It is extremely rare that a day goes by without a devastating ransomware attack appearing in the media. These attacks are so prevalent that people have begun to dismiss them as inevitable. However, this is far from the truth. The ominous threat that ransomware poses to all businesses can be eliminated with a comprehensive, effective email security solution.

 Taking measures to mitigate this risk is a worthwhile investment. Over the past year, ransomware attacks from phishing emails have increased by an astounding 109 percent. In 2018, one in three small to medium sized businesses worldwide were hit by ransomware and one in five were forced to shut down operations completely until the infection was removed. Data shows that many small businesses are not able to recover from an attack, and 60 percent of small companies go out of business within six months of getting hit with ransomware.

What is Ransomware and how does it work?

Ransomware is a type of malware designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money in the form of untraceable Bitcoin is paid. It does this by encrypting a victim’s files until they have made the payment demanded by the attacker.

Ransomware can be delivered via multiple vectors, the majority of which utilize email. Phishing is one of the most common methods of delivery. When a user downloads a malicious attachment within a phishing email which contains ransomware, all of the user’s files are encrypted and made inaccessible until the ransom specified in a message presented to the user is paid. 

In some cases, the attacker may claim to be a law enforcement agency shutting down the victim’s computer due to alleged pornography or illegal software found on it. In these cases, they often refer to the payment they are demanding as a “fine”, hoping that disguising it as such will make the victim less likely to report the attack. This highly deceptive tactic is often successful.

In the case of a specific variation of ransomware referred to as “leakware” or “doxware”, a criminal threatens to publicize sensitive information on the victim’s hard drive unless ransom is paid. However, obtaining such information is difficult and usually requires a significant amount of time and effort. As a result, encryption ransomware accounts for the majority of campaigns.

Who does ransomware target?

While ransomware is a serious threat to all businesses and organizations, some entities are more popular targets than others. For instance, medical facilities or government agencies are often targeted in ransomware campaigns because they tend to pay ransom quickly due to the fact that they need immediate access to their files. The majority of 2019 ransomware attacks have targeted state and local governments, but attacks targeting healthcare organizations remain a close second. It is estimated that 45% of all ransomware campaigns target organizations within the healthcare industry. Law firms are also popular targets because they are often willing to pay ransom in order to avoid damage to their reputation.

This past July, the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was hit with a ransomware attack demanding $5.3 million. The city initially kept quiet about the fiasco, but has finally released some details on the attack. The ransomware (a variant of the Ryuk virus) encrypted data stored on 158 city computers, blocking access to this information. The city’s insurance company has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the recovery so far, and is expected to cover the full cost.

Small to medium sized businesses are also frequently victimized by ransomware campaigns because attackers know that these companies often have smaller security teams and tend to invest less in cyber defense.

The fact that your business does not fit into any of these categories does not mean that it is safe from the dangerous and costly threat that ransomware poses. Some ransomware does not discriminate, spreading automatically across the Internet and encrypting the files of anyone who downloads the malicious attachment in which it is hidden.

Common Types of Ransomware

Ransomware is constantly evolving, and sophisticated new strains are always emerging. While each new variant has unique characteristics and its own method of spreading, all strains of ransomware rely on similar social engineering tactics to deceive users and encrypt their files. Some notorious ransomware variants include:

  • WannaCry: The most well-known ransomware variant around the globe, this cryptoworm has infected nearly 125,000 organizations in over 150 different countries.
  • CryptoLocker: The CryptoLocker botnet has been around for the past two decades; however, the CryptoLocker ransomware emerged in 2013 when hackers used the original CryptoLocker botnet approach in ransomware. Between September and December 2013, CryptoLocker infected more than 250,000 systems and earned over $3 million for its creators before the botnet was taken down in 2014 in an international operation.
  • Petya: This ransomware variant, which arrives in an email disguised as a job applicant’s resume, began spreading in March of 2016. If a user clicks on a malicious file within this email, his or her computer is rebooted and the user’s files become unreachable until ransom is paid. Petya encrypts .exe files, which interferes with victims’ ability to pay ransom in some cases.
  • NotPetya: Similar to Petya, NotPetya encrypts a victim’s master file table and requests a Bitcoin ransom to restore access to these files. However, NotPetya is different, and more dangerous, than Petya in multiple ways. NotPetya spreads on its own, encrypts everything on a victim’s computer and technically is not ransomware. In the process of encrypting a user’s data, NotPetya damages it beyond repair. In 2017, a devastating NotPetya outbreak cost FedEx $300 million in lost business and cleanup costs.
  • Bad Rabbit: This strain of ransomware typically spreads through a fake Adobe Flash update on compromised websites. It has infected organizations across Russia and Eastern Europe.
  • Cerber: This ransomware variant targets cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 users. Millions of users have been victimized by a sophisticated phishing campaign carried out by Cerber ransomware. Secondary protection is critical in keeping Office 365 users and their data safe.
  • Locky: A ransomware variant designed to lock victims’ computers until ransom is paid, Locky spreads through a seemingly harmless email disguised as an invoice.

The Future of Ransomware: Mobile Ransomware and RaaS

What does the future have in store for ransomware? The potential for authors and operators of ransomware to profit off their criminal activity is driving rapid innovation, resulting in the use of increasingly creative and sophisticated tactics. In this era, cybercriminals can easily replicate smaller attacks and use them against large corporations, demanding larger ransom payments. It only takes a small percentage of successful large-scale attacks to produce substantial revenue, and this serves as a major incentive for threat actors.

A report from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the National Crime Agency (NCA) warns of developing ransomware threats like ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) and mobile ransomware. Ransomware-as-a-service schemes on the dark web, which allow individuals and groups to have an impact disproportionate to their technical skill, are expected to become increasingly prevalent and problematic in the coming years. Because mobile phones often lack adequate security defenses and contain valuable information, mobile ransomware is already on the rise, and the number of new mobile variants increased by 54% this past year. Security experts predict a steady increase in both the number of mobile ransomware attacks and the magnitude of these campaigns. 

Best practices for preventing a successful ransomware attack:

According to a Pwnie Express survey, 50 percent of cybersecurity professionals do not believe that their organization is prepared to repel a ransomware attack. While it is not always possible to prevent a successful attack, engaging in security best practices and investing in effective email protection can drastically reduce your risk. Some best practices for preventing a successful ransomware attack include:

  • Think before you click! Make sure you have confirmed the legitimacy of an email before downloading any attachments it contains.
  • Make sure your OS is patched and updated, reducing the chance of vulnerabilities existing that criminals could exploit.
  • Back up your files frequently and automatically. This won’t prevent a ransomware attack, but it can reduce the damage caused by one. Be aware that backups are not foolproof: ransomware may sit idle for weeks until it is triggered, potentially destroying backups.
  • Invest in a comprehensive, proactive cloud email security that accurately detects malicious emails (such as those containing ransomware) and prevents them from reaching the inbox.

How to Protect Backups from Ransomware

While backing up your files on a regular basis may reduce the devastation caused by a potential ransomware attack, backups are becoming less reliable as ransomware evolves. Threat actors are getting smarter, attacking backups to prevent recovery. 

That being said, there are various best practices that users should engage in to protect their backups from ransomware. They include:

  • Supplement backups with additional copies and third-party tools.
  • Keep multiple copies of important files at multiple locations.
  • Isolate backups - The more barriers that exist between an infected system and its backups, the harder it will be for ransomware to attack these backups.
  • Test your backups! Perform restoration exercises on a regular basis to identify any issues that may exist with your backups.

What to do if your computer has been infected with Ransomware:

If you do fall victim to a ransomware attack, you will need to regain control of your computer. However, doing so will not decrypt your files. With the majority of ransomware variants, it is impossible for anyone to decrypt blocked files without access to the key held by the attacker. And be careful! By removing the ransomware from your computer, you eliminate the possibility of recovering encrypted files by paying the ransom.

Should I pay the ransom?

Theoretically, paying the ransom that criminals demand simply perpetuates the cycle of cybercrime. Decryption keys for many common strains of ransomware are available, and victims should always seek the guidance of security experts before even considering paying the ransom that attackers demand. In many cases, it is possible to recover encrypted data without paying criminals to do so.

Sites like No More Ransomware were established to evaluate your encrypted files after you’ve been compromised to help you ascertain the type of ransomware used. They also have an index of a large list of ransomware decryption tools with pointers on where to find and download the tools necessary to decrypt them. Many of the popular antivirus vendors have similar pages, and Guardian Digital can also assist you with this process as part of the services we provide to our clients.

However, in cases involving newer or less common ransomware variants, decryption tools may not be available, and not paying the ransom that attackers ask for is often unrealistic for businesses and organizations that have lost important data. Although sixty-six percent of companies say that they would never pay ransom to cyber criminals, in reality sixty-five percent do pay ransom when they get hit with an attack. Realistically, the decision of whether or not to pay ransom to restore encrypted files is complex: it is both a moral and a practical decision which often involves doing a cost-benefit analysis.

The FBI’s position on how to deal with a ransomware attack has been somewhat unclear until recently. In 2015 an FBI agent told the audience at a computer security conference in Boston, “We often advise people just to pay the ransom.” The FBI later corrected its position, announcing that ransomware victims should never pay ransom to attackers, adding that paying ransom does not guarantee that encrypted files will be recovered and that payments may be used to fund other criminal activity. 

In a recent podcast, FBI officials stated that instead of paying ransom, the best thing to do is to report the attack to the FBI immediately and they will do their best to help victims decrypt their data.

One thing is for sure: it is far better to invest in effective, comprehensive email protection than to deal with the aftermath of a successful ransomware attack!

Stay tuned for our next Email Threats Explained blog post: What is Business Email Compromise?


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