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What is Ransomware and How to Prevent An Attack ?

The internet can be a dangerous place these days, but there’s not much that is quite as frightening to IT security professionals and users than the threat of ransomware. Ransomware attacks are a particularly insidious type of attack that can shut down the entire network access, bring operations to a screeching halt, lead to more cyberattack attempts as criminals view your organization as more susceptible, and even damage your reputation with your employees and customers. 

In the past few years, an increase in the number of ransomware attacks has shown that no organization is safe from this particularly dangerous type of malware. Even companies with the strongest and most stable cybersecurity infrastructures will struggle to deal with the consequences of a ransomware attack, and once you have been attacked, there are no easy solutions. 

The good news is that by being prepared and practicing good cyber hygiene, you can significantly reduce your risk of being the victim of this type of attack. Companies can take a range of measures to protect against ransomware, including regular employee training and awareness, putting solid security systems and robust configuration management in place, and keeping systems up to date with continuous attack surface testing. This can help you mitigate any vulnerabilities to ransomware and ensure that your organization is well-prepared for the worst-case scenario. Keep reading to find out more about ransomware, what it is, how it works, and what to do if you are the victim of an attack. 

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that is used to covertly breach a network, before launching a cryptographic attack designed to lock or encrypt valuable files stored on the network. As these types of attacks become more prevalent, they are used to go even further than simply encrypting data and systems. Once your data has been encrypted or locked, the hacker will demand a ransom that you will need to pay in order to regain access. However, with this type of attack, there is no guarantee that you will actually ever get access to the data back. 

Who is Vulnerable to Ransomware?

Like any type of malware, ransomware breaches a network using traditional attack vendors including software and remote desktop control vulnerabilities, malicious websites, suspicious links, phishing emails, and other social engineering strategies. 

Over the past two years, we have seen an increase in hackers targeting vulnerabilities that have been brought about by the COVID19 pandemic, including more bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, an increase in remote working, and a heavier reliance on remote desktop software. During the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, malicious emails increased by a massive six hundred percent. 

Today, with more organizations now moving towards a hybrid workforce as a result of the shift to remote working, more vulnerabilities in cloud systems and storage are becoming evident. Check out this post by St Bonaventure University on the latest ransomware attacks, methods, statistics, and what you can do to protect yourself. 

Malicious Links and Emails

Email attacks can make ransomware a very difficult problem to prevent and solve. With a determined hacker, it can sometimes be completely impossible to prevent them from finding a way to manipulate an employee. It is not impossible for attackers to fool even people who have a lot of cybersecurity knowledge and skills by sending them messages that they might be expecting. 

This is known as spear phishing, which is even more dangerous in comparison to regular phishing since it involves the attacker taking the time to investigate their target and get to know them better. Ransomware might be sent to them and unknowingly downloaded and installed by them through a file that they were expecting, a photo file that appears to be from somebody that they know, or a document that appears to be from their boss. In fact, the only way to avoid it is to double-check every single communication that you receive via email before taking any action, even the ones that you were expecting. 

How Ransomware Works

Sending an email that contains malicious attachments or links is one of the most common ways that cybercriminals will put a ransomware attack in motion. When the employee unknowingly opens the attachment or clicks on the link, the malicious software is downloaded to their device. They may send emails to a significant number of potential victims in the hope that some will be clicked, or it may be a more targeted attack that is directed towards a certain person within a target organization. 

Once the ransomware has been installed, the attacker will then inform the victim that their data has been encrypted, and they must make a payment of a certain amount in order to access the decryption key and regain access to their data. Most of the time, payment is requested in cryptocurrency, as this will shield the attacker’s identity. However, this is not always a foolproof option on the part of the attacker since cryptocurrency does not often hide the wallet address, which in the past has led to ransom payments being recovered, for example, in the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack

Hackers will usually demand that payment is made very quickly and will typically give victims around 48-72 hours to make the transfer. If you do not pay within the specified period, hackers will often increase the ransom and you may be subject to threats of data leaking or even deleting the data completely. Along with this, there is no guarantee that the attacker is actually going to provide you with the decryption key once the payment has been paid, meaning that you could lose your money and go on to suffer a data leak at the same time. 

Frequently, ransomware will contain extraction capabilities that are able to steal sensitive information such as usernames and passwords. Because of this, it often requires a serious and collective effort to prevent ransomware from accessing the network. Due to the social engineering aspect of most of these attacks, the biggest vulnerability is unsuspecting users, which is why robust employee training and strong company-wide security strategies and policies will often be some of your best defenses when it comes to preventing ransomware attacks on your company. 

What Ransomware Looks Like

If you are the victim of ransomware, you will usually see a message, open window, or readme.txt on your desktop. This will usually contain a message informing you that your files are no longer accessible and have been replaced by encrypted containers, along with an instruction on the ransom demanded in order for you to regain access to the files. 

How to Prevent Ransomware

While ransomware is not always easy to prevent, the good news is that there are several things that your business can do collectively to reduce your risk of this type of attack. There are various steps that businesses and organizations of all sizes can take to prevent ransomware attacks, some of which are more effective than others. Some of the main things that your company can do to prevent ransomware attacks include:

Employee Awareness

Along with general cybersecurity awareness, it is a wise idea to raise further awareness regarding ransomware among employees. Since it can sometimes take just one employee letting their guard down for the entire organization to become compromised, regular, mandatory training for everybody who works in the company regardless of their department or role is crucial. 

Offline Backups

Although it’s a good idea to perform virtual backups, companies that don’t store data backups offline are at a higher risk of losing that data. Regular backups and creating and storing multiple copies, along with monitoring on a regular basis to make sure that the backups are the same as the original is key. With a strong backup policy in place, if you are unfortunately the victim of a data breach, you can easily restore the data, making this one of the best protective measures against ransomware to put in place. 

Spam Filter

Often, cybercriminals will send out millions of malicious emails to organizations and users at random, in the hope that somebody will be fooled into clicking on the link or opening the attachment. One of the best ways to avoid this situation is to use an effective spam filter that is set up to continually adapt by using a cloud-based threat intelligence system. With this in place, you can successfully prevent over 99% of these malicious emails from ever reaching employee inboxes. 

BYOD Restrictions

Today, it is not uncommon for companies to allow employees to use their own devices for various reasons. Along with the cost savings, it can also be an effective option for companies that have a remote workforce. However, BYOD also comes with a range of vulnerabilities, which is why it is important for companies that have a BYOD policy to put restrictions in place. For example, you may require employees to use a certain antivirus software program or VPN that is provided by the company. 

Block Ads

Ransomware is opportunistic by nature and is often embedded in ads online. When clicked on, the malware is installed on the device. A simple way to reduce the risk of this is to use an extension that automatically blocks all pop-up ads on the browser or device. 

Update Anti-Ransomware Software

There are various software programs available today that are effective in detecting threats and are a wise choice for any business. However, an anti-ransomware, anti-virus, or other anti-malware program is only going to be able to prevent threats effectively when it is kept up to date. This is because hackers are continuously updating their strategies to get around current anti-virus and anti-malware protections that many organizations have in place. Any updates that are available should be immediately installed since these are often in place to ensure that the software is able to continue protecting against hackers using more sophisticated techniques designed to get around any previous capabilities of the program. 

Update Email Gateway

All emails for your network will typically travel through a secure web gateway. Actively updating this server allows you to monitor websites, email attachments, and files for signs of malware. This provides visibility into trending attacks for your organization, which can be an effective way to ensure that moving forward, your employees are better informed on what to expect. 

Rapid Response Testing

Regardless of the measures that you put in place, it may sometimes be impossible to completely avoid a breach. Because of this, it is important to put a rapid response plan in place that ensures your team are ready to conduct data recovery and restore systems. Regularly test your rapid response plan, including ensuring that there is an incident response and digital forensics plan in place, and pre-assigning roles to employees. Alternatively, you can partner with Cybersecurity Incident Response Services to ensure that you have experts on hand who can assist if the worst occurs. Such experts will promptly identify an attack, minimize its effects, contain the damage, and identify the root cause of the incident to reduce the risk of future breaches.

Prompt Software Patching

Making sure that all software is updated with the latest security patches is a basic security measure that all companies can take. However, delayed updating is still a major reason for lots of security breaches today, making this measure one that is worth bringing to attention. For example, the SolarWinds hack in 2020 may have been prevented if organizations had patched their software promptly. 

Prioritize Assets and Evaluate Traffic

The use of inventory tools and IOC lists gives organizations the opportunity to identify assets and segments that are of most value. This provides a full picture, which gives employees a clearer look into how the network could be infiltrated by attackers, along with providing important visibility into traffic flows. A main result of this strategy is that your team will get clearer guidelines when it comes to which segments or assets should be afforded additional restrictions or protection. 

Block Malicious JavaScript Files

It is common for ransomware to be delivered in .zip files that contain malicious JavaScript files. They are often disguised as text files. Disabling Windows Script Host is a simple way to block these files and prevent this vulnerability. 

Ransomware is a serious threat that businesses of all sizes and in all industries face today. Being aware of it and the various measures that you can use to prevent it is crucial.