Ransomware: It Does Not Have to Hold You Ransom

Though most are familiar with malware and viruses that infect computers and delete files or display advertisements, there’s a much more sinister form of malicious technology that’s becoming increasingly commonplace in corporate computer networks: ransomware.

Generally rendering the infected computer inoperable, ransomware attacks computer systems in order to encrypt some—or even all—of its stored data. Usual targets include financial records or client contacts, and once the desired data is encrypted, the malicious software displays an ominous message demanding a payment to release the information or unlock the computer system. These ransoms can be as low as a few hundred dollars or as high as several million, and are usually paid in untraceable cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Unfortunately, cyber experts are expecting ransomware to become increasingly popular over the coming years. While the healthcare sector has already been an early target, the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) believes that financial institutions are next on the hit list, and just this year, NPR reported that the U.S. suffers over seven ransomware attacks an hour, elevating them into a national security risk. All potential victims are now looking to shore up protections against these sophisticated attacks, which also feature sophisticated attackers behind them. Take DarkSide, the Russia-based criminal group behind the Colonial Pipeline attack—they have what some experts describe as essentially a customer service contact to deal with questions from targets it attacks.

Protecting Against Attack

According to experts, the way through for ransomware was paved by companies and institutions having long neglected their IT systems, leaving them exposed to hacking. Accelerating the process has been the pandemic, which has pushed many Americans to work from home, using personal modems and routers and thusly making them more vulnerable. But rest assured, there are still ways to enable defenses against these kinds of attacks. Ransomware infects computers and networks in the same way that malware and viruses are transmitted—most often via e-mail attachments, bogus advertisements, or similar techniques. Protection against these methods demands a three-tiered approach.

First, organizations should move to protect all the technology involved in their networks. Ensure each computer system has all the most recent available security patches. Next, be sure to encrypt all sensitive files to prevent attackers from being able to access them, even if they are able to hold them ransom. Best practices indicate that multiple lines of defense should be employed, and these could include using a reputable security suite and host-based firewall—like the one(s) in the Microsoft Security Suite—that can detect foreign connections trying to enter the network and stop them immediately.

And while protecting the computers themselves remains incredibly important, the ICIT suggests that a major problem regarding ransomware actually lies in the exploitation of humans. Therefore, for any organization, the training of staff in recognizing the most common social engineering attacks represents an equally important step for protection against ransomware. While many personnel may still fall for especially clever tricks, there are some steps that can make the tricks more obvious in order to provide people more of an advantage. For example, organizations should make sure that each computing system is set to show hidden file extensions in order to identify the actual type of file before opening it—e.g., an employee trained to understand the differences of file types and also has their system appropriately set up is much better equipped to identify a file with the ending “.pdf.exe” as being an executable file (a potential virus) rather than a normal PDF file. Of course, both continuous updates to tech and constant employee awareness training are much easier said than done, but together they can strengthen defenses against ransomware enormously.

Even still, ransomware may unfortunately still slip through this protection, and in the event it does, there is one last preparatory step that absolutely must be taken. The single most important action to avoid potential losses due to ransomware is to back up everything onto a separate hard drive that is not connected to the Internet—in doing so, the organization may be spared having to pay an eventual ransom. The best way to back up data is to use an automated program that generates regular daily back-ups and encrypts them for storage in the cloud or external hard drives. For instance, Apple offers “Time Machine,” and for Windows and IOS users, automated backup to "Google Drive" or “Microsoft One-Drive” is available.

Mitigating Potential Losses

If the attack has already occurred, the first step is to immediately disconnect the computer or device from the Internet and shut it down. This may help stop the encryption of files at an early stage and enable the recovery of the rest of the files. Next, contact your insurance company, as many types of business insurance policies cover cybersecurity as well. Alternatively, if you do not have any type of cybersecurity insurance, it’s strongly advised to call in a cybersecurity expert—they may be able to address the problem and recover as much data as possible before restoring the operating system from the original media.

Additionally, history says that after successful ransomware attacks, organizations typically have a deadline of 72 hours to make payment before the price goes up significantly after the virus propagates. However, by setting back the BIOS clock on the computer to an earlier date, many ransomware programs may potentially be tricked into allowing for more time. (Please note that this may help with some data recovery efforts, but shouldn’t be used as a way to pay a cheaper ransom.)

The Bottom Line

As hackers continue to attack in this manner—through locking organizations out of their information systems and demanding money to get the decryption key to unlock them—ransomware continues to grow into a major security problem for corporate networks, and one that must be addressed on all fronts. As the greater business landscape continues to adapt to such attacks, the good news is that organizations can avoid many of the accompanying problems ransomware presents by implementing some basic security measures and training employees to recognize potentially malicious messages.

About the Author

Michael Redman

Michael Redman is a Senior Associate with Schellman & Company, LLC. After graduating from the Cisco Networking Academy with honors, he achieved AAS degrees in Computer Networking and Network Security, as well as a BS in Network Engineering. Twice awarded the National Science Foundation Scholarship; and a recognized SME by the CSIAC, CompTIA, and ISC2. He has sat on the advisory boards for the CMMC-AB working to write the exam, learning objectives, and standards for CMMC. Michael has served as the Sr. cybersecurity advisor to 2 and 3 Star commander(s) and senior executive management regarding advanced techniques and developments in Information Assurance / Cyber Security as well as served as the Executive Chair for Cybersecurity Training Working Group for the US Army. Michael has also provided network modernization and design consulting services for the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps specializing in secure virtual infrastructure design and deployment, and has authored/instructed courses for ICND 1 & 2, CompTIA Security+, Network+, Linux+, and CASP. The ISACA CISM, and CISA, and the ISC2 CISSP and CAP. With an active TS/SCI, he’s been a keynote speaker and panelist at the Atlanta Advanced Persistent Threat Summit, NETCOM Cybersecurity Summit, and conducted cybersecurity informational workshops for corporate organizations like HP, Booze Allen, and Northrup Grumman.

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