Imagine a situation in which you’ve spent a couple of years completing a paper or research. However, as you open your device and check it the next day, a warning message takes place telling you your files have been encrypted and you won’t be able to check it unless $500 is paid to retrieve them. Then, that’s what ransomware is used to do.
And now, Colonial Pipeline is just facing such a situation because it’s been hit by a ransomware attack.
Ransomware is estimated to be the Top 1 cyberattack in 2021 because money is what hackers strive for most, which is especially true when the COVID-19 pandemic is on.
What is Ransomware?
As a type of malicious software, or malware, ransomware is used to gain money by “blackmailing” target victims. Most of these programs are designed creatively to sneak silently into your computer system, encrypt all or most of your files, and leave you at the mercy of the creators of the malware.
Only when ransomware encrypts your files, and you receive a notification that you either pay or lose your data forever will you realize that your computer has been infected with ransomware. Remember, no system exists that is 100% secure. Malware always keeps one step ahead of the game. It encrypts files and files on everything from a personal computer all the way to the entire network, including servers. Victims often have few options; They can pay the criminals behind the ransomware a ransom to re-enter the encrypted network or recover from a backup, or hope to have a freely available decryption key.
Some ransomware infections start when someone clicks on a seemingly innocent attachment, opens it, downloads a malicious payload, and encrypts the network.
Other, much larger ransomware campaigns exploit software vulnerabilities and flaws, cracking passwords and other vulnerabilities, and gain access by exploiting weaknesses such as internet-facing servers or remote desktop logins. Attackers will secretly search the entire network until they have as much as they can control and then encrypt.
If important files, networks, or servers are suddenly encrypted and inaccessible, this can be a headache for companies of all sizes. Worse, when you are attacked by file-encrypted ransomware, criminals will have the audacity to claim that they are holding your company data hostage until you pay a ransom to get it back.
It may sound too simple, but it works.
What Types of Ransomware are There?
Ransomware is always evolving, with new variants popping up in the wild and posing new threats to businesses. However, some types of ransomware are far more successful than others.
By far, the most prolific ransomware family of 2020 is Sodinokibi, which has plagued organizations around the world since its emergence in April 2019.
The ransomware, also known as REvil, has encrypted the networks of a number of high-profile organizations, including Travelex and a New York law firm with celebrity clients.
The group behind Sodinokibi spent a long time laying the groundwork for the attack, moving stealthily across the compromised network to ensure that all possible information was encrypted before the ransomware attack.
The men behind Sodinokibi are understood to be demanding millions of dollars in exchange for decrypting the data. Given that hackers usually gain full control of the network, groups that refused to pay ransom after falling victim to Sodinokibi also found that the group threatened to publish the stolen information if no ransom was paid.
Sodinokibi is not the only ransomware that threatens to leak victims’ data for ransom; Ransomware gangs such as Maze, Doppelpaymer, and Ragnarlocker have also threatened to release the stolen information if victims do not pay.
New ransomware families keep emerging, while others suddenly disappear or become obsolete, with new variations appearing on underground forums. Any of the current most popular ransomware is likely to make news in a few months.
Locky, for example, was once the most notorious ransomware, spreading via phishing emails in 2016 and wreaking havoc in organizations around the world. Locky remains successful because the people behind it regularly update the code to avoid detection. They’ve even updated new features, including the ability to make ransom demands in 30 languages, making it easier for criminals to target victims around the world. For a while, Locky was so successful that it became one of the most popular types of malware. Less than a year later, however, it seemed to disappear and has been unheard of ever since.
How does Ransomware Work?
Ransomware is malicious software that allows hackers to encrypt victims’ data and then demand a ransom to recover it. They have keys, without which the victim cannot access the content. They often require payment in cryptocurrencies that cannot be tracked.
There are different types of ransomware attacks depending on their target and how they work. While scare software is relatively harmless, DOS software can threaten to release sensitive information about you to the public. There are also a large number of ransomware cases, most of which cause great damage to the victims.
Why does Ransomware Work for Profit Gaining?
You could argue that one of the key reasons why ransomware is popular is because it works. Ransomware only requires a user to accidentally launch a malicious email attachment or reuse a weak password to gain access to your network.
If the organization does not yield to ransom demands, criminals will stop using ransomware. But companies do need access to data to function properly, so many are willing to pay a ransom to settle the matter.
At the same time, it’s an easy way for criminals to make money. If ransomware allows a large number of infected people to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars immediately, why spend time and energy developing complex code or using stolen bank information to generate fake credit cards?
Does Cryptocurrency or Bitcoin Rise Leave Convenience to Ransomware?
The earliest variants of ransomware were developed in the late 1980s and were paid by snail mail. Ransomware authors now demand payment via cryptocurrency or credit cards.
With the rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, it is easy for cybercriminals to secretly receive payments ransomed with such malware without fear that the authorities will be able to identify the perpetrators.
This “secure”, untraceable method of payment – victims are required to pay to a Bitcoin address – makes bitcoin the perfect currency for criminals who want to hide their financial activities.
Cybercriminal gangs are getting more professional – many even offer customer service and help to victims who don’t know how to get or send Bitcoin, because if users don’t know how to pay, what’s the point of asking for a ransom? Some organizations even store cryptocurrencies in case they become infected or files are encrypted and have to pay in bitcoin in a hurry.
Basically, it seems the rise of cryptocurrency provides convenience to ransomware hackers, but the reasonability of cryptocurrency compensates for its bug. That is the same as the function of the Internet. Each coin has two sides. On one hand, it is well used while on the other hand, it is possible to be abused.
How does Ransomware Spread?
The method of infection is not significantly different from other types of malware. You can obtain ransomware through phishing emails, malicious links, downloads from suspect websites, or other social engineering techniques. Once activated, it encrypts the victim’s file. Finally, the malware or hacker himself notifies the victim when and how the ransom will be paid.
Who will be Leading Victims of Ransomware?
Anyone can be a target of ransomware, but the following entities are more likely to be attacked:
Big Companies with Deep Pockets
It’s not difficult to understand big companies with deep pockets are more likely to be attacked by ransomware since cybercriminals tend to target those who are more likely to pay.
Organizations that Deal with Particularly Sensitive Data
Sometimes, if the data is so sensitive that losing it can cause so much damage, companies tend to pay ransom to ransomware. As a result, healthcare companies are often targeted because of the particularly sensitive nature of the data.
Individuals Who Process Valuable Data
Hackers could also threaten to expose secrets or data, or simply destroy all encrypted files in case they don’t get a ransom.
Entities Headquartered in Richer Countries
Entities headquartered in richer countries are more likely to be attacked because they pay more.
Apart from all the entities mentioned above, any organization or individual with a weak security infrastructure or outdated software will be more likely to be attacked by ransomware.
Through Which Ways Can You be Infected by Ransomware?
Ransomware can infect your computer in several different ways. One of the most common methods today is through malicious spam, or malspam, a type of unsolicited Email used to send malware. Email may include trap attachments, such as PDF or Word documents. It may also contain links to malicious websites.
Malspam uses social engineering to induce people to open attachments or click on legitimate links – whether it appears to be from a trusted organization or a friend. Cybercriminals use social engineering techniques in other types of ransomware attacks, such as posing as the FBI, to intimidate users into paying a fee to unlock their files.
Another popular form of infection is advertising, which peaked in 2016. Advertising, or malicious advertising, is the use of online advertising to spread malware with little user interaction. While browsing the Web, even legitimate sites, users can be directed to criminal servers without clicking on an ad. These servers compile detailed information about the victim’s computer and its location and then select the malware best suited for delivery. Usually, such malware is known as ransomware.
Ads usually use an infected iFrame (that is, an invisible element of a web page) to do their job. The iFrame is redirected to the attack landing page, and malicious code attacks the system from the landing page with the attack tool. All of this happens without the user’s knowledge, which is why it’s often referred to as a “drive-by download.”
It’s worth noticing that ransomware will hit even harder in 2021 because the continuously severe pandemic leads remote work to be as usual. More personal devices are used to deal with office stuff, which will possibly make it easy for ransomware to attack.
How Much will a Ransomware Attack Cost You?
Obviously, the most immediate cost (if paid) of becoming infected with ransomware is the ransom demand, which may depend on the type of ransomware or the size of the organization.
Ransomware attacks vary in scale, but it is increasingly common for groups of hackers to demand millions of dollars to restore access. In short, the hacker gangs are able to demand so much money because many organizations are willing to pay.
If the network is locked by ransomware, that means the organization can’t do business – they can lose a lot of revenue, day to day, or even hour to hour, when the network is unavailable. The NotPetya ransomware attack is estimated to have cost Maersk Line up to $300 million.
If an organization chooses not to pay a ransom, they may find themselves losing revenue not only for a period of time, but for weeks or even months, and they may find themselves spending a lot of money to hire a security company to restore their Internet connection. In some cases, the money may even cost more than the ransom demanded, but at least in this case it goes to legitimate businesses rather than aiding criminals.
No matter how the organization responds to the ransomware attack, it will have financial implications for the future; Because to prevent being victimized again, an organization needs to invest in its security infrastructure, even if that means tearing down the network and starting over.
On top of that, because of poor network security, customers may lose trust in your business and move it elsewhere.
How to Protect Against Ransomware in 2021?
To reduce the risk, it’s optimal to use the following tips to prevent ransomware:
Tip#1. Stay away from suspicious sites and links.
Don’t download anything from suspicious sites, and don’t open suspicious links, emails or messages.
Tip#2. Be cautious about your sensitive data.
Always use common sense and your social engineering knowledge, especially when dealing with sensitive data.
Tip#3. Backup, backup and backup.
Secure backups are one of the best ways to protect against ransomware. Keep your most sensitive data in an encrypted cloud that only you can access.
Tip#4. Upgrade your security software.
Always keep your security software up to date.
Tip#5. Delete suspicious applications.
If you notice any suspicious applications you don’t recognize, delete them immediately.
Tip#6. Stay hidden on the Internet.
If your job involves sensitive data, or if there are other reasons you could be a target for ransomware, try to keep a low profile online and don’t discuss your position on social media.
Tip#6. Use a VPN.
Use a VPN to encrypt your traffic so no cybercriminals can intercept it and see what you’re doing online.
Tip#7. Use strong passwords.
Use strong passwords, as some ransomware attempts to initiate violent break-ins.
The Importance of VPN to Protect You Against Ransomware
VPNs are very useful if you want to protect your computer from malware when you are accessing the Internet, even in public hot spots.
With a VPN, your data and online activities are encrypted, and your IP is hidden, making it harder for hackers to get important information from your computer.
But you have to be very careful not to click on suspicious pop-ups that might appear on the screen. Basically, avoid downloading documents from unknown senders.
This is where VPNs come into play. Most services blacklist suspicious URLs, so this is a good place to start.
Here are some questions about the security of VPNs when it comes to ransomware attack avoidance.
Can a VPN protect you from ransomware?
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are software designed to encrypt your data and traffic. So, in a nutshell, VPNs don’t stop computer viruses and ransomware. This is the main reason why you should always make sure you have high-quality anti-virus software installed and keep it up to date to help you deal with these security issues. A common misconception is that VPNs can block viruses and malware. Unfortunately, this is not the case, because VPNs are designed to provide your device with a high-security immune system, not to cure illness.
Are VPNs the target of ransomware and viruses? Or are VPNs easy to be abused?
As long as you’re using a reliable VPN service with strong encryption and a secure server, there’s nothing to worry about. Hackers are unlikely to infect VPN connections with malware and viruses in the first place because it would be too much trouble for them.
However, you need to be careful when using a free VPN service, as it can become a target for various computer viruses and ransomware due to a lack of adequate security measures. If you rely on a free VPN service, but you have decent and up-to-date anti-virus software, nothing can worry you so much. But never underestimate the chance that your data will fall into the wrong hands.
What Should You Do if You are Infected by Ransomware?
If you missed the previous advice and, unfortunately, your computer system has been infected with ransomware, it is recommended to cut you off the Internet immediately to avoid infecting others.
Naturally, you must feel assured you’ve been infected by ransomware and your files have been encrypted. Do some research to see if it might be a scaremongering app that is trying to scare you without actually locking your files.
Then, report to relevant departments. Don’t forget to ask a technical professional for help with this process!
Use anti-malware immediately or clear your system to remove it. However, this will not save your file.
Also, you can’t pay a ransom. Remember, you’re dealing with criminals, and even if you pay, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your data back. By paying, you also support criminals and encourage their actions.
Contact law enforcement immediately.
Looking at all these factors, it is safe to say that using a VPN service can improve your computer security and make you less vulnerable to ransomware attacks. To ensure that your important data is not stolen by hackers, it really helps to use a service like this. In addition to keeping your data encrypted, VPNs can help you stay anonymous and untraceable online.
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