Throughout 2020 the healthcare sector has been a major target of ransomware gangs, but the education sector is also facing an increase in attacks, with the Pysa (Mespinoza) ransomware gang now targeting the education sector.

Pysa ransomware is a variant of Mespinoza ransomware that was first observed being used in attacks in October 2019. The threat group behind the attacks, like many other ransomware threat groups, uses double extortion tactics on victims. Files are encrypted and a ransom demand is issued for the keys to decrypt files, but to increase the probability of the ransom being paid, data is exfiltrated prior to file encryption. The gang threatens to monetize the stolen data on the darkweb if the ransom is not paid. Many attacked entities have been forced to pay the ransom demand even when they have backups to prevent the sale of their data.

Since October 2019, the Pysa ransomware gang has targeted large companies, the healthcare sector, and local government agencies, but there has been a recent increase in attacks on the education sector. Attacks have been conducted on K12 schools, higher education institutions, and seminaries, with attacks occurring in 12 U.S. states and the United Kingdom. The rise in attacks prompted the FBI to issue a Flash Alert in March 2020 warning the education sector about the increased risk of attack.

Analyses of attacks revealed the gang conducts network reconnaissance using open source tools such as Advanced Port Scanner and Advanced IP Scanner. Tools such as PowerShell Empire, Koadic, and Mimikatz are used to obtain credentials, escalate privileges, and move laterally within networks. The gang identifies and exfiltrates sensitive data before delivering and executing the ransomware payload. The types of data stolen are those that can be used to pressure victims into paying and can easily be monetized on the darkweb.

Identifying a Pysa ransomware attack in progress is challenging, so it is essential for defenses to be hardened to prevent initial access. Several methods have been used to gain access to networks, although in many cases it is unclear how the attack started. In attacks on French companies and government agencies brute force tactics were used against management consoles and exposed Active Directory accounts. Some attacks have involved exploitation of Remote Desktop Protocol vulnerabilities, with the gang is also known to use spam and phishing emails to obtain credentials to get a foothold in networks.

Since several methods are used for gaining access, there is no single solution that can be implemented to block attacks. Educational institutions need to use a combination of security solutions and cybersecurity best practices to harden their defenses.

Antivirus/antimalware solution is a must, as is ensuring it is kept up to date. Since many attacks start with a phishing email, an advanced email security gateway is also important. Choosing a solution such as SpamTitan that incorporates dual AV engines and sandboxing will maximize the chance of detecting malicious emails. SpamTitan also incorporates machine learning methods to identify new methods of email attacks.

End user training is also important to teach staff how to identify potentially malicious emails and train them on cybersecurity best practices such as setting strong passwords, not reusing passwords, and the dangers of using public Wi-Fi networks. Also consider disabling hyperlinks in emails, flagging emails that arrive from external sources, and implementing multi-factor authentication on accounts.

Patches and security updates should be implemented promptly after they have been released to prevent vulnerabilities from being exploited. You should use the rule of least privilege for accounts, restrict the use of administrative accounts as far as possible, and segment networks to limit the potential for lateral movement. You should also be scanning your network for suspicious activity and configure alerts to allow any potential infiltration to be rapidly identified. All unused RDP ports should be closed, and a VPN used for remote access.

It is essential for backups to be made of all critical data to ensure that file recovery is possible without paying the ransom. Multiple backups of data should be created, those backups should be tested to make sure file recovery is possible, and at least one copy should be stored securely on an air-gapped device.