Ransomware is only getting worse. How do you prepare for it?

Ransomware how to prevent
Credit: Cutcaster

Ransomware-as-a-service, help desks, third parties -- all point to a mature yet illegal enterprise undergoing serious growth. Here are tips to protect yourself and your company.

Ransomware is big business. Over the last few years we've observed the steady rise of ransomware, with some trepidation. It is fast becoming a multi-billion dollar business, and it's getting surprisingly sophisticated. The ransomware industry is continually innovating, offering cybercriminals new technology, various business models, and all the support they need to conduct successful attacks on unsuspecting individuals and companies.

Changing face of ransomware

Ransomware has come full circle since it first appeared on the scene in 2005. Early crypto ransomware soon gave way to misleading apps, fake antivirus tools, and lockers. But it's back now, it's mature, and it's here to stay, according to Symantec's Evolution of Ransomware report.

In the early days of ransomware, attackers would use misleading apps and fake AV tools to alarm victims and then ask for fees to fix the fake problems. Or they might flash up bogus FBI warnings, threatening prosecution unless money was paid. Eventually they began to lock down systems, blocking access to specific apps or the whole system until the ransom was met.

The main threat today is crypto ransomware, where files are securely encrypted and victims have to pay to secure the key and unlock their own files, and it's very tough to beat.

"The ransomware is that good," said Joseph Bonavolonta, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's CYBER and Counterintelligence Program in Boston, talking to The Security Locker.  "To be honest, we often advise people just to pay the ransom."

Cost of ransomware

There are lots of different ransomware packages out there. Just looking at one of the most popular examples, CryptoWall, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 992 related complaints between April 2014 and June 2015, with victims reporting losses of more than $18 million. That's just what was reported.

The Cyber Threat Alliance put together a report profiling the CryptoWall v3 threat and suggested that it had afflicted hundreds of thousands of users worldwide and caused damages in the region of $325 million.

Services for cybercriminals

In McAfee Labs' 2016 Threats Predictions report, ransomware features prominently and the report makes special mention of the success of the ransomware-as-a-service business model. Experienced cybercriminals are offering high-quality ransomware to would-be attackers with little or no technical knowledge or skills in return for a cut of the extortion profits. The ransomware is typically hosted on the Tor network, and payment is made almost untraceable with virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Users of these ransomware services can expect to get helpdesk support, and it's in the interests of the extorters to ensure that data is returned to those who pay. These service providers will skim anywhere from 5% to 20% of each ransom, so they aim to make it as easy as possible for the cybercriminals who sign up.

What can you do?

Just like any other malware, you have to install ransomware before it can encrypt your files, so there are some simple precautionary steps that everyone can take to drastically reduce the risks:

  • Install reputable anti-virus and anti-malware software.
  • Don't open attachments in emails, unless you know what it is.
  • Don't follow links in emails, close the email, and go directly to the website in your browser.
  • Use strong passwords, and don't reuse the same passwords.
  • Make sure all of your system software and browsers are patched automatically with security updates.
  • You should apply all of these rules to whatever device you're using. Smartphones, tablets, and Macs are not immune to ransomware.
  • Finally, make sure you have solid back-ups of all your data.

You can also mitigate the risk of ransomware by having a robust and regular backup routine. If your files are backed up and you can access them, there's no need to pay to unlock them, but it may still require some serious effort to rid yourself of the ransomware once your system is infected.

Ransomware is sure to be an even bigger issue in 2016, so it's very important that you take steps to prevent infection. If you do fall prey to something like CryptoWall v3, there's no way around it. Your only realistic prospect of getting the files back is to pay the ransom, or, better yet, restore from back-up!

When it comes to ransomware, the old saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," could not be more fitting.

The opinions expressed in this Blog are those of Michelle Drolet and do not necessarily represent those of the IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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