Ransomware Explained. What It Is and How It Works
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Every day, cybersecurity specialists detect over 200,000 new ransomware strains. This means that each minute brings no less than 140 strains capable of avoiding detection and inflicting irreparable damage. But what is ransomware in the end? Briefly, ransomware is one of the most common and most dangerous cyber threats of today, with damaging consequences for individuals and businesses alike.
In this article, I will explain what ransomware is, how it works, its tops targets, how to prevent it, and what to do if attacked. Besides, recent statistics and ransomware examples will show you real facts to make you understand that ransomware really happens and how!
What Is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a sophisticated piece of malware (malicious software) that encrypts all the data on a victim’s PC or mobile device, blocking the data owner’s access to it. After the infection happens, the victims receive a message telling them that a certain amount of money must be paid (usually in Bitcoins) in order to get the decryption key. Normally, there is also a time limit for the payment to be completed, otherwise, the files could be lost forever. It should be noted that there is no guarantee that even if the victim pays the ransom, he/she will receive the decryption key.
How Does Ransomware Work?
Every ransomware has different behavior. There are 2 types of ransomware: locker ransomware and encrypting ransomware. The first locks the victim out of the operating system making it impossible to access the desktop and any apps or files and the latter is the most common which incorporates advanced encryption algorithms and it’s designed to block system files.
However, the result is always the same. Locking files or systems and demanding a ransom for their recovery. Here are some common steps on how ransomware works:
1. Ransomware Delivery and Deployment
Cybercriminals simply look for the easiest way to infect a system or network and use that backdoor to spread the malicious content. Nevertheless, these are the most common infection methods used by cybercriminals:
- Phishing email campaigns that contain malicious links or attachments (there are plenty of forms that malware can use for disguise on the web);
- Security exploits in vulnerable software;
- Internet traffic redirects to malicious websites;
- Legitimate websites that have malicious code injected into their web pages;
- Drive-by downloads;
- Malvertising campaigns;
- SMS messages (when targeting mobile devices);
- vulnerable Remote Desktop Protocol exploitation.
2. Lateral Movement
After the initial access, ransomware spreads via lateral movement tactics to all devices in your network and tries to get full access. If no micro-segmentation or network segmentation is put in place, the ransomware will move laterally on the network, this meaning that the threat spreads to other endpoints and servers in the entire IT environment, therefore engaging in self-propagation. This way, hackers can use detection evasion techniques to build persistent ransomware attacks.
3. Attack Execution
If in the past ransomware used tactics like weak symmetric encryption, now ransomware operators leverage more advanced methods like data exfiltration. Basically, hackers can exfiltrate sensitive business data before making the encryption leading to double extortion: this way, cybercriminals can threaten organizations to make their private information public if the ransom is not paid. Keeping data hostage is no longer the only method.
Ransomware will look for backups in order to destroy them before encrypting data. This type of malware can recognize backups by file extension and documents stored in the cloud could be at risk too. Offline backup storage or read-only features on backup files might prevent backups recognition and deletion.
Ransomware is practically the combination of cryptography with malware. Ransomware operators use asymmetric encryption, a.k.a. public-key cryptography, a process that employs a set of keys (one public key and one private key) to encrypt and decrypt a file and protect it from unauthorized access or use. The keys are uniquely generated for the victim and only made available after the ransom is paid.
It is almost impossible to decrypt the files that are being held for ransom without access to a private key. However, certain types of ransomware can be decrypted using specific ransomware decryptors.
After encryption, a warning pops up on the screen with instructions on how to pay for the decryption key. Everything happens in just a few seconds, so victims are completely dumbstruck as they stare at the ransom note in disbelief.
The appearance of Bitcoin and the evolution of encryption algorithms helped turn ransomware from a minor threat used in cyber vandalism, to a full-fledged money-making machine. Usually, threat actors request payment in Bitcoins because this cryptocurrency cannot be tracked by cybersecurity researchers or law enforcement agencies.
Top Targets for Ransomware
Cybercriminals soon realized that companies and organizations were far more profitable than users, so they went after the bigger targets: police departments, city councils, and even schools and hospitals. If the percentage of businesses that paid the ransom raised to 26% in 2020 and has increased to 32% in 2021, the $170,404 is the average value of the ransom paid this year. But for now, let’s find out what are the top targets for ransomware.
Public institutions, such as government agencies, manage huge databases of personal and confidential information that cybercriminals can sell, making them favorites among ransomware operators. Because the staff is not trained to spot and avoid cyberattacks and public institutions often use outdated software and equipment, means that their computer systems are packed with security holes just begging to be exploited.
Unfortunately, a successful infection has a big impact on conducting usual activities, causing huge disruptions. Under such circumstances, ransomware victims experience financial damage either by owning up to large ransomware payouts or by bearing the price of recovering from these attacks.
In short, because that’s where the money is. Threat actors know that a successful infection can cause major business disruptions, which will increase their chances of getting paid. Since computer systems in companies are often complex and prone to vulnerabilities, they can easily be exploited through technical means. Additionally, the human factor is still a huge liability that can also be exploited through social engineering tactics. It is worth mentioning that ransomware can affect not only computers but also servers and cloud-based file-sharing systems, going deep into a business’s core.
Cybercriminals know that businesses would rather not report an infection for fear of legal consequences and brand damage.
Since they usually don’t have data backups, home users are the number one target for ransomware operators. They have little or no cybersecurity education at all, which means they’ll click on almost anything, making them prone to manipulation by cyber attackers. They also fail to invest in need-to-have cybersecurity solutions and don’t keep their software up to date (even if specialists always nag them to). Lastly, due to the sheer volume of Internet users that can become potential victims, more infected PCs mean more money for ransomware gangs.
By now you know that there’s plenty of versions out there. With names such as CryptXXX, Troldesh, or Chimera, these strains sound like the stuff hacker movies are made of. So while newcomers may want to get a share of the cash, a handful of families have established their domination.
Conti ransomware has become famous after targeting healthcare institutions. Its usual methods leverage phishing attacks to achieve remote access to a machine and further spread laterally onto the network, meanwhile performing credentials theft and unencrypted data gathering.
A famous attack was that on Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) on the 14th of May 2021 when the gang requested $20 million not to release the exfiltrated data.
DarkSide is a ransomware program that operates as a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group. It began attacking organizations worldwide in August 2020 and, like other similar threats utilized in targeted cyberattacks, DarkSide not only encrypts the victim’s data but also exfiltrates it from the impacted servers.
In just 9 months of operations, at least $90 million in Bitcoin ransom payments were made to DarkSide, coming from 47 different wallets. The ransomware gang gained around $10 million from that profit attacking chemical distribution organization Brenntag, which paid a $4.4 million ransom, and Colonial Pipeline, which also paid $5 million in cryptocurrency.
It’s a good example of ransomware that uses double extortion as hackers normally ask for a ransom to return the data they exfiltrated, so the paying pressure is higher.
REvil Ransomware aka Sodinokibi first spotted in April 2019 and working as a ransomware-as-a-service model, is famous for its attacks on JBS in June 2021 and Kaseya in July 2021.
Due to a Kaseya software vulnerability to SQL injection attacks, REvil Ransomware managed to encrypt Kaeya’s servers. This resulted in a supply chain attack as its customers were infected.
JBS, the biggest meatpacking enterprise worldwide, was hit by REvil on May 30, 2021, and had to pay an $11 million ransom to prevent hackers from leaking their data online.
Avaddon Ransomware was distributed via phishing emails with malicious JAVA script files and is famous for its attack on the French enterprise AXA in May 2021. Its operators use normally data leak websites to publish there the information of the victims who do not pay the ransom.
As its name says, QLocker ransomware operates as a locker, compromising users’ storage devices. Therefore victims are locked out until they provide the password. Its targets are QNAP devices. The files in these network-attached storage devices are encrypted in a 7-zip archive format that requires a password.
Ryuk is a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group that’s been active since August 2018. It is widely known for running a private affiliate program in which affiliates can submit applications and resumes to apply for membership. In the last months of 2020, the gang’s affiliates were attacking approximately 20 companies every week, and, starting November 2020, they coordinated a massive wave of attacks on the US healthcare system.
Even if this is not recent, of course, we cannot skip mentioning this famous one. On Friday, May 12, 2017, around 11 AM ET/3 PM GMT, a ransomware attack of “unprecedented level” (Europol) started spreading WannaCry around the world. It used a vulnerability in Windows that allowed it to infect victims’ PC’s without them taking any action. Until May 24, 2017, the infection has affected over 200,000 victims in 150 countries.
From 1989’s first ransomware distributed via floppy disks and with a ransom price of $189 to today’s million dollars ransom, here are some statistics that will help you further understand the threat of ransomware.
- The first half of 2021 recorded a doubling in ransomware attacks compared to 2020.
- Data exfiltration and data leakage were common practices that allowed double extortion.
- Conti, Avaddon, and REvil are the authors of 60% of the attacks.
- The U.S. registered 54.9 % of the victims, being a top target for ransomware attacks.
Top Ransomware Targets by Industry
According to SonicWall’s 2021 Cyber Threat Report, there have been far more hits on government customers than any other industry. By June, government customers “were getting hit with roughly 10 times more ransomware attempts than average”.
During the first half of 2021, the education field saw even more ransomware attempts than the government sector. In March, the FBI’s Cyber Division has issued a flash alert to warn of an increase in ransomware attacks targeting government entities, educational institutions, private companies, and the healthcare sector. A month later, the Conti ransomware gang encrypted the systems at Broward County Public Schools, threatening to release sensitive personal data of students and staff unless the district paid an enormous $40 million ransom.
Healthcare organizations are the new favorite targets of ransomware attacks. Hospitals have become perennial targets of cyberattacks, including UC San Diego Health, Scripps Health, SalusCare, New Hampshire Hospital, and Atascadero State Hospital. As previously stated, healthcare providers lose an average of 7% of their customers after a data breach or ransomware attack, which is the highest when compared to other industries.
Ransomware operators seem to often target retail enterprises because “they are rarely secured well and the benefits are easily monetized.” SonicWall security specialists discovered startling ransomware spikes across retail entities (264%). In July, the Coop Supermarket chain had to close 500 of its stores following the Kaseya ransomware attack.
How to Prevent Ransomware
Untrusted links and attachments should be avoided
Malicious links are for sure very popular lure tools of social engineering tactics, being present in SPAM e-mails or messages. But you should never click on a link that seems dubious as the infection can happen in no time. One wrong click and ransomware payloads are deployed.
Only download files from trusted sources and if suspicious sent them to the IT Team to test them through sandboxing.
Keep your software up to date
This might seem a very repetitive and trivial urge, but as simple as it might be, it is indeed the basic solution in terms of prevention. That’s because programs are not perfect and for this reason, security researchers are always improving them by releasing patches. So, organizations and individuals can only benefit from the latest patches by running updates all the time. A Patch Management Tool will set automatic patching deployment for you.
The principle of least privilege
The principle of least privilege (POLP) is a core principle of zero-trust. Users are granted the minimum necessary access to applications or systems in order to successfully perform their tasks. Therefore, the limited access will make no one mistakenly or not tamper with files and other sensitive data.
VPN on public WiFi’s necessity
Public Wi-Fi is never secure. A hacker could, for instance, perform a Man-in-the-Middle Attack. Make sure you use a VPN to protect your actions while connected to public Wi-Fi.
Good cybersecurity software
Good cybersecurity protection is the key. Use reliable cybersecurity solutions that will safeguard your endpoints and network: a ransomware encryption protection tool, firewall, good antivirus, email security, DNS filter, automated software patching, PAM software, and the list can go on.
Staying secure from ransomware is easier with the correct knowledge and habits, as well as a trustworthy portfolio of solutions. As always, Heimdal™ Security can help you with the latter. If you want to know more about which of our company products are best suited for your needs, don’t hesitate to contact us or book a demo.
Through network segmentation, the network is split into subnetworks, and thus you have different segments. This is useful particularly when we talk about lateral movement. If ransomware infects your systems, it would not be able to spread to other network parts if there is a delimitation. A solution of network traffic monitoring would be good too, as it goes hand in hand with networking segmentation.
Back-up and encrypt data
Back-up solutions do not represent anymore such a viable option for organizations nowadays, since advanced ransomware exfiltrates the data and uses it as a double-extortion method. However, a backup should be put in place, if you manage it well. Otherwise, how would you restore your data if no decryption key is available? Information in the cloud should be stored encrypted and backups should be tested regularly for performance checks. An offline backup such as a hard drive could be useful. An immutable storage solution (WORM – Write-Once-Read-Many) will store your info in a bucket and lock it so it cannot be changed. You can also protect your backup with endpoint protection on your servers.
Foster a cybersecurity awareness culture
Train your employees to recognize malicious e-mails. A strange e-mail address, a hovering over redirecting to a strange website, grammar errors, the impersonal addressing could be signs of compromised e-mails. Invest in Security Awareness Training solutions. These are very good services with practical examples: employees can learn via phishing simulation to better deal with scam e-mails.
They should also not provide personal details to untrusted individuals via phone, email, or message.
How to Respond to a Ransomware Attack
Why is a response plan necessary? An incident response plan should be a best practice in all companies because:
- If you have this on hand, the IT team will know who has what role and who should be informed like partners and vendors in case of ransomware attacks.
- To easily recover your data and keep your business going minimizing downtime, as lost time means lost money.
How to do it then?
If your system got infected with ransomware, the first step is to keep it aside from the rest of the network.
The next step is the identification of the ransomware strain, so basically what kind of ransomware compromised your network.
Reach out to the FBI or other authorities as they specifically asked in the past to be informed whenever an attack occurs for statistics purposes and because ransomware is a crime. And in terms of GDPR, you avoid being fined.
Remove the ransomware. How? If your computer is locked, then open it in Safe Mode and install an anti-malware solution to remove the ransomware.
What is an important thing to keep in mind is: removing the malware does not automatically decrypt the files. So even if you removed the ransomware, files still remain encrypted so you will need to decrypt them with a certain tool or the decryption key.
Restore the data from your backup. Paying the ransom is not a solution.
Ransomware brought extortion to a global scale, and it’s up to all of us, users, business owners, and decision-makers, to disrupt it.
We now know that:
- creating malware or ransomware threats is now a business and it should be treated as such;
- the “lonely hacker in the basement” stereotype died a long time ago;
- the present threat landscape is dominated by well defined and well-funded groups that employ advanced technical tools and social engineering skills to access computer systems and networks;
- even more, cyber criminal groups are hired by large states to target not only financial objectives but political and strategic interests.
We also know that we’re not powerless and there’s a handful of simple things we can do to avoid ransomware. Cybercriminals have as much impact on your data and your security as you give them.
Heimdal™ Ransomware Encryption Protection
- Blocks any unauthorized encryption attempts;
- Detects ransomware regardless of signature;
- Universal compatibility with any cybersecurity solution;
- Full audit trail with stunning graphics;