What is “Ransomware”?
Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts a victim’s files and prevents the user from accessing them. The attacker then demands a ransom from the victim to restore access to the data upon payment.
Users are shown instructions for how to pay a fee to get the decryption key. The costs can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, payable to cybercriminals in non-traceable payment methods – usually Bitcoin.
How Ransomware Works
There are a number of places that ransomware can gain access to a computer. One of the most common delivery systems is phishing spam — attachments that come to the victim in an email, usually masking itself as a file they should trust.
Once they’re downloaded and opened, they can take over the victim’s computer, especially if they have built-in social engineering tools that trick users into allowing administrative access.
There are several things the malware might do once it’s taken over the victim’s computer, but by far the most common action is to encrypt some or all of the user’s files. The most important thing to know is that at the end of the process, the files cannot be decrypted without a mathematical key known only by the attacker. The user is presented with a message explaining that their files are now are now inaccessible and will only be decrypted if the victim sends an untraceable payment to the attacker.
Who Is A Target for Ransomware?
There are several different ways attackers choose the organizations they target with ransomware. Sometimes it’s a matter of opportunity: for instance, attackers might target universities because they tend to have smaller security teams and a disparate user base that does a lot of file sharing, making it easier to penetrate their defences.
In turn, some organizations are tempting targets because they seem more likely to pay a ransom quickly. For instance, government agencies or medical facilities often need immediate access to their files. Law firms and other organizations with sensitive data may be willing to pay to keep news of a compromise quiet.
How To Prevent Ransomware?
There are a number of defensive steps you can take to prevent ransomware infection. These steps are a of course good security practices in general, so following them improves your defences from all sorts of attacks:
- Keep your operating system patched and up-to-date to ensure you have fewer vulnerabilities to exploit.
- Don’t install software or give it administrative privileges unless you know exactly what it is and what it does.
- Install antivirus software, which detects malicious programs like ransomware as they arrive, and whitelisting software, which prevents unauthorized applications from executing in the first place.
- And, of course, back up your files, frequently and automatically! That won’t stop a malware attack, but it can make the damage caused by one much less significant.
Ransomware Facts & Figures
Ransomware is big business. There’s a lot of money in ransomware, and the market expanded rapidly from the beginning of the decade. In 2017, ransomware resulted in $5 billion in losses, both in terms of ransoms paid and spending and lost time in recovering from attacks. That’s up 15 times from 2015.
Some markets are particularly prone to ransomware—and to paying the ransom. Many high-profile ransomware attacks have occurred in hospitals or other medical organizations, which make tempting targets: attackers know that, with lives literally in the balance, these enterprises are more likely to simply pay a relatively low ransom to make a problem go away. It’s estimated that 45 percent of ransomware attacks target healthcare orgs, and, conversely, that 85 percent of malware infections at healthcare orgs are ransomware. Another tempting industry? The financial services sector, which is, as Willie Sutton famously remarked, where the money is. It’s estimated that 90 percent of financial institutions were targeted by a ransomware attack in 2017.
Your anti-malware software won’t necessarily protect you. Ransomware is constantly being written and tweaked by its developers, and so its signatures are often not caught by typical anti-virus programs. In fact, as many as 75 percent of companies that fall victim to ransomware were running up-to-date endpoint protection on the infected machines.
Should You Just Pay The Ransom?
If your system has been infected with malware, and you’ve lost vital data that you can’t restore from backup, should you just pay the ransom?
When speaking theoretically, most law enforcement agencies urge you not to pay ransomware attackers, on the logic that doing so only encourages hackers to create more ransomware. That said, many organizations that find themselves afflicted by malware quickly stop thinking in terms of the “greater good” and start doing a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the price of the ransom against the value of the encrypted data. According to research from Trend Micro, while 66 percent of companies say they would never pay a ransom as a point of principle, in practice 65 percent actually do pay the ransom when they get hit.
Ransomware attackers keep prices relatively low — usually between $700 and $1,300, an amount companies can usually afford to pay on short notice. Some particularly sophisticated malware will detect the country where the infected computer is running and adjust the ransom to match that nation’s economy, demanding more from companies in rich countries and less from those in poor regions.
There are often discounts offered for acting fast, so as to encourage victims to pay quickly before thinking too much about it. In general, the price point is set so that it’s high enough to be worth the criminal’s while, but low enough that it’s often cheaper than what the victim would have to pay to restore their computer or reconstruct the lost data. With that in mind, some companies are beginning to build the potential need to pay ransom into their security plans: for instance, some large UK companies who are otherwise uninvolved with cryptocurrency are holding some Bitcoin in reserve specifically for ransom payments.
There are a couple of tricky things to remember here, keeping in mind that the people you’re dealing with are, of course, criminals. First, what looks like ransomware may not have actually encrypted your data at all; make sure you aren’t dealing with so-called “scareware” before you send any money to anybody. And second, paying the attackers doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get your files back. Sometimes the criminals just take the money and run, and may not have even built decryption functionality into the malware. But any such malware will quickly get a reputation and won’t generate revenue, so in most cases — Gary Sockrider, principal security technologist at Arbor Networks, estimates around 65 to 70 percent of the time — the crooks come through and your data is restored.