Ransomware is malware that prevents or restricts users from using their computer or encrypts and holds their data for ransom. It is an ever-growing threat to businesses and individuals worldwide.
How Ransomware Works
Ransomware can spread via a virus or phishing email and then lock the device with a secret key, which the user must pay for to gain access to the data again. Today, the most prevalent types of ransomware attacks are:
- Crypto Ransomware (Crypto Viruses)
This type restricts access by encrypting the affected network or system files. Some examples include Cryptolocker and CryptoDefense.
- Locker Ransomware
This variant either erases files or completely blocks access to the network or system using other actions. Locky and Petya are some examples.
Once the malware infiltrates the system and restricts access, a ransom demand is made to restore or decrypt the files. Ransom demands can go up to hundreds of millions of dollars and vary depending on the individual or the organization. Payment usually happens in bitcoins, but currency transfers and gift cards are not uncommon.
Who Are Targets for Ransomware Attacks?
While there are incidences of ransomware attacks targeting specific individuals or organizations, most victims are almost always targets of opportunity. The attackers indiscriminately spread their malware looking to infect any computer device or smartphone that’s susceptible to their malware.
The victims risk losing more than just their business and personal data. There are financial losses from downtime, lost productivity, and ransom payments. There are also legal fees, IT costs for network modification, and the acquisition of additional monitoring and security features for clients and employees.
Surprisingly, many ransomware attacks result from user-initiated actions like opening compromised or malicious websites or clicking on bad links in messages, pop-up ads, or spam emails.
In other instances, malware spreads through drive-by downloads or malvertising, which do not require user action or engagement for the attack to succeed.
On the whole, ransomware attacks are opportunistic and indiscriminate. However, there are cases where the ransom malware creators target a specific victim. These cases usually happen when the attackers repeatedly target an individual or organization looking for a vulnerability. Sometimes, attacks occur when hackers realize that the data infiltrated or infected is sensitive.
When this happens, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) changes the designation of the crime from ransomware to extortion. In these cases, the attackers change their mode of operation and demand higher ransoms. As a rule, the higher the ransom, the greater the chances of it being strategic targeting.
Evolution of the Ransomware Threat
In recent years, ransomware creators have developed more dangerous variations of malware. These have additional features like anti-detection components, distributed denial of service (DDoS) abilities, and data exfiltration, increasing the threat they pose.
Some ransomware types delete files irrespective of whether or not victims pay the ransom. Others can block cloud-based backups by preventing persistent synchronization for systems that continuously back up in real-time. Other variations target Internet of Things (IoT) devices, smart homes, smartphones, and wearables.
In recent deceptions, the ransomware sends a message claiming to be from a law enforcement agency accusing the victims of participating in illegal activity and asking them to pay a fine or fee. Usually, hackers use victims’ online activities like viewing adult websites and coerce them into paying by threatening arrest, exposure, or the disabling of the target’s computer if they don’t pay the ransom. These types of malware use the targets’ geolocation data to pick the specific law enforcement agency to use in their scam. Please note that no U.S. law enforcement agency threatens arrest, exposure, or remotely disables or locks a computer and demands a fine to unlock it.
How to Reduce the Risk of Ransomware Infections
The only way to be completely free from the risk of ransomware is to disconnect your computer from all networks. Unfortunately, not all of us can do that. If you need to remain online, you’ll need to secure your networks and systems. Here’s how:
- Include a ransomware event in your incident response strategy. Create a plan for what to do during and after a ransomware event.
- Back up your data. Backups are vital. A system that saves multiple backup iterations is better in case a copy gets corrupted, infected, or encrypted. Test the integrity and operational readiness of your backups regularly.
- Regularly scan your system and network. Ensure your antivirus software is working and automatically updates, keeping the virus signatures up to date.
- Prevent phishing emails by enabling your antispam settings. Adding warning prompts, action verification pop-ups, and banners to warn users of the dangers of clicking, opening, or downloading unknown attachments, files, or links is crucial.
- Disable macros scripts as malicious ones may corrupt your data, damage, or completely delete files on your hard drive.
- Keep all hardware, software, cloud locations, and content management systems (CMSes) upgraded and up-to-date. Implement software restriction policies (SRP) and white-listing to prevent access and execution of programs in common ransomware locations like temporary folders.
- Restrict internet access with a proxy server to reduce your online visibility.
- Apply data privileges and network segmentation.
- Monitor and vet all remote access to data and the network and implement cybersecurity best practices to all your connections to third parties.
- Participate in cybersecurity information-sharing organizations and programs.
- Provide good phishing and social engineering training to employees.
- Have a transparent reporting and escalation plan and ensure employees know how to and where to report suspicious activity.
How to Respond to a Compromise/Attack
If you do find yourself targeted, here’s what you need to do:
- Disconnect the infected system from the network immediately to prevent further malware propagation.
- Assess the extent of data compromise and report the attack to the necessary authorities.
- Check if a decryptor is available.
- Restore your system with backups.
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