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Ransomware Guidance: Are You Prepared?

Written by Jeff Bohman, CISSP on April 9, 2019

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Ransomware is an unfortunate reality for many organizations. Is yours prepared to respond to a ransomware attack or—even better—prevent one from happening?

If your business’s files are suddenly encrypted, your operations are halted and your information is at risk, what should you do? What should you know? And what can you learn that would prevent it from happening again?

Unfortunately, those questions hit a little too close to home for many organizations of all sizes and structures, and statistics indicate that ransomware isn’t going anywhere for the near future. According to Cybersecurity Ventures, ransomware continues to be one of the fastest growing types of cyber-crime, increasing by 350% in 2018, with a business experiencing a ransomware attack every 14 seconds. Enterprise Business saw the biggest increase in ransomware in 2018 according to Symantec’s 2019 Internet Security Threat Report, and a ransomware factsheet published by the Department of Health and Human Services references a U.S. government interagency alert concerning the ongoing threat of ransomware attacks, which exceeded four thousand per day beginning in 2016.

Click here to access more cybersecurity resources and to connect with Warren Averett’s Risk, Security and Technology professionals about your organization’s ransomware plan.

Although the current attack rate is reportedly leveling, ransomware remains a great risk to public and private sectors alike. As one of the top cyber threats, it is important to be aware of what ransomware is and how to defend your organization from attacks.

What is Ransomware?

According to the U.S. Government Computer Emergency Readiness Team Alert (TA16-091A):

“Ransomware is a type of malware that infects computer systems, restricting users’ access to the infected systems. Ransomware variants have been observed for several years and often attempt to extort money from victims by displaying an on-screen alert. Typically, these alerts state that the user’s systems have been locked or that the user’s files have been encrypted. Users are told that unless a ransom is paid, access will not be restored. The ransom demanded from individuals varies greatly but is frequently $200–$400 dollars and must be paid in virtual currency, such as Bitcoin.”

Ransomware is often spread through phishing emails that contain malicious attachments or through drive-by downloading. Drive-by downloading occurs when a user unknowingly visits an infected website, and then malware is downloaded and installed without the user’s knowledge.

Crypto ransomware, a malware variant that encrypts files, is spread through similar methods and has also been spread through social media, such as Web-based instant messaging applications. Additionally, newer methods of ransomware infection have been observed. For example, vulnerable Web servers have been exploited as an entry point to gain access to an organization’s network.”

Some variants of ransomware encrypt the files on the infected device, as well as the contents of shared or networked drives.

Ransomware Red Flags to Look for

Verizon’s 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report noted that ransomware is so common that it is found in 39% of cases in which malware was identified, so it’s important to be able to recognize the potential signs of ransomware. When infected, ransomware often displays intimidating messages similar to those below:

  • “Your computer was used to visit websites with illegal content. To unlock your computer…”
  • “All files on your computer have been encrypted. You must pay this ransom within 72 hours to regain access to your data.”
  • “What happened to your files? All of your files were protected by a strong encryption with RSA-2048. Decrypting your files is only possible with a private key and decrypt program, which is on our secret server. What do I do? So, there are two options: wait for a miracle and get your price doubled, or start obtaining BITCOIN NOW! And restore your data the easy way.”

No business or industry is immune from a ransomware attack, but the health industry is being increasingly targeted. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently spearheaded a joint government-industry cybersecurity Task Group charged with identifying practical approaches to mitigate cyber threats. The group recently published Health Industry Cybersecurity Practices, affectionately referred to as “hiccup,” which identifies email phishing and ransomware attacks as two of the biggest threats against the healthcare industry and our critical infrastructure. If your organization is operating in the healthcare area, it’s even more important to be aware of the red flags of ransomware; your company may be more likely to see them just by operating in your industry.

The Consequences of a Ransomware Attack

Ransomware is a lucrative business. The amount of data and type of entity compromised will influence the value of the ransom demanded, but on average in 2017, ransomware attacks yielded $1,077 for cyber criminals. In addition to the ransom many businesses end up paying, damages in ransomware attacks are projected to be 57 times higher in 2021 than they were in 2015.

Businesses may experience financial losses as a result of a ransomware attack in order to restore files and systems, but there are also many other consequences that come with ransomware attacks. Systems infected with ransomware are also often infected with other malware as well, which can further the damage done to your company’s systems even more. Consequences may also include the temporary or permanent loss of sensitive or proprietary information, a disruption to your company’s regular operations and damage to your company’s reputation. The extent of the damage can vary greatly from business to business depending on the attack.

How to Protect your Company against a Ransomware Attack

Any organization without a ransomware protection strategy is taking a big risk. The best way to protect your company against a ransomware attack is to establish sound policies, implement effective security software and to educate your workforce about best practice.

First, you must establish a reliable backup system for your data. You should also consider historical backup archive retention with sufficient depth; this can permit recovery when an attack is slow to develop and when infected files are backed up. It is similarly important to store backup files apart from the production environment, so that backups are not encrypted along with other data. It’s also important to remember that current-day malicious code consists mostly of fileless varieties, which are not adequately defended by traditional anti-virus and endpoint security methods. To better defend against these cybersecurity threats, your organization should reassess its endpoint security. An effective approach calls for new Advanced Endpoint Security functionality, which establishes an operational baseline and automatically halts untrusted actions within the network. (You can reference NSS Labs 2018 AEP product map for comparisons.)

It is also important to train and educate your company’s employees about ransomware, cybersecurity dangers and what they should know and can do to prevent an attack on their own part. An educated workforce is the organization’s first line of defense against social engineering and phishing attacks. Internal controls are important too. In 2018, 28% of cyber attacks on businesses involved company insiders in some way, and 17% of cyber breaches could be traced back to an employee error. Security awareness training for employees should include email security testing to ensure that users can recognize threatening email messages, and it should educate your team members about organizational policies and procedures, including password controls and system security. Weaknesses in access controls and password security, as well as unpatched software vulnerabilities, have been identified as entry points for many ransomware variants.

How to Respond to a Ransomware Attack

Most often, a ransomware attack is first identified after a user is unable to open a file and reports an error containing a ransom message, such as those examples provided above. The first step when an attack is detected is to disconnect infected computers from the network and Internet. Encryption processes take time, so this will mitigate the extent of the damage.

Before responding to any ransom demand, consult your cyber liability insurance company and your legal counsel for advice. Remember that individuals or organizations are discouraged from paying the ransom, as this does not guarantee files will be released; it only guarantees that the malicious actors receive the victim’s money and, in some cases, banking information. In addition, decrypting files does not mean the malware infection itself has been removed, so it is helpful to have the expertise of a professional to guide your recovery process. Always report instances of fraud to the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Malware Hunter Team operates a free website, called ID Ransomware, which is dedicated to defending against ransomware. If the ransomware can be identified, ID Ransomware will give the victim a distinct status on whether the ransomware variant is known to be decryptable or not, and it will provide a link to a credible source for more information. The FBI will also have this type of information.

More Ransomware Resources

Hopefully, by implementing good security habits, you will be successful in avoiding a costly ransomware incident. If you would like to learn more about ransomware, how you can prevent it and how your company should respond to a ransomware attack, click here to connect with one of Warren Averett’s cybersecurity advisors.

This article was originally written by Jeff Bohman and published by Warren Averett on November 28, 2017. It has been most recently updated with new statistics and insight on April 10, 2019.

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