Ransomware Attacks: A Complete Guide

Ransomware attacks are a serious threat to businesses and individuals across the globe. They’re extremely effective, costing companies worldwide millions of dollars every year. However, that doesn’t mean you’re powerless in preventing these attacks. Steps can be taken to minimize the damage and protect yourself and your business from ransomware.

Read on to find out identification methods, preparation tactics, and how to prevent ransomware attacks.

Ransomware Definition

What is a ransomware attack? Ransomware is defined as a form of malware that locks and encrypts a victim’s data, holding it hostage with a key that only the attacker has access to. This can range from an automated virus that returns data once payment has been received or a specific demand realized, to a simple encryption virus that the attacker manually releases once they’ve received what they want. Ransomware attacks as a whole are extremely dangerous and exceedingly effective.

Ransomware Types

While there’s no limit to variations of this attack type, ransomware generally falls into three primary categories.

Locker Ransomware

Locker ransomware completely shuts down and blocks access to vital systems. These viruses can make a computer impossible to access. The most common  types create a pop-up that blocks access to the system. A message conveying urgency then appears. It’s usually something along the lines of “the device was used to visit sites with “illegal content.” A fine must be paid in order to restore access.”

Crypto-Ransomware

Crypto-ransomware is another common type of ransomware that spreads rapidly, encrypting important files. While it doesn’t block access to the entire system, attempting to access the infected files triggers a similar pop-up demanding a fee.

Double Extortion Ransomware

Double extortion ransomware is essentially a blackmail virus. It encrypts files and sends the uncorrupted versions to the attacker. When someone attempts to access the files, they’re met with a demand for a fee, similar to crypto-ransomware. However, the key difference is that the attacker threatens to publicly release or publish the stolen data if the demands aren’t not.

How Do Ransomware Attacks Work?

Now that we’ve covered the different types, it’s time to take a deeper look into ransomware. How do these attacks start, and how does ransomware work?

Where Do Ransomware Attacks Come From?

Ransomware is an advanced virus created by hackers like any other sort of malware. However, a ransomware attack doesn’t use an entirely new virus. While they may change and evolve, overall ransomware consists of a few different widely-used malicious software (Bad Rabbit, Cryptolocker, Petya, Locky, and Jigsaw, to name a few).

These forms of malware can be picked up and used by just about anyone—not only skilled hackers. This is what makes ransomware so dangerous. As more and more people get their hands on it, it’s becoming more and more prevalent. Even business models involving selling ransomware exist, but more on those below.

How Does Ransomware Spread?

While it depends on the ransomware type, the infection methods are all relatively similar. Most ransomware is initially delivered to a device through an email or a message. Once you inadvertently interact with it, the virus takes hold—similar to any other malware. 

Once its roots are planted, ransomware starts looking for the most valuable data to collect and encrypt. It also searches for any other systems connected to its current root system in order to spread further and have access to a greater data pool.

Once it has a sufficient data collection of valuable data under its grasp, the ransomware locks down. Most ransomware won’t risk detection by locking data immediately, so it’ll attempt to spread as far as it can before encrypting and locking files. However, this isn’t exactly much of a grace period where the system is safe. Most ransomware spreads extremely quickly.

What is Ransomware Detection?

As you probably guessed, the faster you find the malware, the better. Early detection is key for an efficient response to any ransomware attacks. It gives you more time to decide on the appropriate response while relieving the risk of infection spreading indefinitely. Ransomware detection typically works in three ways:

By Signature

Signature detection is the most simple of the three. It compares the signature of incoming files and data with its own library to see if it recognizes and trusts the signature However, this form is quickly becoming less useful as malware evolves. Ransomware is being built and adapted to “cloak” its signature and pass under the radar.

By Behavior

Behavior detection watches any new file activity to see if any actions are similar to malware processes. This detection is useful because ransomware often has obvious strange behavior compared to normal files. Any files attempting to interact with other files on the system without reason are flagged as suspicious.

By Abnormal Traffic

Rather than a single system, abnormal traffic detection watches the entire network for signs of anything strange. Out-of-place traffic for various systems on the network, such as rapid data jumping from system to system is reported. This prevents ransomware from slipping across devices undetected.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks?

Here we’ll cover how to prevent ransomware attacks before they happen. This is the best-case scenario, as stopping such an before infection starts is the only way to ensure utter safety.

Prevention tips for ransomware are similar to other malware mitigation methods. Use trusted, updated antivirus software to keep your devices protected and clean. Employ the use of a trusted VPN service for better control of who has a hold of your network IP. And, of course, interact with emails and attachments cautiously, especially those from unknown senders.

However, with ransomware, in particular, it’s extremely vital to keep backups of important files stored on separate systems. That way, even in the event of a total system lockdown, you aren’t helpless to retrieve your encrypted files. Having up-to-date backups on the same system can be helpful, yes. But it also runs the risk of ransomware encrypting your backups as well, or even locking down the whole system, rendering the backups useless.

How to Stop Ransomware in Action?

While it’s much more difficult to fight against ransomware in action, it’s not impossible. There are a few immediate steps you can take to avoid further damage:

Isolate any infected devices and disconnect them from the network ASAP. This will stop the virus from spreading to other hardware. It also prevents the ransomware from seeking new devices to infect.

Now, begin looking into the damages. See what was infected, what was lost, and try to find where the infection started.

Establish what data was breached and whether you have uncorrupted backups. In a best-case scenario, you may have enough healthy backups that nothing important was lost. However, this isn’t usually the case.

Once you’ve figured out how bad the damage is, it’s time to do some research. Figure out what strain of ransomware you’ve been hit with. This will determine how you go about handling the matter. Some strains are easier to recover from than others.

Some websites and online services offer decryption tools for free for victims of ransomware attacks. While they don’t work for every attack, it’s certainly worth looking into. And in a worst-case scenario, if all else fails, you’ll need to decide how you’ll respond. You can either meet the demands and hope they honor their end of the deal or simply let the lost data go.

What is Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)?

Similar to the popular “Software as a Service (SaaS)” business model, Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) is a term for subscription-based ransomware. The ransomware virus is pre-developed, and the attacker uses it to force companies and individuals to pay the ransom. On any successful payouts, the attacker and the developer of the ransomware share the profit.

This service is a growing danger to companies, as it allows dangerous malware to fall into the hands of just about anyone with an internet connection.

Why Shouldn’t I Just Pay the Ransom?

It’s estimated that about 83% of all ransomware victims meet the demands of the attacker and pay the ransom. It’s not hard to see why. When your important files and data are held hostage and you’re given a short timeframe to respond, it’s easy to make unwise decisions to deal with the situation. But why shouldn’t you meet the demand? What if all that corrupted data is well worth the money being demanded?

Unfortunately, ransomware attackers aren’t exactly saints bound to their word. Not every ransomware strain automatically unlocks once payment is made. The attacker usually has some sort of say whether the lock comes off or not. And all too often, it doesn’t.

Meeting these demands won’t always guarantee the safe return of your data. More often than not, these actions just tell the hacker that you and your company are willing to bend a knee to recover what’s stolen—which isn’t a good reputation to have.

Can Ransomware Infect Cloud Storage Solutions?

Recent years have seen more and more ransomware built specifically to infect cloud infrastructures. The cloud is no longer impenetrable when it comes to ransomware viruses. In fact, some of the new ransomware strains built for the cloud actually spread faster than most other versions, meaning cloud users should be extra cautious when it comes to malware like this.

Are Ransomware Attacks Increasing?

In short, yes. As more and more individuals and groups get their hands on this kind of malware, the number of ransomware attacks on a yearly basis is increasing. Pair this with the world’s recent transition of companies taking their businesses online, and hackers have all the more reason to step up their game.

Ransomware attacks, both small-scale and large-scale, are growing more and more common. And while the means of defense and prevention against these attacks are evolving as well, it takes extreme caution and care from business owners to defend themselves and their team from such attacks.

Is There a Single Solution Against Ransomware?

Like with most malware, no. There’s no magic shield that keeps ransomware from ever getting into your company’s systems. However, a combination of safety measures, common sense, and taking online precautions proves more than effective in reducing your network’s chances of being infected with ransomware and falling prey to an attacker’s demands.

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