Home>Guide to Detecting and Preventing Ransomware

Guide to Detecting and Preventing Ransomware

By |2019-09-05T12:57:04-07:00April 2nd, 2018|

Ask anyone who doesn’t have a background in cybersecurity or information technology, and they’ll probably tell you that ransomware attacks — a sophisticated form of malware — are relatively new. While there’s been a pervasive spike in these type of attacks in recent years, that’s not actually true.

Some of the first ransomware attacks date all the way back to 1989. The more sophisticated forms of this cyberthreat, however, are more of a recent emergence, namely thanks to crypto and locker based tools. In layman’s terms, crypto and locker based tools use modern encryption protocols to lock down or secure various files and data. They’re inherently meant to protect data, not compromise or prevent access to authorized parties.

Crypto& locker based tools use modern encryption protocols

The main point is that ransomware has been around for quite some time, so it’s been advanced considerably over the years to what it is today. Thanks to the birth of IoT, cloud computing, big data and remote technologies, we’ve seen it become more prominent. More sensitive data is available for hackers to gain access to, which has been a driving factor in ransomware’s evolution.

The average person now carries a smartphone or mobile device everywhere they go. On that device is information about personal banking and finances, social accounts, communications, addresses, preferences and much more. If someone were to gain access to your phone, at this very second it’s likely they’d find a host of sensitive and personal data about you. Now, imagine if they collected this information and used it to blackmail you — exactly the idea behind modern ransomware.

According to the FBI, cyber-criminals earned $209 million in the first three months of 2016, simply by extorting businesses and institutions through the use of ransomware. You can see that this is not just an issue that plagues the average consumer but everyone, including major businesses and organizations.

What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware can be likened to a particularly nasty computer virus or form of malware. Malware and spyware are computer applications or programs meant for nefarious purposes. Often, they’re used to collect or gather sensitive information from the device in question and are inadvertently installed or opened on the machine. Most commonly, they come in the form of malicious code designed to make use of any number of system or software vulnerabilities.

Ransomware can be likened to a particularly nasty computer virus or form of malware

They’re also referred to at times as a trojan virus, or trojan horse virus. So what is a trojan horse computer virus? It follows along the same concept as the malware discussed above, except it’s disguised as legitimate software.

How do ransomware attacks happen? An employee at a major business firm, for instance, might open an email attachment that then installs malware on their work computer. They could be none the wiser to the attack, which has plenty of time to spread via the local network to other machines and hardware. Of course, this is an absolute worst-case scenario. Certain virus tools and security programs are designed to detect and eliminate these problems, though they don’t always work.

Ransomware is just a form of this type of attack, with the goal to hold a machine or device ransom. Using encryption and similar tactics, a ransomware program might scramble an important file or series of documents and then demand a sum of money to unlock access. At a larger level, it can be used to hold entire machines or networks hostage.

The unfortunate aspect is that even after a business or individual pays the ransom, there’s no guarantee they’ll regain accessTOOLS to the affected data. Even worse, the attacker may take the data and release it publicly, causing any number of problems or damages to the affected parties. An excellent — though tragic — example of this situation is the IBM and Swedish transportation debacle. Sweden outsourced the management and security of its database and licensing management tools to an Eastern subsidiary of IBM, and poor security led to the unauthorized access to highly sensitive data.

The result is that the identities of several undercover officers working for the Swedish government in security services were outed. To account for the disaster, the director general of the Swedish Transport Agency, Maria Agren, was fired. The Minister of the Interior, Anders Ygemen, was also removed from the Swedish cabinet. This situation highlights the nature of modern security and the repercussions it can have for everyone, including CIOs and CEOs.

Imagine if someone suddenly gained access to your internet browsing habits. They could see what products and services you purchase, what sites you visit regularly, what media you watched and even the people you talked to. A more advanced form of ransomware could even collect and spy on your communications to see exactly what was said. That kind of sensitive information, if and when it got out to the public, could be incredibly damaging.

It’s an even more likely scenario for someone to try to access your files if you’re a powerful figure in the business world or run your own business. Your reputation — professional and personal — can be ruined completely. It’s dire that you know and understand how to prevent ransomware attacks and properly deal with security breaches.

How Common Are Ransomware Attacks?

While ransomware definitely sounds scary, some questions remain: Is it really that common? Are you likely to be affected by it, and are your devices — and personal data — at risk? There’s no quantitative data that provides a number or stat for how likely you are to be targeted, but the short answer is yes. You and your data are at risk, and that risk will never subside. Ransomware is now estimated to be one of the three most common forms of malware threat.

Ransomware is one of the 3 most common forms of malware threat

As long as we continue to use modern technology, which relies on always-connected and open internet access, we’re all at risk of attack. The same is true of any business that handles digital content and data via a local network — private or public. So how does ransomware work? The infamous WannaCry is a ransomware worm that infected over 400,000 machines and devices globally. It has since been attributed to the Korean hacker group Lazarus and may have been a politically charged attacked.

During its timeline, WannaCry affected many parties, including the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), FedEx and European wireless carrier Telefonica. After taking hold, it quickly spread from machine to machine across the open internet until eventually, it was a damaging force almost everywhere around the world.

The worm would infect the related machine and encrypt the entire filesystem. Encryption is a remarkably powerful form of data protection that essentially scrambles or locks down a chunk of data using a special encryption key. You cannot descramble or “decrypt” the affected data without the required key.

WannaCry encrypted the entire filesystem of infected computers, and to regain access, anyone affected would need to pay a ransom — in Bitcoin — to kickstart the decryption process. Only 0.07 percent of victims affected by the worm paid to regain access to their data and files.

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Ransomware Attacks?

In most cases — WannaCry attacks included — affected machines are running outdated software. Nearly all the devices targeted by WannaCry — a whopping 98 percent — were left with port 445 open and were using Windows 7, which hadn’t been patched for the vulnerability.

As it would turn out, the vulnerability that WannaCry took advantage of had been discovered months prior. In fact, it was addressed by Microsoft directly in a critical security update. This update meant that a majority of those affected experienced the issue out of sheer negligence. For whatever reason, affected businesses and organizations, as well as many consumers, had failed to update their software.

Keep in mind that while updating your software and apps isn’t necessarily a surefire way to protect your data, doing so certainly helps. It also highlights the fact that the most vulnerable are those who spend little or no time preparing their digital security.

How to Detect Ransomware and Prevent It

The next topic of relevance is how you can detect and prevent ransomware from infecting your devices. Cleaning out an infected system is rather simple, though not necessarily reliable. Modern security and virus software is your best bet, alongside malware removal tools.

Often, malware removal tools are designed to search using heuristic analysis for potential security risks, and they’ll alert you if something comes up. They use a trove of functional data to analyze what a software application is doing through information such as what network ports are being used to communicate and who a user is phoning home to. The process is in place to identify potential threats.

Your best bet — and best security measure — is using preventative techniques that work to prevent the infection from malware and ransomware on your devices. Yes, you’ll want to know what to do after the fact should the situation ever arise. However, you should spend a majority of your time focused on protecting your data and systems.

In a general sense, these security tips can apply to consumers and businesses alike.

6 Important Security Tips

1. Stay Up-to-Date

Whether you’re using a mobile device or a traditional computer, you should always accept, download and install any official updates released as soon as possible. While not every update delivers a security patch or fixes a potential vulnerability, there’s still a good chance each one will. If and when that’s the case — such as Microsoft’s update to the WannaCry and ETERNALBLUE vulnerability connected to it — you’ll be protecting your data and devices.

2. Run Regular Security Scans

Having security and malware protection tools installed on your device is a start. You should also be performing regular scans of your filesystem and data to ensure nothing has been infected or turned against you. It’s entirely possible for hackers to use a legitimate app or piece of software to carry out an attack, which is another reason you should keep everything up-to-date.

In most cases, active security and virus tools will offer real-time protection by alerting and removing potential risks before anything major occurs. Again, you’ll still want to schedule and run regular scans of your data to be sure.

3. Employ Active Monitoring Solutions

If you have the capital, remember that it’s also important to establish an active security monitoring solution for your network and all devices it serves. This precaution is especially true for any business that offers an open network to external parties. A retailer with free Wi-Fi, for instance, would do well to have this measure in place.

Security analysts and professionals are tapped into your network directly and can monitor who’s accessing what at any given time. The nature of real-time monitoring also allows them to take action if and when they detect something shady happening. With any luck, they can detect the creation, encryption, deletion or manipulation of various files and devices on the network and protect the greater community.

4. Create Honeypots or Faux Servers

To many, this may sound strange, but it works and is a valid security measure. A honeypot is a fake file repository or server designed for the sole purpose of misleading others. The nature of most ransomware attacks calls for the encryption and manipulation of recent files. They simply attach to some of the most recent content accessed or utilized, which is how you can mask a honeypot.

With a honeypot in place, ransomware would encrypt or affect its directory, which is filled with useless files and data. This method would allow you to take action without ever losing access to anything important.

5. Educate and Train

Most security attacks, including ransomware, happen due to employee or user negligence. Maybe an employee shared a password with family or a friend, who then inadvertently installed the malware. Perhaps a third party was able to get account information or sensitive data.

Whatever the case, many security breaches and attacks can be prevented simply by training and educating your userbase. If we’re talking about you and your personal data, you should educate yourself. If you’re an executive or decisionmaker at a business, you should educate your personnel.

6. Purchase Cyber-Insurance

For those who are concerned about data breaches, ransomware and other types of cyber attacks, cyber-insurance is available to cover your business’ liability and allay the risks of a ransomware attack. Typically, cyber liability insurance policies will help businesses to: notify customers in the event of a data breach, recover your client’s identities and personal information, repair computers damaged during the attack, and offer assistance with legal fees and expenses related to the incident. Investing in cyber-insurance can save your company both time and money and will provide an additional level of protection should a data breach or ransomware attack occur.

What to Do When Your Computer Is Infected With Ransomware

Because most of the measures discussed in the previous section will help you prevent ransomware, you should, hopefully, never reach this stage. If you do, however, one thing is integral: Do not ever pay the ransom requested or contact the parties associated with the attack.

It doesn’t matter what information or data they’ve stolen — do not ever pay the ransom. You absolutely cannot trust the other party. Nothing is stopping them from keeping your data and releasing it openly to the greater public, should it be damaging. If that were to happen, the damage incurred by ransomware would be tenfold. You’d be affected by the damage from the data as well as the money spent on the ransom, which you would never get back.

As a major organization or business, the best solution is to adopt endpoint security systems, which are designed from the ground up to protect against these kinds of malware threats. If you have the appropriate solutions in place, you should never have to worry about what to do if your computer is attacked by ransomware. In other words, ransomware prevention is the ideal solution.

Ransomware Prevention is the ideal solution

Here are some other quick tips for preventing ransomware attacks:

  • If you discover an infection, isolate the machine, device or application, and prevent access to the greater network or shared storage.
  • Because there are so many different types of malware and ransomware strains, your next step is to identify what you’ve contracted. Use messages, evidence, file names and more. Cross-reference using a standard web search.
  • On top of reporting to your local security team or data provider, you should also submit a report to your local authorities.
  • If customer or client data was affected, now is the time to make a public statement as opposed to hiding it. Keeping it from everyone will do more damage to your reputation and business.
  • Decide how to deal with the ransomware. If sensitive files were infected, double check if you have a backup or alternate means of access available.
  • Restore and refresh the machine or device in question. Doing so may entail completely wiping storage and operating system data and reinstalling.
  • Assess the vulnerability that was taken advantage of. Deal with it properly to ensure future infections do not occur.

Trust BlackStratus Solutions Today

Data security solutions such as those offered by CYBERShark are your best bet. CYBERShark, along with SIEM Storm and LOGStorm, are products from BlackStratus built to handle the kind of security you need to stay protected — including the training necessary to deal with potential attacks. They’re equipped with the hardware and security solutions — including monitoring tools — to prevent large-scale attacks.

Even if you have an in-house IT and security team, it’s likely they don’t have the same quality and quantity of resources as many third-party security teams. Couple all that with the fact that it’s cheaper to subscribe to a service than to maintain and house all the necessary hardware in-house, and you’ve got a more viable and cost-effective solution at your fingertips.

You can significantly lower your risk of being attacked by following the tips discussed here and adopting a modern cloud security solution. Only then can you truly count on effective ransomware detection for all your devices and systems.

If you want to protect your business or personal devices from a ransomware attack, consider outsourcing the security responsibilities to a more capable, equipped team. Power. Flexibility. Simplicity. Affordability. All of this can be at your fingertips when you contact BlackStratus for the best solutions.

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Rich Murphy