A new study has shown that cybercriminals have generated ransomware profits in excess of $25 million over the past two years, clearly demonstrating why cryptoransomware attacks have soared. There is big money to be made in this form of cyber extortion. The bad news is that with so many organizations paying to recover their files, the ransomware attacks will continue and will likely increase.
Ransomware attacks are profitable because users are still failing to back up their data. Google’s figures suggest that even though the threat of data deletion or encryption is high, only 37% of computer users back up their data. That means if ransomware encrypts files, the only option to recover data is to pay the ransom demand.
Figures from the FBI estimated ransomware payments to have exceeded $1 billion in 2016; however, it is difficult to accurately calculate ransomware profits since the authors go to great lengths to hide their activities. Ransomware profits are difficult to track and companies are reluctant to announce attacks and whether payment has been made.
Two notable exceptions were the South Korean hosting company Nayana that was attacked and had 153 Linux servers and 3,400 customer websites encrypted. The firm paid 1.2 billion Won – approximately $1 million – for the keys to unlock the encryption. Recently, a Canadian company has reportedly paid a ransom of $425,000 to recover its files, although the identity of the firm is still unknown.
Now, a study conducted by Google, with assistance from Chainalysis, the University of California at San Diego, and New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering has shed some light on actual ransomware profits. The study involved an analysis using blockchains and Bitcoin wallets known to have been used to collect ransomware payments. The researchers also used reports from victims and monitored network traffic generated by victims of ransomware attacks to help track where payments were sent.
The study looked at the top 34 ransomware strains and determined more than $25 million has been collected in the past two years. 95% of payments were cashed out using the Bitcoin trading platform BTC-e.
Google has calculated Locky has earned $7.8 million in ransom payments over the past 24 months – 28% of the total payments made. Cerber is in second place with $6.9 million, followed by CryptoLocker on $2 million and CryptXXX and Sam Sam, both on $1.9 million. Spora ransomware may not have made it into the top five, although Google researchers warn that this is an up-and-coming ransomware variant and one to watch over the coming months.
In recent months Cerber ransomware has become the most widely used ransomware variant. The success of Cerber ransomware can be attributed to the skill of the developers in developing a ransomware variant that can evade detection and the affiliate model used to distribute the ransomware – Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS).
RaaS means any number of individuals can conduct ransomware campaigns. Kits are offered to anyone willing to conduct campaigns. Little technical skill is required. All that is required is a lack of moral fiber and the ability to send spam emails distributing the ransomware. Affiliates receive a percentage of the ransomware profits.
WannaCry ransomware certainly caused something of a storm when the worldwide attacks were conducted in May, and while there were more than 200,000 victims worldwide and some 300,000 computers affected, a flaw in the design meant the attacks could be halted and relatively few ransom payments were made. The ransomware profits from these attacks was calculated by Google to be around $100,000.
Ransomware profits from NotPetya were low, although making money was never the aim. NotPetya appeared to be ransomware, although it was actually a wiper. A ransomware demand was issued, but it was not possible to recover data on infected machines. Once this became clear, ransoms were not paid.
The success of Locky, Cerber and CryptXXX is due to the skill of the developers at evading detection. These ransomware variants are constantly evolving to stay one step ahead of security researchers. In the case of Cerber, the researchers discovered thousands of new binaries are being detected each month. There are 23,000 binaries for Cerber and around 6,000 for Locky. In total, the study involved an analysis of 301,588 binaries. The malware variants are capable of changing binaries automatically making detection difficult.
Ransomware attacks may still only make up a small percentage of the total number of malware-related incidents – less than 1% – but the threat is still severe and the attacks are likely to continue, if not increase. As long as it is profitable to develop ransomware and/or use existing ransomware variants, the attacks will continue.
Kylie McRoberts, a senior strategist with Google’s Safe Browsing team, said “Ransomware is here to stay and we will have to deal with for a long time to come.”