Made famous by the WannaCry attack that crippled the NHS in 2017, ransomware is continuing to hit businesses. According to security research firm Symantec, infections have steadily increased every year since 2013, reaching record levels in 2017. Even over the last few months, ransomware has impacted multiple organizations, including the PGA of America, and the borough of Matanuska-Susitna in Alaska – where government workers were forced to use typewriters to carry out their daily tasks.
It is not surprising that governments are concerned about the impact of the malicious software, which locks a user’s device or data until they pay a ransom. In the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has published advice on mitigating against ransomware. Meanwhile, the UK government’s behavioral change campaign for cybersecurity, Cyber Aware, promotes simple measures to stay more secure online.
But according to security researchers, there has been a decline in ransomware compared to other threats including cryptomining. Yet the malicious software remains a very real risk: attacks are becoming fewer but more targeted. “The major difference between 2017 and 2018 appears to be a trend towards more targeted ransomware,” says Matt Shabat, strategy director at Glasswall Solutions. “Instead of seeking mass infections through relatively blunt means, threat actors are using more precise infection vectors to achieve initial compromise.”
Ransomware comes in two types. The first encrypts the files on a computer or network; the second locks a user’s screen. “Some ransomware will also act like a worm – as was the case with WannaCry – and once inside a network, will spread laterally to other machines without interaction by the attacker or the infected user,” says a NCSC spokesman.
Occasionally, malware is presented as ransomware, but after the ransom is paid the files are not decrypted. This is known as ‘wiper’ malware.
The ‘ransom’ is often demanded in a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, as a prepaid card or gift voucher. In many cases the ransom amount is modest, a tactic designed to make paying the quickest and cheapest way to resume use. The scale and automated nature of a ransomware attack makes it profitable through economies of scale. “They are attacks of opportunity; they are not normally targeted at specific individuals or systems, so infections can occur in any sector or organization,” the NCSC spokesman says.
Generally, if a firm is hit by ransomware, they will have no problem realizing. Infected computers will be inaccessible because key files have been encrypted, with a ransom note displayed on-screen. Most ransomware pops up a pay page, either in a text editor or on a browser, says Paul Ducklin, senior technologist at Sophos. “But a lot of it also changes your desktop wallpaper to a graphical image of the pay page.”
And sadly, the first sign of compromise may already be too late, especially if ransomware has spread network-wide and every desktop is hijacked, says Chris Boyd, malware analyst at Malwarebytes. “Much of it comes down to basic social engineering, and fake emails aimed at HR with dubious receipt attachments harboring an infection.”
Recognizing the Warning Signs: Ransomware and Email Phishing
Email still remains the top attack vector for all malicious activity, says Adenike Cosgrove, cybersecurity strategist, EMEA, Proofpoint. She says the easiest route for cyber criminals is to exploit the vulnerability of humans “through simple yet sophisticated social engineering tactics”. She explains: “Cybercriminals have found new ways to exploit the human factor – the instincts of curiosity and trust that lead well-intentioned people to play into the hands of the attacker. This could be in the form of a disguised URL or seemingly benign attachment, but all it takes is one click and the ransomware can take hold immediately.”
The majority of ransomware is spread via massive spam campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of emails sent daily, says Dick O’Brien, threat researcher at Symantec. Ransomware may also be spread via websites compromised to host what’s known as an exploit kit. “This is a tool that scans the visitor’s computer to see if it’s running software with known vulnerabilities,” says O’Brien. “If it finds any, it will exploit one of these vulnerabilities to download and install ransomware on the victim’s computer.”
In a small number of cases, firms may be specifically targeted by groups who attempt to break into the company’s network and infect as many computers as possible before triggering the ransomware.
How to Fight off Ransomware
You’ve been hit. So, what do you do?
“A lot of ransomware is poorly coded, or master keys are leaked, and it’s worth checking online to see if anyone has built a decryptor tool,” says Boyd. He says his firm Malwarebytes has released standalone versions for certain versions of Petya and Chimera, “and there’s many more out there”.
Whatever you do, it is agreed that paying the ransom is a big mistake. Indeed, the National Crime Agency encourages industry and the public not to pay the ransom. “We strongly advise not to pay the ransom, as it simply encourages the scammers to continue with their profitable business model,” agrees Boyd. Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET says he always advises against paying. “But I have seen CEOs with their heads in their hands asking me, ‘what else can we do?’ when they realize their resilience measures have also been attacked.”
Yet there is no guarantee that you will ever receive the data back and if you do, it might be damaged. “Funding cyber criminals also funds larger cyber-attacks, so it must be reiterated that paying won’t always make the issue go away,” says Moore. And paying is by no means the easy solution. According to Lital Asher-Dotan, VP content and security research, Cybereason, organizations would need to set up a Bitcoin wallet to pay the attackers – a process that can take a few days.
How to Avoid Future Ransomware Attacks
Avoiding future attacks requires preparation such as incident response plans and educating employees. But Boyd says organizations aren’t training employees in security basics. “Perhaps they’re not sending out emails warning about common scams, or maybe they aren’t bothering with security tools known to prevent exploits and ransomware.”
Employees should be trained on how to spot attacks. This helps to avoid becoming a victim, and also means staff can raise the alarm straight away, says Rick Hemsley, managing director, Accenture Security. “Employees can become your strongest line of defense. Attackers will hit as many people in an organization as possible, and one click is all it takes. So, having a workforce of people ready to sound the alarm will help prevent that one click.”
Helen Davenport, director, Gowling WLG says it’s important to look for less obvious attacks. “Looking out for the less obvious attacks is highly advisable. If any hint of files being corrupted or encrypted is immediately addressed at the source, it will help to reduce the extent of an attack.”
It might seem obvious, but backup is integral. Even without other measures, firms would still be able to bring their files back with ease if they had a sensible backup process in place, says Boyd. Testing recovery times is a key part of this, says Moore. “I always advise companies to do a ‘ransomware drill’ simulation. I have seen firms declare it would take them an hour to get back up online, but when tested, it has taken three days or more. This can create another problem altogether, adding to the disaster of the malware itself.”
Article by: Kate O’Flaherty