By Joyce M. Rosenberg
The Associated Press
NEW YORK - The past month has been a challenge for small business owners, particularly if their computers run on Windows XP software or were in the Northeast or southern Canada.
First, many PCs were attacked by the "LovSan" or "Blaster" worm that crashed computers and defied attempts to download software to fix and protect the machines. Then, two days later, the blackout shut businesses down and left many with thousands of dollars in losses.
In many cases, damage might have been prevented or at least mitigated if company owners had taken a few precautions.
The PC problems were probably the most avoidable. Microsoft Corp. warned in mid-July that its XP system was vulnerable to possible attack and urged PC owners to download a patch from its Web site.
Many people, including business owners preoccupied with sales, customers, employees and other issues, never got around to it.
Keeping a computer as virus-proof as possible means investing in software such as anti-virus programs and firewalls (and making sure the firewall that was included with your XP program is turned on!).
It also requires some vigilance, which means regularly linking to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com to update patches or using the Software Update program on your Macintosh.
It's also a good idea to back up the data on your computer. Data loss was an issue for business owners dealing with the worm, the blackout or both.
Protecting your data against viruses can mean fairly inexpensive and low-tech solutions such as backing up files on storage devices including tape cartridges, external drives, CD-ROMS and floppy disks.
There's a big drawback to this solution - it does not protect your data in the event of physical disasters: fires, floods, earthquakes or tornadoes.
More comprehensive protection can be had by storing data off-site. There are several alternatives and, of course, the more protection you seek, the greater the cost.
One option is to store your data with a company that specializes in what's called off-site vaulting. You periodically - at best, at least once a day - send your data to the company and it will store it for you.
More expensive is to have your entire computer system duplicated off-site. When you store a file or document to your on-site server, it will be stored off-site as well (in much the same way that a larger company has multiple servers to be sure they don't lose data).
Whatever system you choose, you should be sure that it works.
Jim Reinert, director of software and services with Ontrack Data Recovery, recommends: "Make backups regularly and test those backups periodically. ... Even if you have a mirrored system and diesel generator backups, you're still exposed if you don't test it."
If you have lost data, it might still be retrieved. Reinert said his company had a 39 percent increase in calls for help after the blackout.
Electrical power outages can be devastating for small companies, particularly those with perishable inventory, such as food service establishments.
Owners of these businesses should consider generators to run their refrigerators and freezers in emergencies, and think about insurance policies that cover the loss of the food.
These companies need to consider costs.
A generator might run several thousand dollars, and food spoilage policies are purchased in addition to regular business insurance.
When you consider a generator, remember that it's not just a matter of losing your perishable inventory; you'll also lose business while you're waiting for deliveries of fresh food.
Generators might also be a consideration for companies that have equipment such as computers that need to be kept cool, or companies that just don't want to suffer through down time.
If you're not sure what kind of generator you'll need, there are resources on the Internet to help. Home Depot Inc. (www.homedepot.com) and The Electric Generator Store (www.electricgeneratorstore.com) have information about buying generators. You can also consult with a commercial electrician.
Lost inventory was just one problem companies suffered during the blackout.
Many businesses were unable to make calls because all of their phones, which have features such as speed dial, speakers and multiple handsets, need electricity to run, and cellular networks were overloaded.
Every company should have as a backup several old-fashioned phones that run on direct current.
It's not a big investment - Trimline phones cost $10 or less.
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