The use of ransomware to attack businesses continued to decline throughout 2018 after extensive use of the file-encrypting malware by cybercriminals in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, ransomware fell out of favor with cybercriminals, who turned to other forms of cybercrime to make money.
However, ransomware is seeing something of a resurgence in 2019. The latest Breach Insights Report from Beazley Breach Response Services shows ransomware attacks are increasing once again. In the first quarter of 2019, ransomware attack notifications from its clients increased by 105% from Q1, 2018. Ransom demands are also increasing.
The rise in attacks has continued in Q2. Attacks using MegaCortex ransomware surged in late April. The ransomware variant was first identified in January and was only used in a handful of attacks in the following three months, but in the last week in April, 47 confirmed attacks were reported.
Dharma ransomware attacks have similarly increased. According to Malwarebytes, the past two months have seen a 148% increase in attacks. The threat actors behind Dharma ransomware are now using a variety of methods to distribute their ransomware payload.
The most common method of distribution is phishing emails. Emails contain embedded hyperlinks that direct users to a malicious website where the ransomware payload is downloaded. Email attachments containing malicious scripts are also used to download the ransomware payload.
Attacks are also taking place via remote desktop protocol over TCP port 3389. Brute force attacks are conducted to gain access to a device then ransomware is deployed. Dharma ransomware has also been identified in fake antivirus software programs which are pushed via a variety of websites. Users are tricked into downloading fake AV software after receiving a fake alert about a malware infection that has been detected on the user’s device.
Ransomware has also been used in conjunction with other malware such as Emotet. Emotet was once a banking Trojan but has since morphed into a botnet, capable of stealing login credentials, propagating itself via email on an infected device, and is capable of downloading other malware payloads. Emotet has been used to distribute Ryuk ransomware.
There have been upticks in attacks using other ransomware variants and the popularity of ransomware continues to grow, with some industries targeted more than others. Healthcare organizations are an attractive target as access to patient data is critical for providing medical services. There is a higher probability of ransom demands being paid due to reliance on patient data.
A recent report from Recorded Future has confirmed that attacks on towns, cities, and local government systems are soaring. Its study confirmed that there were 169 attacks on county, city, or state government systems and police and sheriffs’ offices since 2013. There were 38 ransomware attacks in 2017, 53 in 2018, and 22 attacks have already occurred in 2019 and the year is not yet halfway through.
Akron, OH; Albany, NY; Jackson County and Cartersville, GA; and Lynn, MA, have all been attacked this year and the city of Baltimore, MA, has been struggling to recover from its attack for the past two weeks with many city services still disrupted.
The rise in attacks is understandable. The potential rewards from a successful attack are high, many victims have no alternative but to pay, and thanks to ransomware-as-a-service, attacks are easy to pull off and require little in the way of skill.
As long as the attacks continue to be profitable, they will continue. What businesses need to do is to make it much harder for the attacks to succeed and to ensure that if disaster does strike, recovery is possible without having to pay a ransom.
Recovery depends on viable backups of all critical files being available. That means regular backups must be made, those backups need to be tested to make sure files can be restored, and copies need to be stored securely where they cannot also be encrypted.
Remote Desktop Protocol is a weak point that is commonly exploited. If RDP is not required, it should be disabled. If disabling RDP is not an option, strong, complex passwords should be used and access should only be possible using a VPN.
To block web-based attacks, consider implementing a web filtering solution such as WebTitan which prevents users from visiting known malicious websites and downloading executable files types.
One of the primary methods of delivering ransomware is spam and phishing emails. An advanced spam filtering solution should be implemented to block malicious emails and ensure they are not delivered to end users’ inboxes. SpamTitan now incorporates a sandbox, which allows suspicious files to be executed in a secure environment where activities of the files can be safely analyzed for malicious actions. SpamTitan also scans outgoing mail for signs of infection with Emotet.
While these technical controls are important, you should not forget end users. By providing security awareness training and teaching end users how to recognize potential threats, they can be turned into a strong last line of defense.
Fortunately, with layered defenses you can make it much harder for ransomware attacks to succeed and can avoid becoming yet another ransomware statistic.