Cyber security incidents have been steadily growing despite every effort to counteract these threats. And one area where the biggest changes are still emerging is in ransomware attacks.
The main problem with these types of attacks is that they often gradually build up unnoticed until they gain enough control over systems and data to completely lock you out. And at that stage, you’re faced with crippling costs.
To help you better understand why ransomware should be a top priority for your cybersecurity investments, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide with plenty of actionable solutions for you to get started with building more layers of protection.
WHAT EVERY SMALL BUSINESS OWNER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT RANSOMWARE
The tech world is full of risk. Many viruses exist not just for mischief but to make an easy payday for hackers. Ransomware is one of the most potent of the new-age viruses, but its dangers don’t have to scare you.
Here are a few details about ransomware, along with ways to recover easier if your systems are compromised.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT RANSOMWARE THAT MAKES IT DANGEROUS?
As the name suggests, a ransomware attack is a type of malicious software that holds your data and IT systems ransom. It keeps your files from you by encrypting them in a strong encryption format.
Encryption, in this case, means converting the file into a format or style that can’t be read without a proper key. This key often comes with a cost, a fee paid to hackers in exchange for unlocked files.
There are multiple takes on the ransomware style of attacks. Fake ransomware comes from hacker copycats who can’t figure out or afford true ransomware tools. These tools simply change the extension name of your files.
For example, you may have the following common files on your computer:
- .doc/.docx – Word document
- .txt – Text document
- .pdf – Adobe file
- .jpg – Image file
- .png – Image file
- .mp3 – Audio file
- .avi – Video file
- .flv – Video file
A file such as ImportantBusinessSecret.doc can be changed to ImportantBusinessSecret.hak, ImportantBusinessSecret.brk, ImportantBusinessSecret.stl, or some other random or intentionally incorrect extension.
To fix it, you could simply change the extension to the right format. This could damage the file, or it could work, and you’ll have to do that for as many files and critical data on your computer as are infected.
The more you learn about ransomware, the more you’ll know that legitimate ransomware will truly encrypt files by turning them into what seems like random, garbled text. There’s a method to the madness; the random text is actually your files but scrambled.
CAN RANSOMWARE FILES BE RECOVERED WITHOUT PAYING?
As of today, the answer is “not easily.”
One of the more notorious ransomware attacks, called WannaCry, uses an encryption format called RSA-2048. There are multiple types of encryption that essentially scramble your data in a way that is hard to unscramble without a key.
You’ve likely used RSA-2048 at least once, along with other encryption standards, without knowing it. Most reputable websites have a lock beside their address that shares the type of encryption. And it’s a common encryption type for securing online payments.
The same technology that prevents hackers from simply translating your stolen credit card data is used for ransomware. The encryption hasn’t been cracked yet, with the only successful hack being a side-channel attack.
Side-channel is just an industry term for approaching a problem indirectly. Instead of trying all possible key combinations, researchers looked for other clues while conducting ransomware attacks. This is the same as checking for worn-out buttons to find a lock combination.
SMALL BUSINESSES ARE THE PERFECT RANSOMWARE VICTIM
When a ransomware attack strikes, it has the potential to bring in big attention.
Recovering from ransomware can be very expensive. Even if your information becomes a research project for government-sponsored security professionals, you’re still risking the loss of vital information for a long time.
Large businesses have enough funds to pay big rewards to hackers, but ransomware is no longer a new threat. The best way to avoid a ransomware attack is to have secure backups, and any major corporation without proper backups at this point is doomed to fail.
Smaller businesses have less security and fewer resources to fight back with anti-malware software. Although the money siphoned from a small business victim isn’t often in the millions, it’s enough to do a lot of damage. A budding hacker with new tools can buy great computer systems with your money and create more sophisticated ransomware attacks.
Small businesses are lower risks in most situations. There are a lot of ransomware victims, meaning a case reported to the FBI will likely be on a long list. Specific hackers have less of a chance to be targeted, with their targets being a lower priority.
Local law enforcement isn’t often equipped to counter ransomware attacks. If you know something special about your local authorities, keep it quiet; let hackers be surprised by a hidden cyber security expert.
For everyone else, there isn’t much that a local police station can do about encryption designed for government-grade security.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RANSOMWARE AND MALWARE
With worldwide attacks using a new form of malware attack called ransomware on hospitals and industrial systems coming to light in the press recently, it is evident that a new kind of malicious software is on the rise.
These attacks bring up an important question: is there a difference between this new “ransomware” and traditional malware? In simple terms: yes. There is a difference between ransomware and malware.
Ransomware is a new form of malware that has a more specific task in mind – to extort money.
So it’s not a matter of whether there’s a difference between ransomware and malware. Ransomware is simply a different type of malware. Traditional malware usually comes packaged as a computer virus or worm.
A virus will often affect a single computer and can run all sorts of unwanted programs such as transfer private and critical data from the machine over the Internet, corrupt critical files and effectively destroy the software of the device, or even sit quietly and monitor a user’s keystrokes to try and glean passwords.
A worm, on the other hand, will affect one computer and then attempt to spread to other computers on the same network. A worm’s goal is usually the same as a virus, but it can spread to multiple machines instead of being a localized infection.
This malicious code usually comes included with something like a document or spreadsheet through an email – which is why you see such stress placed on never, ever opening emails or attachments if you’re not sure where they originate.
Modern malware can carry much larger payloads than traditional malware – often including multiple viruses or worms in combination, so it is difficult to find and eliminate all of the malicious code on computer systems.
Modern malware can also find its way in through many other security holes, such as software and network connections that haven’t been updated to patch out security flaws – Adobe Flash Player is a prominent example of this.
This behavior fundamentally changes the defense strategy when it comes to protecting your systems from malware, from training users to recognize malware and ransomware attack attempts to keeping up with malware manufacturers on their latest techniques and making sure to patch all software vulnerabilities as well.
HOW DOES RANSOMWARE AFFECT A BUSINESS?
Ransomware attacks have been rather prevalent in the news of late. Sandwiched between the latest government cyber incident response and the weekend weather forecast, you may have noticed ransomware attacks striking major organizations around the globe.
These, in general, have been multi-billion dollar companies, including financial institutions and oil manufacturers. Often, these businesses have been forced to pay millions of dollars in ransom fees to take back control of their business and avoid the distribution of sensitive documents.
And yet, the problem is so much larger than these massive corporations falling under attack even with large budgets for ransomware protection. Every single day, businesses just like yours fall into the crosshair of Internet scammers and cybercriminals.
For various reasons, small-time cybercrime doesn’t make the headlines, but when it hits home, it can be devastating. To better protect your company’s computer systems, you need to know how ransomware affects business, no matter what industry you are in.
IT SNEAKS PAST SECURITY
There are several ways that ransomware attacks affect businesses and how they can enter your network connections. If you have a weak firewall and defensive system in place, it can sneak in, one bit at a time, slowly assembling until it’s instructed to launch using a remote desktop protocol.
If the files have not been discovered and removed by the time this happens, it may be too late.
A ransomware attack can even enter your network through appliances and IoT devices you might not expect to be a security threat. However, if you’re not protecting every device connected to the Internet, such as a printer or smart appliances, information can move through this unassuming Internet connection.
One of the most common methods of accessing your network is also the easiest one to protect against infected emails. Whether it’s clicking on an infected link inside a received email that will propagate ransomware or opening up an infected Web page, most of these issues occur when someone within your own business simply makes a mistake and clicks on something they shouldn’t have.
That’s why going over what to avoid opening up and not clicking on is as essential as having the latest security software and cyber incident response.
HOW RANSOMWARE AFFECTS A BUSINESS
While every business is different, the basic networking of a company is more or less the same.
There can be more security in place, and those multi-billion dollar corporations have a complex infrastructure, but the basics are relatively universal. So what happens to one business can happen to yours.
When a ransomware attack launches, it takes complete control of the network. You may not be able to access information, or you might be completely locked out of the network. Most modern ransomware attacks will take over the entire network, although some might attack a specific computer station.
When the attack happens, you can’t open important files, and you won’t be able to log into your website, conduct sales, and you won’t be able to communicate with other users on the network or do just about anything.
Essentially, you’re completely blocked from your own business.
But that’s not everything. Typically, ransomware doesn’t install and launch right away. It sits there in the weeds, siphoning off important, confidential data from infected computers.
It can be all your customer’s financial documentation. It can be medical records, Social Security data, and other information you don’t want to leak. The cybercriminal will then use this information against you.
Ransomware has its name because the criminal requires a paid ransom to release their control of your network.
In the early days of ransomware attacks, you’d pay a ransom for a key code, and the key code would then unlock the network and, theoretically, remove the infected files (although oftentimes trace elements of the ransomware would remain and potentially strike the computer again).
Modern ransomware attacks take this a step further.
Not only does it lock down your network and request a ransom, but it threatens to release confidential information, which might be far more financially damaging to you and your business than anything else.
Some companies, especially those with enough saved up, would set up a new network, trashing the infected one. But now, with the stolen information, this doesn’t fix the problem at all. Now, you are forced to face the threat of either abandoning your network and risking the release of damaging information or paying the ransom, which can often be steep.
In short, if your network is ever infected and taken over by ransomware attacks, you’re in between a rock and a hard place.
That’s why it is always better to protect your business against ransomware properly.
Cybercriminals going after small and medium-sized businesses would rather secure a quick financial score, which means when your secure network is detected, there is a better chance of them moving on and looking for another business (like a criminal checking front doors to find which one is unlocked).
WHO SHOULD WORRY ABOUT RANSOMWARE IN 2024?
As 2024 begins its routines of changes, new introductions, and familiar faces, the tech world continues to evaluate cyber security.
Although more people are aware of cyber threats because of how public and high-profile certain exploits have become, there is always a chance of a new type of exploit and a new set of victims.
The types of people who should worry about ransomware attacks have shifted, but the threat is still there. Here are a few ransomware attack details to understand the threat, the groups dealing with the most risk, and ways to protect your systems from known vulnerabilities.
USE EMAIL? YOU SHOULD WORRY ABOUT RANSOMWARE
The concept of ransomware infection on systems isn’t new. There are always new ways to trick users into downloading files and launching them, and email is a particularly common way.
One of the most dangerous ransomware events utilized Windows exploits—which still has a considerable operating system market share.
The weakness allowing the original exploit was fixed with a patch. Unfortunately, there are other ways to be infected with a ransomware threat.
Ransomware can be installed by downloading a legitimate file and executing a series of commands. Since viruses are nothing new, most modern systems can block programs from accessing deep, sensitive files—even if you’re the admin!
The difference between ransomware attacks and other viruses that seek to control your system is that ransomware hackers want your system to still work. Worms and programs designed to utterly destroy the system are useless to ransomware criminals.
If your system isn’t working, you can’t see the ransomware’s damage, and you can’t see the instructions. With no instructions, you won’t know where to pay. It’s still terrible for you, but ransomware systems are designed to keep the core system functional.
NO OPERATING SYSTEM IS SPARED
Virus attacks are all about popularity, especially when money is involved. Although many hackers just like learning about systems and reaching greater achievements, most threats today are about money.
If your Operating System (OS) has the biggest market share, you’re a target and one of the many who should worry about ransomware. This runs counter to what certain OS customers may think about their brand.
Especially with Apple’s MacOS and IOS, the idea that Mac systems were “unhackable” is based on past luck. True safety came from being newer, different from the popular Windows systems, and with fewer potential victims.
Mac-specific ransomware such as Panther was loaded onto illegal downloads of popular programs such as Adobe Premiere CC. If you’ve ever picked up a “cheap” or “free” copy from a friend, there’s a chance you’re at risk.
If you knowingly pirate software at all, ransomware and all other virus threats are just part of the risk, making you one of the many who should worry about ransomware as well.
The ransomware system called KeRanger was spread around in a similar fashion. Another dangerous and alarming ransomware event on Mac was the official Handbrake program being infected with remote desktop protocol exploits.
This official but infected software was spread around to customers across the world.
These are some of the ways that many Windows users are infected by ransomware as well. Windows users suffer a higher infection risk from vectors (attack methods/angles) such as clickable advertisements designed for their OS. As people shift to iPhones and Android devices, hackers adjust their attention and talents accordingly.
It’s all about whether it’s worth a hacker’s time.
NOT MAKING CONSTANT UPDATES TO YOUR OS OR SOFTWARE? WATCH OUT
One of the most devastating ransomware cases (the WannaCry or Wcry threat) was spread through email phishing and an exploit from the pre-ransomware technique called EternalBlue.
EternalBlue worked by exploiting a system called Microsoft Server Message Block 1.0 or SMB. SMB is a network-sharing technique or protocol. This protocol gives systems permission to read and write files.
Normally, a program would use SMB to read and write information across the network just like computers do internally. Hackers can use this to load files remotely without triggering certain security details.
While the technology can get a bit deep, this underlines why hackers do what they do. It’s dangerous and expensive, but it’s an interesting way to sneak into a system. Computers are massive piles of files, and there’s bound to be a way around some stack of code.
If you’re good at tech, you can find these exploits.
Unfortunately, people with these skills use their findings to make money by wreaking havoc. Next, a lower tier of tech-savvy people can copy the techniques and start their own attacks. The exploit was patched, but the patch has to be downloaded.
Many people do not update their computers for various reasons, which leads to continued exploits.
Do you have updates turned off? Do you know why they’re turned off? Can you get a reliable internet connection? Unless you have a valid reason, such as being on a limited internet connection, perform system updates immediately.
There are select groups who do not update their systems for a good reason. Certain businesses and government organizations need to test every update for compatibility. The military, for example, can’t simply trust Microsoft or Apple not to spy or not be infiltrated.
People who pirate or steal copies of their operating systems often can’t update. They either need to download a piracy-compatible update. For most pirated copies, updating will invalidate their system and lock it down.
Some businesses are tempted to copy the military or other businesses with certain security practices. If you’re not a multinational, multi-million-dollar business, you can’t afford their controls. A dedicated security professional with programming and networking experience is needed to make not updating worth it.
More importantly, you need to be an actual target of advanced espionage.
That’s just not realistic for companies that aren’t at least Fortune 500 businesses. It’s not about dressing for the job you want or practicing for the big leagues. Instead of picking your own tech security, ask a professional for a properly-sized option.
THOSE BACK-UPS ARE ONE OF THE MOST AT RISK
The best defense against ransomware is proper updates, proper security systems, and proper backup data schedules. With a good backup system, you can store multiple days of saved information.
The standard backup process involves copying all of your company’s data, then storing it somewhere safe. Backups need to be tested on at least quarterly basis. Backing up files is more advanced than just copying and pasting information and can be corrupted.
Because of data corruption, you may need to write another backup and test for failure before danger strikes.
Standard backup schedules often follow this theme:
- Monthly: One large, full backup of every file in your business once per month. This is best done after hours.
- Weekly: One large, full backup again. This backup happens weekly.
- Daily: The weekly backup, but edited with changes and copied daily.
In this schedule, you have nine backups of your business. The last 7 are the same files but marked with specific days and with much smaller differences. Backups are a hard lesson to learn for too many businesses.
Don’t wait until your first ransomware file loss to set up a plan.
If you wish to learn more or want to discuss system hardening and backup planning, feel free to contact us so we can talk more about what type of security measures will work best for your business.
TOP WAYS TO PREVENT RANSOMWARE FROM IMPACTING YOUR SMALL BUSINESS
Ransomware is a serious threat to any personal computer. However, if you run a small business, the risk jumps infinitely. With a home computer, if ransomware infects the system, it can shut the computer down and lock you out.
If you run a small business and this happens, it not only may lock you out of your entire business network, but it can potentially siphon off confidential documents. This could include the financial records of both your company and your customers.
At best, this results in a significant loss of productivity. At worst, it will lead to a catastrophic data breach, customers suing you because of the loss of their personal information, and your business may shut down permanently because of it.
While that is a wide spectrum of possibilities, it goes to show you why it is so important to protect your business from hackers and cybercriminals through proper malware analysis. To assist, here are some top ways to prevent ransomware infection from known vulnerabilities.
ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP
Ransomware can sneak onto your computer network one bit at a time. With properly configured network security, it is possible to identify this and prevent it from happening in the first place.
However, in the event of ransomware taking over the network and locking you out, it is important to follow a handful of steps.
First, disconnect from the Internet. By disconnecting from the Internet, the ransomware will be disconnected from its host. While it may still block you from accessing the network and valuable data itself, it won’t be able to adjust its course of action.
With the help of an IT professional, it may be able to work through the ransomware mess and delete it. This can take time as every file needs to be scanned. Often this is more intensive and time-consuming than you might like. That is why it may be better to simply revert to a network backup of your file servers.
The network backup will have a replica of all files stored on your network from a set period. Reverting to this old backup will restore your computer system while removing every file installed after the backup image was made.
Now, this doesn’t guarantee parts of the ransomware aren’t on the backup. In fact, to avoid detection, most ransomware will install one bit at a time and in different locations within the network.
Then, when all the files are accounted for, it will self-install and launch.
Due to this, even when reverting to the backup, there may be some early file bits of the ransomware. An IT professional will be able to launch the backup and then perform a full system sweep to identify these early files.
It is important to routinely back up your system.
The backup needs to be complete, and it needs to be done often. If you only perform a full backup once a month, you may end up losing weeks of important files. Creating multiple backups can help with this, such as saving business-critical files to multiple sources.
Your IT service provider can help you with establishing proper network backups for your business so that you have an effective way around ransom demands.
UPDATE YOUR SYSTEM
Do you know those pesky little “system update” windows that pop up on your computer screen?
It can be so easy to tell the window to remind you tomorrow or at a different time because, after all, you’re busy now. While this pushes the update off to the side, you do need to install the updates as soon as possible.
These are often security updates designed to block out external hackers, cybercriminals, and ransomware infection. Failure to update will leave you exposed. Due to this, one of the best ways to prevent ransomware is to always install the system updates whenever made available.
PROPER EMPLOYEE TRAINING
Most ransomware doesn’t make it into a network by sneaking through cracks in the firewall.
Instead, the files usually walk right in, thanks to an employee. An employee may open malicious phishing emails, click on an infected link, or select one of those fraudulent “Update Adobe” pop-ups that appear from time to time.
It’s easy to make these mistakes, but it is very important to provide cybersecurity awareness training for your employees to not only avoid certain mistakes but to learn how to identify possible threats. The better trained your employees are, the better equipped they will be to detect potential threats.
IT professionals, such as those at Charlotte IT Solutions, can help with this kind of training.
INTRUSION DETECTION SYSTEM (IDS)
One of the best ways to prevent ransomware is to utilize an IDS. With an IDS in place, it becomes easier to identify potential threats poking around your network, including possible ransomware threats.
It will monitor network traffic logs and continually compare them to what is currently taking place.
This allows it to flag potentially malicious activity that looks unusual. By detecting the strange network activity, it is possible to then adjust how your network security functions. Then make updates to any possible issues your firewall may have had.
This way, by the time the malware or ransomware figures out how to push into your network, you will have already made the necessary adjustments to prevent it from going beyond an infected device.
TAKE THE NEXT STEP IN PROTECTING YOUR BUSINESS
When running a small business, it is important to take cybersecurity seriously. While you should always follow these top ways to prevent ransomware, the very best method for safeguarding your small business is to bring in an IT professional.
With the help of an IT professional, you’ll have network security tailored to your specific business needs.
The needs of a healthcare service provider greatly differ from that of a hardware store. However, without a tailored security blanket, you may end up running a cookie-cutter firewall that leaves you exposed.
At Charlotte IT Solutions, you have access to some of the most skilled and knowledgeable professionals in the business. So, if you’re ready to get serious about your network security and want to do everything in your power to protect your business data and your client’s confidential information, now is the time to contact Charlotte IT Solutions.