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Safeguard your practice’s digital information from ransomware, other data threats

Dark hooded sweatshirts with the words 'hacker' and 'virus' where the face would be

There was a time when kidnapping was confined to grabbing people against their will and holding them in exchange for money. Nowadays, the nefarious crime also includes snatching data from computers hoping to trade it for a cryptocurrency like bitcoin.

Dental practices can help avoid falling prey to these disruptive, costly and cunning system attacks, though, says Steve Newton, an executive for a Wisconsin Dental Association subsidiary that helps thwart such digital nuisances. For one, Mr. Newton suggests, dental practices can take key steps to prevent infection from ransomware — invasive software intended to lock away data until the thief receives a payment. Ransomware is just one form of malware, a portmanteau for malicious software.

“What it really comes down to is that roughly 90 percent of all viruses or ransomware attacks occur because of a mistake made by a user in the office — and these mistakes are literally occurring every single day,” he says.

User mistakes include clicking without thought on links in suspicious email that may be infected with a virus or visiting and clicking links on compromised websites. 

A good first defensive move, Mr. Newton suggests, is putting all practice employees and team members through basic training on the most common ways that a ransomware or other malware attack can occur and to avoid habits facilitating such invasions. Second, a practice could limit or restrict use of Internet browsing by defining permissions that increase the likelihood of staff navigating only on safe webpages.

Mr. Newton also suggests partnering with a well-respected information technology expert, who can help the office keep up with the latest security trends and develop a more comprehensive plan for risk reduction. 

As a vice president for business development with WDA Insurance & Services Corp., Mr. Newton oversees DDS Safe, a backup system that supports HIPAA compliance for securing and backing up dental practice computer systems and data. 

DDS Safe is a service from The Digital Dental Record, a for-profit subsidiary of the Wisconsin Dental Association that provides IT products and services to dentists. Along with an ADA Member Advantage endorsement, DDS Safe has earned co-endorsements from 33 state dental societies nationwide.

Rather than relying on just one means of backing up data and protecting it from threats like ransomware, DDS Safe provides practices with three backup safety nets: to an in-office external hard drive, online (in the cloud) and to a workstation.

“Backing up data three different ways allows us to restore information up to four different ways,” Mr. Newton says. “No matter what circumstance you encounter, we’re likely to have a method or a means to efficiently restore your critical information. That’s not always the case if you’re doing just a cloud backup. That's not always the case if you're doing just an external hard drive.”

Even with caution, ransomware and other malware, in any form, can find their way into an office’s system, Mr. Newton says. So, regular backups should be a fundamental office regiment. 

A main reason the viruses are so often activated by unsuspecting computer users is that carrier emails often appear to be legitimate communications. “Ransomware attackers have designers on staff to make things look just like a Best Buy email or an email from Expedia or something like that — something enticing, something intriguing that makes people want to click on links,” he says. “And when they do, it (launches) the process of beginning the download and infiltrating your network. These ransomware developers, these teams of people working together, are no longer in a basement in their parents’ house just creating code and trying to hurt people with it. It's become sophisticated because of the dollars associated with ransoms being paid in bitcoin and all of the cryptocurrencies.”

The Digital Dental Record advises every dental practice to take preventive measures to preserve the safety and integrity of its data. Aside from the intentional corruption of malware, other potential everyday threats to dental office data exists that DDS Safe can restore your data from include such hazards as natural disasters, fires and other disruptions.

To begin an inquiry about a DDS Safe program, dentists can sign up for a free assessment of their data and systems at

“As part of the process, we take five or 10 minutes to measure the amount of data they have on their server,” Mr. Newton says. “We measure the Internet upload and download speeds and then based on the information that we obtain, as far as their infrastructure, their bandwidth within their practice and their goals, we recommend which solution might be best, either DDS Safe Pro, which combines our data backup and image-based backup, or DDS Safe might be enough to meet their needs.”

For more information on DDS Safe, visit ADA Member Advantage

Ms. Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in practice and research news for dental and medical professionals. She can be reached at