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Ransomware: The Bread and Butter of Cybercriminals

Imagine a thief walks into your home and rummages through your personal belongings. But instead of stealing them, he locks all your valuables into a safe and forces you to pay a ransom for the key to unlock the safe. What choice do you have?

Author: Steven Jurczak, product copywriter, Webroot, an OpenText company.

Substitute your digital space for your home and encryption for the safe and you have what’s known as ransomware. Ransomware is a type of malware. After the initial infection, your files are encrypted, and a note appears demanding payment, which is usually in the form of cryptocurrency such as bitcoin because transactions can’t be stopped or reversed. Once your files are encrypted, you can’t access them until you pay the ransom.

The roots of ransomware can be traced back to 1989. The virus, known as PS Cyborg, was spread through diskettes given to attendees of a World Health Organization International AIDS conference. Victims of PS Cyborg were to mail $189 to a P.O. box in Panama to restore access to their data.

Historically, ransomware was mass distributed indiscriminately which happened to be mostly personal machines that ended up getting infected. Today, the big money is in attacking businesses. Most of these infections go unreported because companies don’t want to expose themselves to further attacks or reputational damage.

Criminals know the value of business data and the cost of downtime. Because they service multiple SMB customers simultaneously, managed service providers (MSPs) are now an especially attractive target. A successful attack on an MSP magnifies the impact of attacks and the value of the ransom.

Primary ransomware attack vectors – with more detailed descriptions below – include:

  • Phishing
  • Cryptoworms
  • Polymorphic malware
  • Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)
  • Targeted attacks

Phishing: Still the No. 1 Ransomware threat

Ninety percent of all Ransomware infections are delivered through email.  The most common way to receive ransomware from phishing is from a Microsoft Office attachment. Once opened the victim is asked to enable macros. This is the trick. If the user clicks to enable the macro, then ransomware will be deployed to the machine. Phishing remains a significant and persistent threat to businesses and individuals. The Webroot 2020 Threat Report showed a 640% increase in the number of active phishing sites since 2019.

Cryptoworms

Cryptoworms are a form of ransomware that able to gain a foothold in an environment by moving laterally throughout the network to infect all other computers for maximum reach and impact. The most spectacular incarnation of a cryptoworm was WannaCry in 2017, where more than 200,000 computers were affected in 150 countries causing hundreds of millions in damages.

Polymorphic malware

One of the more notorious forms of ransomware circulating today is polymorphic malware, which makes small changes to its signature for each payload dropped on machine – effectively making it a brand new, never before seen file. Its ability to morph into a new signature enables it to evade many virus detection methodologies. Studies show that 95% of malware is now unique to a single PC. This is largely due to the shape-shifting abilities of polymorphic malware code. Today, nearly all ransomware is polymorphic, making it more difficult to detect with signature-based, antivirus technologies.

Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)

Ransomware has become so lucrative and popular that it’s now available as a “starter kit” on the dark web. This allows novice cybercriminals to build automated campaigns. Many of these kits are available free of charge for the payload, but criminals owe a cut (around 30% but this can vary based on how many people you infect) to the author for a ransom payment using their payload. Grandcab, also known as Sodinokibi, was perhaps the most famous to use this tactic.

Targeted attacks

Cybercriminals are moving away from mass distribution in favor of highly focused, targeted attacks. These attacks are typically carried out by using tools to automatically scan the internet for weak IT systems. They are usually opportunistic, thanks to the vulnerability scanners used. Targeted attacks often work by attacking computers with open RDP ports. Common targets include businesses with lots of computers but not a lot of IT staff or budget. This usually means education, government municipality, and health sectors are the most vulnerable.

Stay cyber resilient with multi-layered defense

As you can see, ransomware authors have a full quiver of options when it comes to launching attacks. The good news is, there are as many solutions for defending systems against them. The best way to secure your data and your business is to use a multi-layered cyber resilience strategy, also known as defense in depth. This approach uses multiple layers of security to protect the system. We encourage businesses of all sizes to deploy a defense-in-depth strategy to secure business data from ransomware and other common causes of data loss and downtime. Here’s what that looks like.

Backup

Backup with point-in-time restore gives you multiple recovery points to choose from. It lets you roll back to a prior state before the ransomware virus began corrupting the system.

Advanced threat intelligence

Antivirus protection is still the first line of defense. Threat intelligence, identification and mitigation in the form of antivirus is still essential for preventing known threats from penetrating your system.

Security awareness training

Your biggest vulnerability is your people. Employees need to be trained on how to spot suspicious emails and what to do in case they suspect an email is malicious. According our research, regular user training can reduce malware clickthrough rates by 220%.

Patch and update applications

Cybercriminals are experts at identifying and exploiting security vulnerabilities. Failing to install necessary security patches and update to the latest version of applications and operating systems can leave your system exposed to an attack.

Disable what you’re not using

Disable macros for most of the organization as only a small percentage will need them. This can be done by user or at the group policy level in the registry. Similarly, disabling scripts like HTA, VBA, Java, and Powershell will also stop these powerful tools that criminals use to sneak infections into an environment.

Ransomware mitigation

Make sure your IT staff and employees know what to do when a ransomware virus penetrates your system. The affected device should immediately be taken offline. If it’s a networked device, the entire network should be taken down to prevent the spread of the infection.

Want to learn more about how to protect your business or clients from ransomware? Here are five actionable tips for better defending against these attacks.


Author Steven Jurczak is a product copywriter at Webroot, an OpenText company. Read more Webroot guest blogs here.

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