Fortifying Your Defenses
Proven Strategies to Prevent Ransomware
Ransomware is a formidable cybersecurity menace that has increasingly become what some call a global crisis in recent years. In this exploration, we’ll investigate the mechanics, real-life impact, prevention tactics, the potential future of ransomware attacks, and how a trusted IT services provider like TenisiTech can help.
What is Ransomware?
Ransomware is malicious software (malware) that infiltrates computer systems and encrypts data. Hackers demand payment from ransomware victims, usually in cryptocurrency, in exchange for restoring access to their own systems and data. Cyberattacks like ransomware can significantly threaten individuals, businesses, and even critical infrastructure. In 2023 alone, ransomware cost companies an average of $1.82 million to recover. That number does not include any ransom payments.
Primitive attacks in the late 1980s called the AIDS Trojan marked the birth of ransomware. At the time, these mere nuisances on floppy discs always came with a ransom note demanding $189. It was easy to reverse the damage because criminals only encrypted file names. Over the years, ransomware attacks grew in scale and complexity, leading to many high-profile security incidents.
Ransomware is dangerous because of its ability to interfere with operations, expose sensitive data, and inflict financial and reputational damage. The real threat impacts critical services, like first responders, healthcare, and utilities.
How Ransomware Works
Ransomware utilizes various infection methods to infiltrate systems. Deceptive phishing emails, malicious attachments, drive-by downloads on compromised websites, and exploit kits can all target vulnerabilities in software. Cybercriminals often use social engineering to trick users into executing the malware unknowingly via phishing attacks.
Once inside a system, advanced encryption algorithms are employed to lock files. Cyberattackers hold the decryption key hostage, demanding payment for its release. Strong encryption and demands for cryptocurrency can make tracing and recovering funds extremely challenging.
Here is an outline of how most typical ransomware attacks work:
Delivery: Ransomware is often sent via email as a malicious attachment or link that appears to be from a trustworthy source (phishing). However, a ransomware attack can also come from malicious advertisements, websites, or downloaded by other malware.
Execution: Once the victim clicks the link, opens the attachment, or somehow executes the ransomware, vulnerabilities in the operating system or installed software are exploited to gain necessary permissions.
Activation: The ransomware searches for specific types of files to encrypt once activated. Hackers generally look for essential documents, databases, or other sensitive data.
Encryption: Ransomware encrypts these files, making it nearly impossible to recover the data without the decryption key.
Ransom Demand: Ransomware displays a message to the victim after encryption, usually explaining how files have been encrypted. This message will demand a ransom payment for the decryption key. Instructions are often included on how to pay the ransom using cryptocurrency. Most ransom demands have a deadline, after which the decryption key will be destroyed, making data recovery challenging.
Real Examples of Ransomware Attacks
There is an alarming number of real-world ransomware attacks as the number of attacks increases exponentially over time. Here are just a few examples:
- Oakland, CA. The city of Oakland, California, became the victim of an attack in February of 2023 when a cybercriminal deployed ransomware on the city’s systems. This attack was particularly devastating because of the shutdown of systems and the leakage of employee and resident data. The city was forced to issue a local state of emergency as a result.
- Fortinet. Fortinet claims to be a global leader in cybersecurity solutions, but even they were not safe from cyberattacks. Malicious actors exploited a vulnerability in FortiOS to target governments and large organizations.
- MOVEit. The MOVEit breach was considered the largest hack of the year, with more than 60 million individuals impacted. A vulnerability in MOVEit’s transfer servers allowed hackers to steal sensitive client data, including social security numbers. The Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles, the Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing, and the Oregon Department of Transportation were among the victims.
- Sharp Health Systems. In early 2023, Sharp Healthcare notified their patients that a hacker had compromised the computers running their website. The company stressed that PII (Personally Identifiable Data) such as social security numbers, date of birth, and credit card information were not accessed. However, cybercriminals obtained the names of patients who had used their online billing systems.
Beyond the obvious financial loss, ransomware attacks often cause data breaches, leading to compromised client information and regulatory compliance violations. Resulting reputational damage can be long-lasting and difficult to recover from. It’s hard to continue to do business when consumers no longer trust you.
The best way to prevent ransomware is by employing foundational security. Many organizations are reactive. They wait for the impact of a cyberattack before they consider best practices. Often, if a business is unprepared and has no backups in place, data is incredibly hard to recover after a ransomware attack. Security can be compared to an onion. The more layers you have, the harder it is for a hacker to penetrate them all. TenisiTech believes in proactive IT management, as should every leader who wants to avoid an expensive business disruption.
Proactive cybersecurity measures such as firewalls, endpoint encryption, and next-generation antivirus can bolster your defense against ransomware. These technologies can all help to detect and stop attacks in their tracks before they can infiltrate your network.
Keeping operating systems and software applications updated is essential in minimizing vulnerabilities that ransomware might exploit. Regularly applying security patches is a necessary proactive defense against potential cyberattacks. You must make patching a priority within your business.
Human error is the number one vulnerability when it comes to a ransomware attack. Rigorous employee training on phishing scams, social engineering tactics, and online best practices can help prevent employees from inadvertently opening malicious attachments or clicking on harmful links. Training is one of your best defenses to prevent ransomware. While cybercriminals can undoubtedly be sophisticated and highly skilled, most employees become victims of phishing scams due to a simple lack of awareness.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is one of the best ransomware prevention measures, as it requires two or more forms of identification before users are granted access. If hackers manage to acquire critical login details, MFA will prevent further damage by preventing lateral movement and mitigating phishing risks.
Up-to-date data backups that are unconnected to other systems (or Air Gap Backups) are a crucial prevention measure. In a ransomware attack, companies can restore their systems with an Air Gap Backup without giving in to a criminal’s demands. Written disaster recovery policies should outline the steps to take when recovering from an attack.
Regular audits should be implemented to ensure security and operational protocols are correctly followed. There is no point in establishing foundational security practices if they are followed incorrectly. Double checking your written policies are being followed is imperative to your organization’s security.
Business leaders may view these foundational best security practices as burdensome, but they may be the only thing standing between your business and financial, reputational, and operational damage. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to potentially devastating cyberattacks like ransomware. Prevent ransomware by partnering with an industry leader in IT like TenisiTech.
An organization that already stringently follows the best foundational security practices may inquire about what other steps can be taken to mitigate cyberattacks like ransomware. Data Loss Prevention (DLP) is a series of processes and tools that ensure sensitive data cannot be misused, lost, or accessed by unauthorized users.
DLP is primarily used to prevent unauthorized access and the sharing of sensitive data rather than preventing ransomware. However, DLP solutions play a role in a broader cybersecurity strategy to mitigate the risks associated with ransomware.
DLP technology can be a helpful measure for both data at rest and data in transit:
- Data at Rest: DLP solutions can scan files, databases, workstations, and servers to identify sensitive data. Then, access controls can be implemented and enforced.
- Data in Transit: DLP can monitor data as it moves across the network and is sent via FTP, email, or other methods. DLP solutions can block the transfer or encrypt data if sensitive data is detected.
Critical features of DLP incorporate content discovery, monitoring, policy enforcement, alerting, and encryption. Applications may include compliance, intellectual property protection, insider threat mitigation, and remote work security.
After a Ransomware Attack
If ransomware has compromised your business, the situation is now an emergency and demands urgent attention and immediate action.
- Isolate Affected Systems. Affected devices need to be immediately disconnected from the network to prevent the spread of ransomware to other systems.
- Alert Your Team. Your IT team needs to be alerted immediately. Management and other relevant employees should be put on high alert for suspicious activity.
- Activate Your Incident Response Plan. You should already have a well-written policy with step-by-step instructions for your Incident Response Plan, and now is the time to use it. If you do not have an Incident Response Plan, you must quickly assemble a crisis management team.
- Identity the Ransomware. Once the type of ransomware affecting your systems is determined, you can begin to understand its behavior and the potential for further disruption or recovery.
- Document the Evidence. Take screenshots of everything, including the ransom note. Document all of the actions taken during this process. This will be helpful later for legal purposes and incident assessment.
- Consult Experts. You will likely want to engage a law firm specializing in cybersecurity for advice on contacting law enforcement, insurance carriers, and other experts.
- Communicate. Your legal team will be able to guide you in keeping employees and stakeholders informed. Certain laws may require you to alert the public to the situation.
- Recover. Use backups to restore data when possible. Make sure that your backups are not infected with ransomware before restoring.
- Analysis. Once the immediate emergency passes, it’s time to analyze how the attack happened and patch any existing vulnerabilities to prevent future incidents.
If your organization has suffered and survived a ransomware attack, it’s not too late to remember and implement those best foundational security practices. Using best practices will help to safeguard your business moving forward.
According to the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force (NCIJTF), federal law enforcement in the United States discourages paying any ransom.
Paying the ransom could lead to data recovery, but unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that a criminal will hand over access. Payment perpetuates the vicious criminal cycle that encourages attackers to continue their malicious operations. A decision to pay has to be weighed against the urgency of data retrieval.
Many legal and ethical factors may come into play when determining whether to pay a ransom. Paying may violate certain laws, finance criminal enterprises, and encourage hackers. It is highly recommended that organizations seek legal advice to navigate this dilemma.
Law Enforcement and Ransomware
While cybercriminals have become increasingly more savvy with time, law enforcement agencies have struggled to keep up. The decentralized nature of cybercrime and international jurisdiction challenges often hinder law enforcement’s effectiveness.
Attributing cyberattacks to specific people or groups is difficult. Attackers wisely use anonymizing tools and cryptocurrencies to conceal their identities and transactions.
In the case of an insider attack, where a trusted team member has compromised systems, law enforcement’s assistance will become necessary in prosecuting the individual and potentially obtaining decryption keys so the business can regain access to their systems and data.
The Future of Ransomware
As defenses improve, ransomware attackers become more sophisticated by developing new techniques and attack vectors. AI-generated phishing emails and advanced encryption methods will likely be on the rise.
The good news is that AI and machine learning technology can identify and mitigate ransomware attacks. These tools are often baked into pre-existing software and can recognize ransomware-related patterns, anomalies, and behavioral changes. However, the more sophisticated prevention tools become, the more criminals will adjust to them, leading to an ongoing game of cat and mouse.
Ransomware remains an evolving threat that demands a proactive and powerful multi-faceted defense strategy, like those offered by TenisiTech. Understanding prevention, impact, and mechanisms is essential for individuals, companies, and governments to counter this cybersecurity menace effectively. Practicing vigilance and investing in cutting-edge defense technology will be vital in mitigating expensive ransomware threats.
Are you prepared for a ransomware attack? Many businesses are at risk and continue to remain reactive to cybersecurity threats like ransomware. Don’t be a victim. Get proactive about ransomware mitigation by reaching out to TenisiTech today, your trusted partner in IT security.