What's Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) designed to block access to a computer system or encrypt files on a system until a sum of money (a ransom) is paid. Often, ransomware will display a message demanding the payment, threatening to permanently delete or continue encrypting the victim’s files if the demands are not met.

Ransomware attacks can target individuals, businesses, and government agencies, spreading through various means, such as malicious email attachments, compromised websites, and infected software applications. The consequences of a ransomware attack can be severe, leading to significant data loss, financial losses due to ransom payments and disrupted operations, and potential leakage of confidential information if the ransom isn't paid. US. Statistics reveal that nearly 2,500 reports of ransomware came to the FBI in 2020, which was nearly 19% higher than in 2019.

History of Ransomware

The history of ransomware dates back to the late 1980s, with several key developments that have shaped its evolution:

The AIDS Trojan (1989): Often cited as the first instance of ransomware, the AIDS Trojan was created by Dr. Joseph Popp. It was distributed via floppy disks to AIDS research attendees, initially posing as a questionnaire. Once the computer was booted 90 times, the malware would hide directories and encrypt filenames, rendering the system unusable. Victims were asked to send $189 to a P.O. box in Panama to regain access, marking the first use of what would become a common ransomware tactic.

Growth and Evolution (2000s): Ransomware was relatively rare until the mid-2000s when encryption technology became more sophisticated and cybercriminals saw the potential for higher profits. In 2005, GpCode used weak RSA encryption to lock files on a user's machine, demanding payment for the decryption key.

The Rise of CryptoLocker (2013): This marked a turning point in ransomware history. CryptoLocker was a highly sophisticated ransomware strain that used strong encryption to lock users' files and demanded payment in Bitcoin, making it harder to trace the perpetrators. It infected hundreds of thousands of PCs and earned millions in ransom payments, setting a model for future ransomware attacks.

Explosion of Ransomware Variants (2015 onwards): After CryptoLocker, numerous variants and families of ransomware emerged, including CryptoWall, Locky, and TeslaCrypt. These ransomware attacks targeted a broader range of file types and often used more aggressive tactics to extort money from victims.

Major Global Attacks (2017): Two significant ransomware outbreaks, WannaCry and NotPetya, caused widespread disruption. WannaCry affected more than 200,000 computers across 150 countries, exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows. NotPetya initially targeted organizations in Ukraine but quickly spread globally, causing billions of dollars in damages and being described as one of the most destructive ransomware attacks.

Shift to Double Extortion (2019-Present): Modern ransomware groups have adopted a tactic known as "double extortion," where they not only encrypt the victim’s data but also steal it. They threaten to release the stolen data on the dark web if the ransom is not paid, putting additional pressure on victims to comply and increasing the stakes of the attacks.

Ransomware continues to evolve, with criminals developing new techniques to evade detection and increase their chances of securing a ransom. As such, it remains one of the most pressing cybersecurity threats today.

How Does Ransomware Work?

Here’s a general overview of how ransomware works:

1. Infection: Ransomware can infect a system through several means. The most common methods include phishing emails with malicious attachments, exploiting security vulnerabilities in software, or visiting compromised websites that host malware.

2. Execution: Once the ransomware is on the system, it executes and begins its process. This typically involves identifying and encrypting valuable files on the system. Encryption is a process that scrambles the files, making them inaccessible without a cryptographic key.

3. Demand: After the files are encrypted, the ransomware displays a ransom note to the victim. This note usually explains that the files are encrypted and demands payment, often in cryptocurrency, for the decryption key. The note might also include instructions on how to pay the ransom and sometimes a deadline, after which the ransom may increase, or the decryption key may be destroyed.

4. Payment: If the victim decides to pay the ransom, they typically do so using a digital currency like Bitcoin. This is preferred by attackers due to its difficulty to trace compared to traditional financial systems.

5. Decryption: Upon receiving the payment, the attackers may provide a decryption key, allowing the victim to regain access to their files. However, there is no guarantee that the attackers will actually provide a functioning decryption key after payment.

Types of Ransomware

Types of Ransomware

Ransomware comes in various forms, each with its own method of coercion or threat. Here are some of the main types of ransomware:

Crypto Ransomware: This is the most common type of ransomware. It encrypts the victim's files, making them inaccessible, and demands a ransom to provide the decryption key. Examples include WannaCry and CryptoLocker.

Locker Ransomware: Unlike crypto ransomware that encrypts files, locker ransomware locks the victim out of their operating system, making it impossible to access any files or applications. The ransomware demands a payment to unlock the computer. Examples include the police-themed ransomware that displays messages claiming that the user has violated the law and must pay a fine.

Scareware: This includes rogue security software and tech support scams. It often masquerades as legitimate security software or a warning from tech support claiming that malware has been discovered on the computer. It then demands money to “fix” the issue. Although not always blocking access to files, it bombards the user with alerts and warnings until a payment is made.

Doxware (or Leakware): This ransomware threatens to publish the victim's personal data online unless a ransom is paid. The fear of having sensitive information exposed pressures the victim into paying the ransom.

RaaS (Ransomware as a Service): This is a business model used by cybercriminals where ransomware is created by developers and distributed by affiliates who share the profits with the developers. This model broadens the reach of ransomware attacks, making it accessible even to those with limited technical skills. Examples include REvil and DarkSide.

Mobile Ransomware: As the name suggests, this type targets mobile devices. It often locks the device or encrypts the files and demands a ransom to restore functionality.

Double Extortion Ransomware: This more recent tactic involves not just encrypting data but also stealing it. Attackers threaten to release the stolen data publicly if the ransom is not paid, even if the victim can recover the data from backups.

Each type of ransomware has its unique challenges and requires specific strategies for prevention and recovery.

Organizational Ransomware attacks

Ransomware poses a significant risk to organizations, impacting their operations, finances, and reputation. When an organization falls victim to ransomware, critical data and systems can become encrypted, rendering them inaccessible and halting business operations. The financial implications are twofold: the cost of the ransom, which can be substantial, and the potential loss of revenue during the downtime.

Moreover, if sensitive data is stolen and threatened to be leaked, it could lead to legal and regulatory repercussions, especially if the data involves personal information protected under laws like GDPR or HIPAA. The reputational damage from such breaches can erode customer trust and deter future business, leading to long-term financial losses. Hence, ransomware not only demands immediate financial outlay but also threatens the overall sustainability and growth of affected organizations.

Unfortunately, no one is really safe from ransomware attacks as they don't exclusively target organizations. Individuals and groups are also vulnerable. Often, personal information is at stake, leading to significant financial and data recovery costs.

Prevention against Ransomware attack

Following are the best preventive measures users should practice if they want to stay safe from the impact of a Ransomware attack.

Create Regular Backup

Information loss is the biggest concern for most organizations. There is not much to lose if you have all your crucial information stored somewhere safe. Therefore, we suggest creating regular data backups to secure yourself.

However, there are a few things you need to learn about backing up information too. For example, the backup should be stored in a secure location, preferably in an offline site, so that hackers cannot access it. Cloud storage services are also another good alternative for this depending on what kind of data you want to store.

These online services can help you mitigate the ransomware threat and save multiple files in secure online storage for improved protection. However, you should always ensure that you have secure backups before rolling out.

Create Protection Policies

Organizations need to create data protection policies for their information and follow them. Companies should have a ransom attack response policy, preferably a backup team prepared to deal with the threat right away. You can reverse the majority of Ransomware attacks by taking timely action.

In addition, we also suggest listing down some vendors or business partners that can inform you about suspicious activities or potential Ransomware attacks right away.

Moreover, you should train your employees regarding “suspicious emails” and what they should do with them to avoid data compromise and encryption.

Recheck Port Settings

Some ransomware variants take advantage of Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) port 3389 or other ports connected to your network. You should consider if you should leave these ports open for the public, or if you should limit them to authorized individuals only.

We suggest you check these port settings on-site as well as on cloud locations to reduce the chances of data breach and encryption.

Secure Hardpoints

System configurations in your organizations should revolve around focusing on your system security. Better configuration settings can help limit threats against your organization’s threat surface, and meet security gaps, for default configurations.

Ensure Regular System Updates

Software and system updates are crucial areas to cover for better Ransomware attack protection. Applying the latest system updates will help meet gaps in your security infrastructure that most attackers look for in systems.

A ransomware infection could become a serious problem if you do not upgrade your system. Turning on auto-updates is another effective option because it rules out the possibility of missing out on the latest application security updates.

Train Your Team

Prevention against a Ransomware attack requires everyone to take care of security even on their ends. Random emails, links, and attachments are the leading reasons for these Ransomware attacks. It is because a wide majority of these ransomware needs to be downloaded onto the system for them to attack.

However, if your employees/teams know the difference between a normal file and ransomware infection they can take the necessary steps to avoid it.

While preventive measures are a must-have to protect against a Ransomware attack, some ransomware varieties may bypass these preventive measures and attacks. Therefore, companies need to know the right steps for responding to Ransomware attacks in their organizations.

Utilize Cybersecurity Tools like Guardio

In addition to foundational preventive strategies, employing strong cybersecurity tools like Guardio is crucial in fortifying defenses against ransomware. Guardio provides real-time threat detection and response capabilities that can identify and neutralize ransomware before it causes harm.

By continuously monitoring for suspicious activity and employing advanced scanning technologies, Guardio helps ensure that threats are intercepted early. The tool also offers guidance on securing browsers and online activities, which are common entry points for ransomware. Using such cybersecurity solutions complements traditional measures like regular backups and system updates, significantly enhancing an organization's resilience against ransomware attacks. Integrating Guardio into your cybersecurity strategy can provide an added layer of security, safeguarding sensitive information from sophisticated cyber threats.

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