On March 31, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in collaboration with the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, issued a joint alert on ransomware (1). Less than one month later, anti-malware maker Enigma Software reported that April 2016 was the “worst month for ransomware on record in the U.S.” (2). In an effort to increase awareness to this ever-growing cybersecurity threat, I’d like to share the below information with you today:
What is Ransomware?
According to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (“US-CERT”), ransomware is a specific type of malicious program (i.e., a virus) where the victim’s computer, network, and/or files become strongly encrypted to the point they are effectively rendered useless. Shortly after the victim realizes what happened, he or she typically receives a message demanding a ransom in exchange for restoring access to the affected systems and data.
How is Ransomware Spread?
According to US-CERT, ransomware can be spread through e-mails that contain the malicious program or contain links to an infected website, or through messages or links sent through social media; however, in some recent variants, ransomware was spread by means of a “drive-by download attack,” which occurs when an attacker covertly “injects” an ordinary website—usually a trusted or popular website—with malicious code, which, in turn, is downloaded and installed on unsuspecting visitors’ computers. An October 2014 article in SecurityWeek magazine explains that many drive-by download attacks target users running out-of-date or older versions of common software programs; users who fail to promptly install the most current security patches can also easily fall victim to this method of attack (3).
According to Kaspersky Lab, cybersecurity experts found that in 2015, one in three business computers was exposed at least once to an internet-based attack; during that same timeframe, more than 50,000 corporate machines fell victim to ransomware attacks (4). Businesses, however, haven’t been the only target. According to the FBI, victims have included hospitals, school districts, state and local governments, and law enforcement agencies (5). In short, anyone with a computer and internet access could potentially become the next victim of a ransomware attack.
Enigma Software and US-CERT provided recommendations to help minimize the impacts of a ransomware attack, including:
1. Back up your data regularly (at least weekly) to an external device that isn’t regularly connected to the network. Keep in mind that ransomware will target anything connected to an infected computer or network; unless the computer or network has been completely wiped clean of any trace of the malicious program, the ransomware will easily spread to any device connected, even after infection. Disconnect the backup drive after the backup and store it in a safe, secure and weatherproof location. I recommend that you keep at least two backup drives and rotate your backups between them.
2. Update your software. Keep your operating system and software up-to-date with all the latest patches, especially critical security patches. Better yet, allow or set up Windows to automatically update your PC with the latest patches.
3. Maintain up-to-date anti-virus software, and ensure that virus updates are downloaded automatically. Check with your internet provider. They may supply a commercial security suite at no or little cost to you.
4. Think before you click. Do not click on unfamiliar links sent in unsolicited messages or e-mails: social media accounts can be hijacked, and e-mails can be spoofed, so even a trusted sender could really be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
5. Contact your local FBI field office immediately if you become the victim of a ransomware attack. Avoid paying the ransom if at all possible. According to the FBI, paying a ransom does not guarantee that you will regain access to your data; in a number of instances, individuals who paid the ransom were never provided with decryption keys.
And finally, more than anything, have a plan. There are a number of resources on ransomware that contain useful considerations for both before and after a ransomware attack (6). While there is no certain way to protect against ransomware attacks, preventative preparation has the potential to mitigate the impact.
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