What You Need to Know about Ransomware

Cybersecurity continues to make headlines this year, with high-profile data breaches and cyber-attacks becoming much too common. Following the highly public ransomware attack on Colonial Pipelines in May, which resulted in irrational panic buying at gas stations in many areas and a multimillion-dollar ransom, organizations across the U.S. have renewed their focus on maintaining their digital security profiles.

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Of course, cybersecurity threats come in many shapes and sizes, but ransomware attacks in particular have become increasingly more frequent. According to global research firm Statista, more than 304 million ransomware attacks were reported worldwide in 2020, a staggering 62% increase over the previous year.

Some businesses, especially smaller organizations, are only just now beginning to prioritize data security. For those companies, learning as much as possible about the potential risks posed by unsecured systems is a critical first step in protecting their operations.

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware refers to a specific type of malicious software (malware) program that employs cryptography to perform one-way trapdoor operations on the victim’s computer that only the attacker can undo.

These one-way operations prevent individuals and organizations from accessing critical systems, with attackers holding valuable data hostage until ransom demands are met. These kinds of attacks can be disastrous for an institution, completely halting business operations and risking the exposure of sensitive personal and organizational data.

The first generation of ransomware software was crude by today’s standards, locking system screens with message displays like “You have browsed illicit materials and must pay a fine.” Attackers might claim to be law enforcement officers and demand payment via SMS messaging to premium-rate numbers.

These tactics have since become much more refined, with criminal attackers specializing on both fronts. Now, attackers have access to ransomware-as-a-service, with highly skilled ransomware specialists gaining access to systems and subsequently selling that access to people who then focus on the ransom demands.

This issue has only been exacerbated by the advent of the IoT (Internet of Things) and pandemic-related industry disruption, which has expanded criminal attack opportunities. Speaking on behalf of the Department of Justice at a cybersecurity conference in Germany earlier this year, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco vowed to reassess DOJ response strategies to cybercrime, emphasizing the evolution of the exploding threat that “has become more diffuse, more sophisticated, more dangerous than ever before.”

With so many companies working remotely, businesses are increasingly extorted through ransomware, malware, and socially engineered data breaches by criminals attracted to newly accessible, potentially unstable systems.

Since it is a more cost-effective strategy to prevent cybersecurity emergencies than recover from them, it has never been more critical for businesses and organizations to review their existing system protections carefully.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks

Whether your business is large or small, minimizing a possible ransomware attack risk should be a top priority. As part of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, organizations must be proactive, establishing best practices as part of their standard operating procedures.

However costly and inconvenient it might be to integrate adequate cybersecurity protections into routine organizational operations, failure to do so is exponentially greater.

Related: See how a 2020 breach at a German hospital resulted in the first known death caused by a ransomware attack.

Since each organization can operate dramatically differently, no company should take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing effective cybersecurity defenses – even within the same industry or field.

There are some fundamentals, though. At the beginning stages, here are some strategic planning tips that can serve as a guideline as you establish your individual plans:

Preparation: Institutions developing effective cybersecurity defense strategies need the right tools and expert guidance to be successful. Consulting with industry leaders, security firms, and IT specialists is critical. These experts will help an organization identify system vulnerabilities and develop plans to secure them. Companies who try to ‘go it alone’ will find themselves woefully unequipped and dangerously unprotected.

Training: Once vulnerabilities have been identified and security plans have been developed, team member training is necessary to deploy defenses successfully. Ensure your company sufficiently provides both the time and the resources needed for effective team member cybersecurity education.

Incident Response: Even while working to prevent cyberattacks, companies should be prepared for the possibility that an attack is successful. Developing incident response plans that apply strategic actions in the event of specific breach scenarios is a crucial part of maintaining operational security.

Don’t Be a Victim

We expect Deputy Attorney General Monaco’s vow to address the rise in ransomware to generate new approaches and more effective defenses–but you can’t wait around until it does.

Ransomware defense includes multiple layers of protectors that go beyond antivirus and antimalware protection. Proactive maintenance, automated security, and email filtering are a must, but don’t forget about employee training and standard operating procedures with recovery measures limiting systems downtime and getting you back online as quickly and smoothly as possible.

By taking a proactive approach to cybersecurity, organizations can protect their interests and prevent the risk of becoming the next ransomware victim.


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