Ransomware is just what it sounds like: malicious software created by a criminal hacker who uses the software to infect your computer and restrict your ability to access it until you pay a ransom. The criminal hacker often attempts to extort money from victims by displaying an on-screen alert that tells the user that his or her systems have been locked or encrypted. Users are told that unless a ransom is paid, access will not be restored. The ransom demanded from individuals varies greatly but is frequently $200–$400 dollars and must be paid in virtual currency, such as Bitcoin, according to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a part of the Department of Homeland Security
(Updated on July 27, 2017. Scroll to bottom of page.)
How does the ransomware infiltrate someone’s computer?
Ransomware is often spread through phishing emails that contain malicious attachments or through drive-by downloading — when a user unknowingly visits an infected website and then malware is downloaded and installed without the user’s knowledge. Other methods involve social media, instant messaging and other ways to access a company server that spreads the ransomware across an organization’s network.
Why is it so effective?
According to US-CERT, criminal hackers using ransomware instill fear and panic into their victims, causing them to click on a link or pay a ransom. When the user follows such instructions, their computer and network can become infected with additional malware.
Examples of ransomware messages displayed on the victim’s screen
- “Your computer has been infected with a virus. Click here to resolve the issue.”
- “Your computer was used to visit websites with illegal content. To unlock your computer, you must pay a $100 fine.”
- “All files on your computer have been encrypted. You must pay this ransom within 72 hours to regain access to your data.”
Ransomware’s impact on small businesses
Small businesses can be infected with ransomware, leading to negative consequences, including
- Temporary or permanent loss of sensitive or proprietary information,
- Disruption to regular operations
- Financial losses incurred to restore systems and files
- Potential harm to an organization’s reputation
Paying the ransom does not guarantee the encrypted files will be released; it only guarantees that the malicious actors receive the victim’s money, and in some cases, their banking information. In addition, decrypting files does not mean the malware infection itself has been removed.
14 tips for minimizing your risk of being a ransomware victim
US-CERT discourages victims from paying the ransom, as this does not guarantee files will be released. Report instances of fraud to the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center. US-CERT encourages users and administrators take the following preventive measures to protect their computer networks from ransomware:
- Employ a data backup and recovery plan for all critical information. Perform and test regular backups to limit the impact of data or system loss and to expedite the recovery process. Note that network-connected backups can also be affected by ransomware; critical backups should be isolated from the network for optimum protection.
- Use application whitelisting to help prevent malicious software and unapproved programs from running.
- Keep your operating system and software up-to-date with the latest updates and patches. Vulnerable applications and operating systems are the targets of most attacks.
- Maintain up-to-date anti-virus software, and scan all software downloaded from the internet prior to executing.
- Restrict users’ ability (permissions) to install and run unwanted software applications.
- Avoid enabling macros from email attachments. For enterprises or organizations, it may be best to block email messages with attachments from suspicious sources.
- Do not follow unsolicited web links in emails.
- Implement an awareness and training program. Because end users are targets, employees should be aware of the threat of ransomware and how it is delivered.
- Enable strong spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching employees and authenticate inbound email using technologies like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) to prevent email spoofing.
- Scan all incoming and outgoing emails to detect threats and filter executable files (used to perform computer functions) from reaching employees.
- Configure firewalls to block access to known malicious IP addresses.
- Set anti-virus and anti-malware programs to conduct regular scans automatically.
- No employees should be assigned administrative access unless absolutely needed and those with a need for administrator accounts should only use them when necessary.
- Configure access controls—including file, directory, and network share permissions— with least privilege in mind. If an employee only needs to read specific files, the employee should not have write access to those files, directories, or shares.
Update | After this article was published, we received several versions of the question, “Should I pay the ransom?” This answer is from the article, “How does ransomware work? Understanding the economics” originally published on ITNews.com. There is more helpful information in the article.
Should you pay the ransom?
Put bluntly, what should a business do if one or more of its computers is hit by ransomware? The advice of many law enforcement and government agencies is that companies should never pay the ransom because this rewards criminals and encourages them to carry out more attacks. If no-one ever paid a ransom to unlock their data then the whole ransomware business would disappear. That’s the course of action that’s in the long-term best interest of everyone, but while refusing to pay may be in the best interest of the business community as a whole, it is not necessarily in the best interest of a particular ransomware victim who may permanently lose access to vital data and go out of business. Faced with a choice between refusing to pay a ransom in order to serve the best interest of the community and going out of business in the process, or paying a relatively modest ransom and staying in business, the obvious choice is to pay the ransom. (…)