What is Ransomware?

what is ransomware

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What is ransomware? Ransomware is a type of malicious program or malware that can restrict your access to an Internet device or data on it until you pay a ransom in exchange for the ability to access your device or data.

In this article, we will explore how ransomware enters your computer system, how it works, and how to prevent a ransomware attack.

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Let’s dive in:

What Is Ransomware Attack?

what is ransomware

A ransomware attack is a type of malware attack that limits or prevents you from accessing your device or data until the ransom is paid. What’s worse, malicious actors who carry out ransomware attacks threaten to publish or sell data on the dark web if the ransom is not paid.

According to a Verizon report, ransomware contributes to 10% of all data breaches. These days, one doesn’t have to develop a ransomware kit oneself. Many ransomware operators offer ransomware as a service, allowing threat actors to easily access sophisticated tools and malicious software for targeted attacks.

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The following two forms of ransomware are widely used by ransomware perpetrators around the world:

  1. Locker ransomware that locks your access to a computer system or a mobile device
  2. Crypto ransomware that encrypts files and sensitive data on a device

How Does Ransomware Work?

what is ransomware

Like any other malware, Ransomware can enter your computer device in many ways. But when it comes to modus operandi, all ransomware variants have the following stages in common:

  • Ransomware enters your computer device and stays dormant for a few days/months, assessing your critical data.
  • Once the ransomware gets access to your critical data, it starts encrypting files with an attacker-controlled encryption key. Ransomware can also delete backup files or encrypt data backup
  • After encrypting files or locking your computer system, it will make a ransom demand

There can be a few more additional steps, depending on the ransomware variant. For example, a few ransomware variants exfiltrate data before sending a ransom note.

Though ransomware attackers promise to release a decryption key once the ransom is given, it is not always the case. Also, paying the ransom encourages threat actors to infect other devices. So, making a ransom payment should not be on the top of your list when dealing with a ransomware attack.

Brief History of Ransomware Attacks

The following is a brief history of ransomware attacks:

  • Joseph Popp, Ph.D., an AIDS researcher, initiated the first known ransomware attack in 1989 by distributing floppy disks to AIDS researchers
  • The first version of CryptoLocker appeared in Dec 2013
  • CryptoWall surfaced in 2014, causing around $18 million in damages
  • Locky appeared in 2016 and has many variants
  • Notorious ransomware WannaCry infected more than 200,000 computers around the globe in 2017
  • In 2021, the DarkSide ransomware group attacked Brenntag, pocketing $4.4 million from the company as a ransom

The modern ransomware attacks are sophisticated and demand a big ransom. According to an estimate from Cybersecurity Ventures, global cybercrime costs to grow by 15 percent per year over the next five years, reaching $10.5 trillion annually by 2025.

How to Prevent a Ransomware Infection

what is ransomware

Ransomware-infected systems can further infect more devices connected to a network server before you are able to remove ransomware. So, it is imperative to be proactive to block ransomware.

Here are some strategies to prevent ransomware infections:

1. Have Good Network Policies

Be it a home network or enterprise network, you should follow the best network practices to protect from ransomware or any other cyber-attacks.

You should make sure that:

  • You install all the software patches and firmware updates timely
  • Endpoints are protected
  • Employ a multi-layered defense approach to network security

Also, not segmenting your network can spread ransomware from the endpoint to servers. So, ensure that your network is segmented. Doing so can stop ransomware from spreading from one infected system to another.

2. Secure Your Servers

what is ransomware

Your hardware and software, including the operating system, should be up to date. And you should never use default passwords for your devices. Always, secure your devices with strong passwords.

If possible, use SSH keys. They are more secure than passwords.

3. Backup Data

Ransomware’s primary target is often the data and files on the infected devices. Hence, backing up your data is a fundamental defense strategy against ransomware attacks. Here’s an expanded section on the importance and methods of data backup:

  • Regular Backups: Schedule regular backups of your essential data. Having automated daily or weekly backups can ensure you always have the most recent version of your data stored safely.
  • Offline and Online Backups: While cloud storage is convenient, it’s essential to have offline backups, too. Offline backups, like those on external hard drives that aren’t always connected to the network, are immune to online-based ransomware attacks.
  • Versioning: Use backup solutions that allow for versioning. This ensures that if a file gets corrupted or encrypted by ransomware, you can go back to a previous, uninfected version of that file.
  • Test Your Backups: Regularly test your backup files for integrity. There’s no use in having backup files if they can’t be restored correctly. Periodic testing ensures you can rely on your backups when needed.
  • Encryption: Encrypt your backup data. This ensures that even if someone gains unauthorized access to your backup, they can’t read or misuse the data.

4. Encourage Safe Online Behavior

You and your employees should practice safe online behavior.

You should ensure that your employees:

  • Never turn off operating systems’ updates
  • Don’t download cracked software
  • Avoid clicking on a malicious link
  • Don’t open pop-ups on malicious websites

Regularly getting your employees trained in the best cybersecurity practices can help you stay safe from ransomware or other types of malware attacks.

5. Install Security Software

No tool completely stops ransomware. But having ransomware-specific applications can block malicious attachments in phishing emails and keep your valuable files and data safe to a significant extent.

Security Software FeatureDescription
Antivirus SoftwareScans your device for known viruses and malware. Regular updates can help detect and quarantine newer threats.
FirewallMonitors and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic based on security policies. Helps block unauthorized access.
Email FilteringIdentifies and blocks phishing emails, which are a common method for delivering ransomware.
Anti-Phishing ToolbarsAdd-ons for web browsers that detect and block phishing websites, reducing the chance of downloading ransomware.
Real-time ProtectionMonitors system activity and scans files in real-time to detect suspicious behavior and block potential threats.
Regular Software UpdatesEnsures that all security software is updated with the latest patches, helping to protect against newer ransomware variants.
Backup and Restore FeaturesSome security solutions offer integrated backup features, automatically saving copies of your files in case of ransomware encryption.

Responding to Ransomware Attacks

what is ransomware

If you have a ransomware infected machine, the following step-by-step strategy can help you navigate through the crisis:

Step 1:

Isolate the infected device and lockdown your network in order to stop ransomware from spreading further and encrypting files on other systems.

Step 2:

Assess your damage. And scan your system with a good anti-ransomware tool to get rid of active ransomware executable.

Step 3:

Check resources like Id Ransomware and No MoreRansom to see if a decryption key is available for encrypting ransomware that affected your system.

In most countries, authorities recommend not to make ransom payments. But it all depends on your situation.

If you don’t want to pay the ransom, you should consider encrypting data that the threat actor has already encrypted. This can prevent the misuse of data controlled by the threat actor.

Step 4:

Restore the machine from a clean backup or install the operating system again to completely remove malware from your device.

It is not easy to navigate through a ransomware attack. You may not know if you are dealing with a single hacker or a ransomware group.

So, it is better to get professional help to increase the chance of data recovery and complete removal of ransomware.

How Does Ransomware Get on Your Computer?

Spam and phishing emails are the leading cause of ransomware getting on your device. Other reasons for ransomware infection include but are not limited to malicious pop-ups on random websites, pirated software, remote desktop protocol (RDP), USB and removable media, drive-by downloads, and weak passwords.

How Do Ransomware Attackers Get Paid?

Ransomware attackers prefer to get paid in cryptocurrency, especially in Bitcoin. This is due to the nature of cryptocurrency being confidential, anonymous, and hard to trace.

Can Ransomware Spread Through Wi-Fi?

Yes, ransomware can spread through Wi-Fi. Ransomware attacks carried out through Wi-Fi can infect all the devices connected to the network. Wi-Fi can sometimes be an easy way for hackers to spread malicious code and effectuate active ransomware infection.

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Sandeep Babu Sandeep Babu is a cybersecurity writer. He writes about malware, data security, privacy, and other cybersecurity topics for SBT and other reputed platforms.

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