Tips for protecting your business against ransomware attacks in 2023.
The rise of digital technology has increased the risk of cyber threats, including ransomware, which is becoming a severe issue for businesses globally. In fact, according to recent reports, there are 1.7 million ransomware attacks every day—that’s 19 attacks every second—and the first six months of 2022 saw nearly 236.7 million ransomware attacks worldwide. The damage will cost victims around $265 billion annually by 2031.
For businesses, understanding what ransomware is and how it works is crucial. This knowledge can help prevent these attacks and protect organizations from potential damage.
This article from FullScope IT covers the basics of ransomware, how it differs from other types of malware, and how it operates. It will also discuss different ransomware attacks, such as double extortion and Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS), and explain how cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are often used. Finally, it will provide best practices for avoiding ransomware and explain how FullScope IT’s security services can help protect your business from these cyber threats.
What Is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a specific type of malicious software or malware that cybercriminals use to block access to a user’s files or computer system until a ransom is paid.
Usually, this involves encrypting files on the victim’s computer or entire network, rendering them inaccessible. Following the cyberattack, the hackers demand a ransom, typically in the form of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, in exchange for the decryption key that will unlock the encrypted files.
Unlike other malware types that may spy on the user or cause system disruptions, ransomware’s primary goal is to hold the user’s data hostage or steal it in exchange for payment. This type of malware leverages the fear and urgency of losing access to essential data, pushing victims toward paying the ransom.
In many cases, attackers employ a “double extortion” scheme, adding a layer of pressure. In these attacks, ransomware is still used to encrypt the victim’s data, rendering it inaccessible. But in addition to encrypting the data, cybercriminals also exfiltrate or steal a copy of sensitive or confidential information. This stolen data can include business information, customer data, intellectual property, or other valuable assets. Then, the attackers threaten to leak or publish the stolen data if the victim does not pay the ransom within a specified time frame. They may even provide evidence of the data breach to demonstrate their capability and intentions.
This tactic has become increasingly popular among ransomware operators—and increasingly dangerous for organizations—because it gives attackers more leverage and increases their chances of receiving a ransom payment. Victims are not only concerned about recovering their data but also about the potential legal, financial, and reputational consequences of a data breach or information leak.
While all ransomware attacks are a form of malware, not all malware attacks involve ransomware. There are many types of malware, including viruses, Trojans, and spyware, each with unique traits and modes of operation. A ransomware infection is particularly destructive because it directly prevents businesses and individuals from accessing their data, which can lead to significant disruptions.
How Ransomware Works
Ransomware attacks typically begin when a user unknowingly initiates an attack, often by opening an email attachment, clicking on a malicious pop-up, or downloading a suspicious app. These activities trigger the installation of the ransomware onto the user’s system, often without their knowledge. In some cases, attackers may also target backups and attempt to destroy them.
Here’s how a ransomware attack usually unfolds:
- Initial Compromise: To initiate data encryption and/or exfiltration, the attacker must first gain unauthorized access to a target network or system. This initial compromise can occur through various means, such as exploiting vulnerabilities, using malware, phishing attacks, or other attack vectors.
- Establishing Persistence: Once inside the victim’s network, the attacker typically aims to establish persistence. This means ensuring they can maintain access to the compromised system even if it undergoes security updates or changes.
- Identifying Valuable Data: The attacker identifies the specific data they want to encrypt or steal. This may include sensitive business documents, customer records, financial information, intellectual property, or other valuable digital assets.
- Data Collection and Encryption: The attacker employs various techniques to collect and encrypt the identified data. Common methods include:
- File Encryption: The attacker encrypts files and data to make it unreadable without the decryption key.
- Data Compression: Encrypted data may be compressed to reduce its size before exfiltration, making it easier to transfer discreetly.
- Data Splitting: Large datasets may be divided into smaller encrypted parts to avoid detection.
- Data Exfiltration Techniques: Attackers use different techniques to exfiltrate the stolen and encrypted data, such as:
- Command-and-Control (C2) Servers: Attackers often set up C2 servers to manage the exfiltration process. Encrypted data is sent to these servers.
- DNS Tunneling: Attackers may encode the encrypted data in DNS queries or responses and use DNS channels to transmit it.
- HTTP/HTTPS: Encrypted data can be hidden within HTTP/HTTPS requests and responses to blend in with legitimate web traffic.
- Email: Attackers might use compromised email accounts to send encrypted sensitive data to external addresses.
- Cloud Storage: Encrypted data can be uploaded to cloud storage services under the attacker’s control.
- Steganography: Attackers may hide encrypted data within images, audio files, or other media to avoid detection.
- Evading Detection: To evade detection by security tools and network monitoring systems, attackers often employ various tactics such as encryption, obfuscation, and mimicking legitimate network traffic patterns.
- Covering Tracks: After successful exfiltration, the attacker may attempt to cover their tracks by deleting logs, altering timestamps, and removing any evidence of their activities.
Unfortunately, even after payment, there’s no guarantee that the hackers will provide the decryption key or that it will work properly to restore the files. This uncertainty highlights the importance of prevention and protection measures to avoid falling victim to such attacks.
Types of Ransomware Attacks
There are several forms of ransomware attacks, including:
- Crypto Ransomware: This type of ransomware focuses on encrypting the user’s files, making them inaccessible until a ransom is paid.
- Locker Ransomware: Rather than encrypting files, locker ransomware locks users out of their devices, demanding a ransom to restore access.
- Scareware: Scareware involves fraudulent claims about malware infections, coercing victims into paying to resolve non-existent problems.
- Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS): RaaS involves cybercriminals offering ransomware to other cybercriminals who attack.
Each type of attack has its specific nuances, but all aim at pressuring the victim into paying the ransom.
Methods and Targets of Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware can enter a system in various ways, and cybercriminals are continually devising new techniques to deliver their malicious software. Common infection methods include:
- Email Attachments and Malicious Links: Phishing emails that appear legitimate may carry malicious attachments or links that, when opened or clicked, install ransomware onto the user’s system.
- Malvertising: Cybercriminals sometimes use online advertising to spread malware, which can initiate a download simply by a user visiting an infected webpage.
- Exploiting Software Vulnerabilities: Hackers often exploit security gaps in outdated software or operating systems to deliver ransomware.
In many instances, ransomware doesn’t just exploit software vulnerabilities—it also takes advantage of human ones. Social engineering is a technique used by cybercriminals to trick users into revealing sensitive information or engaging in unsafe online behavior.
Phishing is a common form of social engineering where attackers pose as a trusted entity in an email or other communication to trick recipients into opening a malicious attachment or clicking on a link to a malicious site. These malicious sites or files then facilitate the ransomware’s entry into the user’s system. Education on these tactics forms a critical part of robust cybersecurity.
Theoretically, ransomware attacks can hit any business sector. But some are more attractive targets due to their sensitive data and the critical nature of their services. These include:
- Healthcare: Healthcare institutions have been a prime target due to the critical nature of their work and the highly sensitive data they hold. In an environment where downtime can be life-threatening, perpetrators bank on the likelihood of quick ransom payment.
- Microsoft Windows Operating Systems: Windows operating systems are frequently targeted due to their widespread use. Cybercriminals often design ransomware to exploit vulnerabilities in these systems.
- Mobile Devices: With the increasing use of mobile devices in business processes, these have become attractive targets for ransomware attacks.
Consequences of Ransomware Attacks
Ransomware attacks are more than a simple inconvenience – they can have devastating implications for individuals and organizations alike. From disrupting system operations to the potential for extensive data loss, the business impacts of these attacks can be far-reaching. Beyond the immediate encryption of files, ransomware can also employ more sinister extortion techniques that heighten the urgency and gravity of the situation.
The immediate and most obvious consequence of a ransomware attack is system disruption. Ransomware encrypts the user’s files, effectively locking them out of their system. This can lead to significant downtime as users cannot access essential data or use critical software. For businesses, this could mean an inability to serve customers, potential loss of sales, and a considerable drain on productivity.
Data is a crucial asset for any organization. A ransomware attack puts this data at risk by locking users out of their files. While the primary goal of ransomware is usually to demand a ransom payment for the decryption key, the encryption process can sometimes result in irretrievable data loss. If the ransom isn’t paid or the decryption key doesn’t work as intended, the encrypted data could be permanently lost.
Financial, Reputational, and Regulatory Risks
The financial implications of a ransomware attack can be staggering. According to recent reports, the average cost of a ransomware attack is $4.54 million, not including the cost of ransom payments, which average $812,360.
Beyond the immediate financial loss, businesses also face potential reputational damage. Consumers place a high value on their personal data and trust businesses to safeguard it. A ransomware attack can shatter this trust, causing long-term damage to a company’s reputation.
Moreover, businesses may face penalties from regulatory bodies for failing to protect sensitive data.
Examples of Ransomware
Ransomware is one of the most notorious types of cyber threats, and its many variants continue to evolve, affecting individuals, businesses, and even entire cities. Here’s a closer look at some prominent examples:
- Cryptolocker: Launched in 2013, Cryptolocker was one of the early ransomware strains that encrypted victims’ files and demanded payment in Bitcoin. It targeted Windows users and is believed to have infected hundreds of thousands of computers.
- WannaCry: In May 2017, WannaCry wreaked havoc across the globe, hitting over 150 countries and crippling various industries, including healthcare. Exploiting a Microsoft Windows vulnerability, the ransomware gang behind WannaCry demanded Bitcoin payment for file decryption. Swift action from cybersecurity researchers halted its spread, but not before it caused extensive damage.
- Ryuk: Often targeting large organizations, Ryuk ransomware has been responsible for numerous attacks, particularly on healthcare and government entities. With sophisticated encryption algorithms and tailored ransom demands, Ryuk’s attacks are typically well-coordinated and devastating.
- Sodinokibi (REvil): Sodinokibi, also known as REvil, is a RaaS variant that emerged in 2019. It’s been linked to high-profile attacks on corporations and municipalities, employing double extortion tactics where data is encrypted and threatened to be leaked if the ransom isn’t paid.
- Locky: Emerging in 2016, Locky ransomware was spread mainly through malicious email attachments. Once activated, it encrypted many file types and changed their extensions to “.locky,” leaving victims with ransom notes for payment instructions.
- GandCrab: An infamous example of RaaS, GandCrab was known for its continuous updates and adaptability. Operating from early 2018 to mid-2019, it infected more than 1.5 million victims before the developers mysteriously announced their retirement.
- Petya and NotPetya: Petya was a ransomware strain that encrypted entire hard drives rather than individual files. A variant, NotPetya, masqueraded as Petya but was designed more for destruction than extortion. The NotPetya attack in 2017 hit major corporations and caused billions in damages.
While external threats are the primary concern, it’s essential not to overlook threats that may originate closer to home. Malicious insiders—employees or stakeholders with intimate knowledge of the company’s systems and processes—can be just as dangerous, if not more so. With their privileged access, these individuals can bypass security protocols, plant ransomware, or even facilitate breaches for external cybercriminals.
One of the most effective measures to combat this type of threat is by adopting outsourced backup storage. By housing critical data backups off-site, organizations can ensure that even if a malicious insider attempts to compromise their primary systems, they cannot tamper with or destroy these remote backups. This not only guarantees the integrity of the company’s data but also provides an additional layer of resilience against ransom-driven coercion, ensuring business continuity and minimizing operational disruptions.
Best Practices to Avoid Ransomware
In a world where ransomware attacks are increasingly common and sophisticated, organizations and individuals must be proactive in their approach to cybersecurity. Understanding the threats and knowing how to respond to them can make all the difference in preventing a successful ransomware attack. The best practices outlined here can help guide efforts to secure systems against ransomware and minimize potential risks.
Identify and Respond to Potential Threats
Recognizing a potential ransomware threat is the first step in preventing an attack. Common red flags include unexpected email attachments, suspicious links, or unfamiliar pop-ups. Here’s how to take action:
- Patching Vulnerabilities: Regularly updating and patching software can close the security holes that ransomware often exploits. Operating systems, applications, and antivirus software should all be kept up-to-date.
- Caution with Emails and Attachments: Emails from unknown sources or containing unexpected attachments should be treated with suspicion. These can be common vectors for ransomware attacks. Training staff on how to recognize and handle potentially dangerous emails is crucial.
- Securing Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP): Ransomware attackers often exploit weak points in systems, and RDP can be a primary target. But the threat goes beyond just RDP—it extends to any connection coming into your network from the internet. To protect these entry points, it’s crucial to implement a layered security strategy.
Implement Education and Training
Knowledge is a powerful tool in the fight against ransomware. Educating employees and other users about the risks of ransomware and training them on recognizing and responding to potential threats can significantly reduce the risk of a successful attack.
- Regular Security Training: Holding regular training sessions that cover the basics of ransomware, phishing emails, social engineering tactics, and more can build a more informed and resilient user base.
- Creating a Security Culture: Encouraging a culture of security awareness within an organization can foster a more proactive approach to cybersecurity, where users are engaged and vigilant.
Use Tools and Techniques
While a strong understanding of ransomware and a culture of security awareness is essential, they must be complemented by the right tools and techniques to combat ransomware effectively. Here are the specific strategies that can be employed to protect against ransomware threats:
- Endpoint Protection: Ensuring that all devices connected to the network are secured can prevent ransomware from finding a way in. Endpoint protection solutions like Endpoint Detection & Response (EDR) tools can monitor and block suspicious activities as a significant defense line.
- Antivirus and Anti-Malware Software: Utilizing reputable antivirus and anti-malware programs can help detect and stop ransomware before it infects the system. Regularly updating this software ensures that it can recognize the latest threats.
- Regular Data Backups: Maintaining consistent backups of vital data is a key defense strategy against ransomware. For instance, immutable cloud backups add an extra layer of protection against malicious modification by ensuring that your stored data cannot be altered or deleted for a set period of time. In the event of a ransomware attack, files can be seamlessly restored from these secure and unchangeable backups, eliminating the need to capitulate to ransom demands.
- Decryptor Keys: In some cases, cybersecurity experts have developed decryption keys for specific ransomware variants. Organizations can use these tools to recover encrypted files without succumbing to the ransom demands.
- Real-Time Protection: Implementing real-time monitoring and protection can detect ransomware activities as they happen, allowing for immediate response and containment of the threat.
- Data Encryption: By encrypting sensitive data, even if ransomware infects the system, the encrypted information remains secure from unauthorized access.
- Access Control and Privilege Management: Limiting user access rights and managing privileges can prevent ransomware from spreading across the network. Users should only have access to the data they need for their roles, and administrative privileges should be tightly controlled.
- Firewalls: A well-configured firewall can act as a barrier, filtering out malicious traffic and preventing ransomware from reaching the network.
- Regular Security Audits and Vulnerability Assessments: By regularly assessing the network for vulnerabilities, organizations can identify weak points and take corrective action before ransomware exploits them.
Involve Law Enforcement
In a ransomware attack, contacting law enforcement should be an immediate step. Not only do law enforcement agencies have the expertise and resources to investigate the attack, but they also work closely with other organizations to share threat intelligence. Alerting the authorities can contribute to a broader effort to track down the attackers and may even lead to the recovery of encrypted files without paying a ransom.
Law enforcement agencies such as the FBI take ransomware attacks very seriously and employ specialized cyber units to handle these threats. When contacted, they will work with the victim organization to analyze the malware, trace the payment (if paid), and attempt to identify the attackers. Law enforcement might also collaborate with international partners, depending on the nature of the attack.
Governments and legal bodies around the world are intensifying efforts to combat cyber threats, including ransomware. This includes legislation that defines and criminalizes ransomware activities, international agreements to foster cooperation among countries, and initiatives to disrupt ransomware operations. Recent legal efforts also involve targeting ransomware’s financial infrastructure, such as cryptocurrency exchanges facilitating ransomware payments.
How FullScope IT Can Help Protect Your Business Against Ransomware Attacks
Understanding the dire consequences and ever-present threat of ransomware attacks makes taking action not a choice but a necessity. The daunting task of securing your business’s essential data and systems requires an expert, vigilant hand.
FullScope IT is your ally in this crucial battle, armed with extensive experience in cybersecurity and, specifically, ransomware protection. Our team doesn’t just react to threats but anticipates them, providing a comprehensive and proactive defense strategy tailored to your organization’s unique needs and goals.
At FullScope IT, we approach security understanding that your business deserves nothing short of a fortress. Our robust solutions ensure that you’re not merely defending against current threats but are equipped to face future challenges. The services we provide are not only state-of-the-art but adaptable, always aligning with the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape.
With FullScope IT, you’ll benefit from:
✔ Comprehensive defense strategies customized to your business, anticipating and neutralizing threats before they strike.
✔ Network stability that ensures business continuity through proactive monitoring and management.
✔ Statutory and regulatory compliance to stay ahead of legal requirements to keep your business in good standing.
✔ Reduced risk of external attacks through vigilant surveillance and expert intervention.
✔ Secure data transfer that employs the latest encryption and security protocols for peace of mind.
By choosing FullScope IT, you’re opting for a service and a partnership in growth, security, and success. You can rest easy, knowing that the digital aspects of your business are secure and compliant, allowing you to focus on what you do best. Ready to elevate your protection against ransomware and other cyber threats? Contact FullScope IT today and discover an unmatched level of security tailored for your business success.