Craig Dunaway is the Chief Operating Officer of Penn Station East Coast Subs.

When was the last time you paid for something in cash? According to the Federal Reserve, only about one in five transactions are paid for by cash. With the advent of mobile payment apps, cash is no longer king. Some Americans even go so far as to say they believe hard currency will be obsolete at some point in their lifetime.

Our society is completely immersed in digital technology. And now with the ability to make payments seamlessly online, business owners need to be prepared. It’s not only imperative that businesses be able to accept this type of payment, but they also must have the ability to protect their customers. Recently, multiple well-known restaurant chains have fallen victim to cyberattacks, highlighting the critical need for ironclad security protocols.

Restaurants Become A Goldmine For Hackers

Since 2020, the restaurant industry has been playing a game of catch-up. Forced to incorporate new technology to keep their doors open, restaurants are now becoming bigger targets for hackers. In the past couple of years, brands like Panda Express, Five Guys, Yum Brands and Panera Bread fell victim to cyberattacks that either temporarily shut down their systems or exposed stored personal data.

And this isn’t a new trend. Even my restaurant company experienced a security breach in 2012. As soon as we became aware of the situation, we notified our customers so they could keep tabs on their credit and debit card charges in case any were invalid. We also immediately changed the way we processed card payments. Less than 34% of our franchisee-owned restaurants were affected, but an issue like this can impact 100% of the trust our customers have in us as a brand.

Having gone through this myself—and having learned quite a lot in the process—I’ve gained a bit of insight into how to handle a security breach.

Key Steps In Responding To A Data Breach

If a cyberattack ever strikes your restaurant, the most important thing is to not panic. It can feel overwhelming when trying to determine what happened, how it happened and what to tell people. Below is a plan you can follow if needed.

1. Contain the breach. Thoroughly examine your systems to find and rectify any vulnerabilities. As mentioned earlier, once we were notified of the breach, we changed our method of processing credit and debit card transactions. This prevented any further data loss.

2. Notify the authorities. According to the Federal Trade Commission, all states are required to report any data breach that compromises personal information. You’ll want to research the specific obligations of your state to understand what you’re required to report. The FTC also recommends contacting your local police department immediately; and if they aren’t familiar with how to handle data breaches, contact the local office of the U.S. Secret Service or FBI.

3. Investigate the issue. Find out for sure what has happened. Was there a breach? What information was leaked? After we changed how we processed card payments, we brought in a team of forensic experts to help us determine exactly how the breach happened.

4. Be transparent. If you don’t state the facts, people will fill in the blanks with their own assumptions. Present as much information as you can to your system, whether that includes franchisees, employees or customers. Maintain consistent communication so your audience understands your continuous efforts.

5. Strengthen your security. Conduct audits of your security systems regularly. Note anything that could be improved to prevent any future data breaches. Also, take time to train your employees in the proper way to process payments or other information. Inadvertently, data leaks can happen due to human error.

6. Work with the credit card providers. Visa, Mastercard, American Express and similar providers need to be informed, and they’ll work closely with you to determine the source and cause of the breach. In all likelihood, they’ll ask you to also work with an independent forensics expert who specializes in data breaches to determine the original source.

7. Communicate with customers and your franchisees. A data breach can be worrisome and daunting, and it’s important to communicate what is occurring with key stakeholders. In our case, regular communications were sent out to customers via our website and franchisees via weekly updates. This helped prevent rumors from occurring as we were constantly updating information as it became available.

Prevent A Breach Altogether: Long-Term Strategies

If you haven’t experienced a cyberattack or data breach, that’s wonderful. Now, consider implementing the following tactics to help keep it that way.

• Invest in high-quality security technology. Don’t skimp on data protection. Employ premium programs that use encryption, intrusion detection systems and multi-factor authentication to protect your data.

• Host training sessions. Training is just as important in preventing security breaches as it is in containing them. Continuously express the importance of security to your team and employees. Review the correct steps for processing transactions to refresh everyone’s memories.

• Collaborate with your network. It’s common to see other businesses as strictly competition, but they’re also your peers. Don’t be afraid to connect with other owners to learn what’s worked for them or even share some of your own insight.

Bottom Line: Be Proactive

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that’ll just fade away. As people rely on their phones, tablets and laptops even more in the years to come, businesses will need to get in front of any potential vulnerabilities within the digital space. Maintaining proper security not only satisfies any legal requirements but also ensures trust and loyalty with your customers. People go to restaurants because they want to eat a good meal. Don’t give them the added stress of worrying whether their personal information is safe with you.

With multiple case studies to learn from, businesses within the restaurant industry have the resources to combat evolving cyberattacks. By studying these incidents and implementing best practices, restaurants can strengthen their defenses against future threats. In today’s digital age, restaurant owners have to do more than just welcome guests, create an inviting atmosphere and serve delicious food. They must safeguard their data, too.

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