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Ransomware - Definition, Types, and History

In today's digital landscape, cybersecurity threats have become a pervasive concern for individuals, businesses, and organizations alike. One such piece of malicious software that has gained notoriety over the years is ransomware. This comprehensive blog aims to provide a detailed understanding of ransomware, its characteristics, impact, prevention, and mitigation strategies.

In May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, a major U.S. gasoline pipeline, was hit by a ransomware attack. The attack caused the pipeline to shut down for several days, which led to gasoline shortages in the southeastern United States. Many such ransomware attacks have occurred in the past impacting lives of millions. Let’s discuss, how such attacks occur and how to tackle them in detail.

Before going any further, look at this video in which our cybersecurity specialists explain the various cyber threats:

What is Ransomware Attack?

A ransomware attack refers to a form of cyber assault wherein malicious software is utilized to encrypt files or lock devices, rendering them inaccessible to the victim. The perpetrators behind these attacks demand a ransom, typically in cryptocurrency, with the promise of providing the decryption key or unlocking the compromised systems. The repercussions of ransomware attacks can be severe, encompassing financial losses, disruptions to operations, data loss, and potential harm to one’s reputation.

Cybercriminals usually execute these attacks by exploiting vulnerabilities in computer systems or employing social engineering techniques to deceive users into downloading or opening malicious files. Once the ransomware infiltrates a system, it swiftly encrypts files, rendering them unusable or displaying a ransom note directly on the victim’s screen.

Ransomware attacks are not limited to specific targets and can affect individuals, businesses of any scale, healthcare institutions, educational establishments, and even government entities. To pressure their victims, attackers frequently impose strict deadlines for ransom payment, coupled with threats to delete or publicize the encrypted data if their demands are not met.

To minimize the risk of becoming victims of a ransomware attack, it is essential for both individuals and organizations to maintain constant vigilance, implement robust cybersecurity practices, and keep their defense systems up to date.

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How Does Ransomware Work?

Ransomware operates through a series of steps designed to encrypt files or lock devices, effectively holding them hostage until a ransom is paid. Here’s a breakdown of how ransomware works:

  • Delivery: Ransomware is typically delivered through various methods, including malicious email attachments, infected downloads from compromised websites, malicious links, or exploit kits. These delivery methods often rely on social engineering techniques to trick users into executing or opening the malicious payload.
  • Execution: Once the ransomware is delivered to the target system, it executes and starts its malicious activities. It may attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in the operating system or other software to gain elevated privileges and establish persistence within the system.
  • Encryption: The ransomware proceeds to encrypt specific files or even the entire hard drive, making them inaccessible to the victim. Advanced encryption algorithms are used to ensure that the files cannot be decrypted without the unique encryption key, which is held by the attackers.
  • Ransom Note: After encrypting the files, the ransomware typically displays a ransom note on the victim’s screen. This note informs the victim about the attack, provides instructions on how to pay the ransom, and may include threats of permanent data loss or increased ransom amounts if the payment is not made within a specified timeframe.
  • Ransom Payment: The attackers demand payment, usually in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Monero, to provide the decryption key or unlock the compromised system. They often require victims to communicate with them through anonymous channels, such as Tor or encrypted messaging platforms, to maintain their anonymity.
  • Decryption or Data Loss: In the event that the victim opts to make the ransom payment, they will receive a decryption key from the attackers, enabling them to decrypt their files and restore access to their system. However, it is crucial to note that there is no assurance that the attackers will provide a functional decryption key. Unfortunately, some victims may still encounter data loss even after complying with the ransom demands.

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Types of Ransomware Attacks

Types of ransomware attacks

There are primarily three different types of ransomware that have held victims hostage and forced them to oblige to the ransom demands. The types of ransomware are listed below:

Crypto ransomware

This type of ransomware encrypts files and documents on a computer so that the user cannot access them. The attacker demands the victim pay the ransom to get the files back in their original form.

This ransomware is a form of malware that attacks a computer and restricts the user’s access to files stored on the computer by encrypting them.

For example, Locky, Wannacry, Bad Rabbit, Ryuk, SamSam, Petya, and TeslaCrypt

Locker ransomware

Locker ransomware locks the victim out of their devices, preventing them from using the computer. It demands the victim pay ransom to unlock the device, commonly known as screen-locker ransomware.

This type of ransomware locks the user or victim out of their device. The ransomware pops up the window with the demand for ransom to unlock the device.

For example, MrLocker, Metropolitan Police scam, and FBI MoneyPak scam

Doxware

Doxware threatens to release sensitive information if the ransom is not paid. Dox means documents and doxing is the act of publishing someone’s personal information online.

Doxing is the internet-based practice of researching and publicly broadcasting private, identifiable information about an individual or organization.

For example, the Dark Overlord and Leaker Loker

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How to Protect Yourself from Ransomware?

Here are some effective strategies to mitigate the risk of becoming a victim of ransomware attacks:

  • Keep Software Updated: Regularly update your operating systems, applications, and security software to ensure they have the latest security patches. Software updates often address known vulnerabilities that cybercriminals exploit.
  • Install Reliable Security Software: Utilize reputable antivirus and anti-malware software to detect and block ransomware threats. Keep the security software updated to stay protected against emerging risks.
  • Exercise Caution with Email Attachments and Links: Use caution when opening email attachments and when clicking on links, particularly if they come from unidentified or dubious sources. Before downloading any files or disclosing important information, it is imperative to confirm the sender’s legitimacy.
  • Enable Pop-up Blockers: Activate pop-up blockers in your web browsers to prevent malicious pop-ups that may contain ransomware or redirect you to infected websites.
  • Regularly Backup Data: Maintain regular backups of important files and store them in offline or cloud-based backup solutions. This ensures that even if your system is compromised, you can restore your files without succumbing to ransom demands.
  • Enable File Extensions: Configure your system to display file extensions. This helps identify potentially malicious file types, as some ransomware disguises itself using deceptive file extensions to trick users.
  • Use Strong and Unique Passwords: To enhance security, it is advised to avoid using the same password across multiple websites. Instead, generate secure, unique passwords for each account. To conveniently manage and securely store your passwords, consider utilizing a password manager.

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How to Remove Ransomware

Removing ransomware from an infected system requires specific techniques and precautions to ensure effective eradication. Below are some recommended steps for ransomware removal:

  • Isolate the Infected System: Immediately disconnect the compromised device from the network to prevent the further spread of the ransomware. This isolation will help contain the infection and minimize potential damage.
  • Identify the Ransomware Variant: Determine the specific type of ransomware that has infected the system. This information can assist in finding specialized decryption tools or seeking guidance from cybersecurity experts.
  • Report the Incident: Report the ransomware attack to the appropriate authorities, such as law enforcement or your organization’s cybersecurity incident response team. Reporting the incident can aid in tracking and potentially taking legal action against the perpetrators.
  • Assess Backup Availability: Check if you have recent and unaffected backups of your important files and data. Having a reliable backup allows you to restore your system without paying the ransom.
  • Remove the Ransomware: Utilize reputable antivirus or anti-malware software to scan and remove the ransomware from the infected system. Make sure your security software is up to date to detect the latest ransomware strains effectively.
  • Decrypt Files (if possible): Some cybersecurity companies and organizations provide decryption tools for certain types of ransomware. Research and identify if there are legitimate decryption tools available for your specific ransomware variant.
  • Restore from Backup: If you have secure and clean backups, restore your system and files from those backups. Ensure the backups are from a time before the ransomware infection occurred to prevent re-infection.
  • Strengthen Security Measures: Once the ransomware has been removed, take measures to enhance your system’s security. Update all software and applications, strengthen network defenses, and educate users about safe online practices to prevent future attacks.

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History of Ransomware

Ransomware is a malicious software threat that has undergone evolutionary changes over time, resulting in notable disruptions and substantial financial losses. Here is a concise chronicle of significant ransomware incidents along with their respective dates:

AIDS Trojan (1989):

The AIDS Trojan also referred to as PC Cyborg, represented an early instance of ransomware. It was distributed via floppy disks and primarily targeted healthcare professionals. This ransomware employed file name encryption and demanded payment to a specified PO Box for unlocking. However, the encryption used was weak, allowing for relatively straightforward recovery.

GPCoder (2005):

GPCoder marked the first widespread ransomware attack. It specifically targeted Microsoft Windows-based systems, encrypting files and extorting a ransom in exchange for the decryption key. This incident shed light on the profitability and efficacy of ransomware as a favored tool for cybercriminals.

Reveton (2012):

Reveton was a ransomware variant that employed social engineering tactics inspired by law enforcement. Victims encountered a fabricated notification claiming illicit activities on their computers, demanding payment as a fine to regain access. The inclusion of police logos added credibility to this scam.

CryptoLocker (2013):

CryptoLocker emerged as a highly impactful ransomware strain, utilizing robust encryption algorithms to lock files on infected systems. It propagated through infected email attachments and network shares. CryptoLocker demanded ransom payments in Bitcoin and gained notoriety due to its effective encryption, leading to substantial financial losses for victims.

WannaCry (2017):

WannaCry instigated a global ransomware attack affecting hundreds of thousands of systems worldwide. Leveraging a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows, it rapidly spread across networks, encrypting files and demanding ransom payments in Bitcoin. This incident raised awareness about the potential scale and reach of ransomware attacks.

NotPetya (2017):

Initially disguising itself as ransomware, NotPetya ultimately disclosed its true identity as a malevolent cyber weapon aimed at instigating widespread chaos. It spread by exploiting a compromised Ukrainian accounting software and deliberately targeted diverse organizations across the globe. The fallout from NotPetya was substantial, leading to profound disruptions in operations and substantial financial losses, particularly affecting industries, such as shipping, logistics, and healthcare.

Ryuk (2018 – present):

Ryuk represents a sophisticated ransomware strain known for its targeted attacks on large organizations. It commonly infiltrates networks through phishing emails and employs manual deployment techniques. Ryuk demands substantial ransom payments, underscoring its focus on high-value targets.

These instances exemplify the evolving landscape of ransomware, highlighting its capacity to inflict harm and the need for robust cybersecurity measures to counter its impact.

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Conclusion

Ransomware, in all of its forms and permutations, is a huge danger to both ordinary users and businesses. This emphasizes the importance of keeping an eye on the threat and being prepared for any eventuality. As a result, it is critical to educate yourself about ransomware, be mindful of how you use gadgets, and install the finest protection software.

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