websites to stay one step ahead of the criminal gangs.

There is no smoking gun when it comes to e-commerce website security. There are many simple actions you can take which will make a difference. However, the key to your long-term protection is the cumulative impact of these actions and staying abreast of the top e-commerce security trends. If that’s something a little out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to to leave it to the experts!

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