Computer Crisis

Here's how to protect your computer system and electronic information from disasters - both natural and manmade.

With our heavy reliance on computers and electronic information today, it's easy to see why we would be worried about keeping our data safe. Natural disasters, information theft or even mechanical failures of the computer system can wreak havoc on your rental business operations. What's the best way to stay protected and keep your data intact and your operations running smoothly?

Twenty years ago, when business records were kept on paper documents and in ledgers, it was easy for a rental business to protect and secure its information in locked, fireproof files and safes. There was little risk of wholesale record theft, primarily because of the volume of the records. With the advent of computers, however, new risks have developed.

"If your rental business uses a comprehensive rental computer system, all of your financial data resides in your computer," says Jack Shea, president of Solutions by Computer (SBC) Inc. "This information includes rental inventory quantities, costs and status information, customer invoices, accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, history records, equipment out on rent, reservation information, special customer rates and so on.

"Think of what you would have to go through to replace those records if you had no backups, and your computer was completely destroyed in a fire," he continues. "It would take hundreds of hours to reconstruct the information, if it were possible at all."

And if someone - a just-fired employee, for example - stole the information, not only do you lose the information, but you put your customers at risk as well.

There are two ways for rental businesses to protect their data. The first is by making sure they have a backup process. "With a backup process in place, being able to recover data in the case of a mechanical or natural disaster is important to the success of your business," says Tim Kennedy, vice president of development and support for WennSoft.

The second is to protect the customers and the company from electronic attacks. "Electronic attacks are difficult to deal with and they can cost money, but they are a reality for this industry," continues Kennedy. "Being protected against these threats will help protect your business so you can stay in business."

Backup basics

Taking steps to ensure that you can keep your rental business running in the event of a natural disaster - be it tornado, hurricane, flood or fire - or even a mechanical failure is an important operational function for your company.

According to Bob Shaffer with Point-of-Rental Systems, all permanently stored data in your computer system is on the "hard" drive. This drive uses magnetic platters that revolve up to 15,000 rpm to store data. Magnetic sensors situated a few microns over the platters scan the surface reading and writing data.

"Hey, it's mechanical," he explains. "Given time, something bad might happen, resulting in a disk ‘crash' and irretrievable data. If you have a recent backup of all the data on the drive, just install the new disk drive and transfer the data from the backup. If you don't have a backup, then all your programs, customers, inventory, history and transactions are gone."

While each computer system has its own method of securing its backup system, there are various media storage options to back up data. According to Shea with SBC, the most commonly used backup systems are tape drives. "These are economical, self-contained units that can store up to eight gigabytes of data on a single tape," he says. "They offer flexible scheduling, verification of data and reporting. Most businesses schedule these procedures to run overnight."

Some computer systems provide ongoing duplication of computer data. Redundant Array of Independent Drives (RAID) can be two independent disk drives set up to mirror one another. "If one of these drives ‘crash' you won't miss a beat since the other in all probability works," says Shaffer with Point-of-Rental. "In that case, simply replace the defective unit and you're ready for the next ‘crash.'

"But with a RAID, you could be in trouble in the event of a fire or natural disaster, since the backup is internal to the server. So, even if a RAID is set up, you should still make a backup on removable media, like a tape."

Other backup options include CD-RW (read and write), DVDs, and even backup services, that download information from your disk over the Internet and store it in their data center.

Shea warns, however, that no matter how you choose to back up your data, don't make the mistake of assuming your backups are valid.

"The backup process involves electronic and mechanical devices that can fail - and they don't always tell you they've failed," he explains. "Most systems provide utility programs that automatically verify data and produce a backup log listing each file backed up and noting any errors that occurred. These logs should be checked meticulously for signs of errors. Various methods of verifying backups exist, with the most reliable being those that actually read back the archived data and compare to the original records in your computer."

How often should you back up your electronic information? "Backups should be performed depending on the volume of business and the tolerance and resources a company has for rebuilding data," says Kennedy with WennSoft. He recommends, at a minimum, backups should be performed on a weekly basis. "The longer the time in between each backup, the more vulnerable your data becomes," he says.

Shea with SBC recommends that rental businesses back up each night. That way, in the case of a natural disaster or mechanical failure, the "data breach" is only a day or less. "Even that can amount to a lot of work to replicate, but it's a lot better than having to go back a week, a month or more," he says.

Shea also points out that the ease of copying and restoring computerized information is a benefit to rental businesses in the event of a disaster or system failure. However it raises a new risk.

"An unauthorized person could take one of your backups and get access to all of the financial information about your business," he warns. "Imagine a disgruntled employee who quits and manages to take one of your backup tapes to his new employer - your fiercest competitor. Never let backups lie around the office - secure them."

Backups on removable media, such as tape, CD or DVD, should be stored off-site. Another option is to purchase a media data safe to store it in. "This is basically a fireproof safe for backup tapes," says Shaffer. "Note, however, that a standard fireproof safe isn't sufficient since it's designed to protect paper. Since plastic melts at a lower temperature than paper burns, it won't protect your backup tapes in a fire."

Electronic attacks

Information and identity theft are major concerns in today's electronic world. At your rental business, the primary risk is theft of the personal information of your customers that is stored on your computer system. Every rental transaction must record the identity of the renter and, in some cases, the credit card information.

"As a common sense business practice, your rental computer system should provide safeguards against unauthorized use of customer information," says Shea with SBC.

When a rental business is evaluating security settings, it's important to realize that both external and internal factors need to be considered. Making sure you maintain control of who has access to what information internally is just as vital as keeping those who are not company employees out of your system.

Log-on security and password protection are the basic methods of protecting data in a computer. Various individual functions can be password-protected to prevent unauthorized people from accessing sensitive data that is not necessary to their job.

"For example," notes Kennedy with WennSoft, "there might be one or two employees who make price changes and reserve equipment. Therefore those employees should be the only ones who are authorized and have access to make those changes. By using security settings, rental businesses can have a comprehensive system, yet limit the access employees have based on their job function."

Keep in mind, not all employees are trustworthy. There is a possibility that data can be taken from your system and released to a competitor. There is also the possibility of employees - intentionally or not - making errors in the system, especially if they have access to information that they usually don't work with.

"Data and information is not easy to restore when mistakes are made," says Kennedy. "By assessing each employee's job function, security measures should be set up to manage who has access to which data. Security measure can be set so employees don't even know that the data exists or it can be set so that they don't have access."

Sources note that each computer login should be password protected. Sensitive data, such as credit card numbers, should be password protected as well.

"The biggest threat to a rental store is misuse of credit card data," says Shaffer with Point-of-Rental. "To secure credit card information, the database where that information is stored should be encrypted and the AVS (the three digit number on the back of the card) shouldn't be stored anywhere."

Additional protection

The best way to protect your information is through firewall security. Firewalls give businesses protection from potential external threats. "Without firewall protection, your system is extremely vulnerable and gives a hacker an open invitation to attack," says Kennedy.

In addition to firewall protection, having some sort of virus protection process is also important in avoiding identity theft, says Kennedy. This process should include an awareness program for all employees.

"The program would inform those within the company to be cautious when visiting websites," he explains. "Certain sites are open invitations for viruses that can spread throughout the company within seconds."

Gathering and using electronic information is vital to your rental business. Making sure that information is safe and protected is also vital to keep operations running smoothly. Securing data should be a priority for all rental businesses that use computer systems.

One thing is for sure, the amount of possible threats to data and information will continue to grow in the coming years. "Securing data and information is not an issue that will go away in the future," says Kennedy. "Rental businesses need to find a way to lay out security measures that allows for data protection but also allows employees to work in an effective manner."