Ransomware is a type of malicious software that infects a computer and restricts users’ access to it until a ransom is paid to unlock it. Ransomware variants have been observed for several years and often attempt to extort money from victims by displaying an on-screen alert. Typically, these alerts state that the user’s systems have been locked or that the user’s files have been 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.
Ransomware is often spread through phishing emails that contain malicious attachments or through drive-by downloading. Drive-by downloading occurs when a user unknowingly visits an infected website and then malware is downloaded and installed without the user’s knowledge.
Crypto ransomware, a malware variant that encrypts files, is spread through similar methods and has also been spread through social media, such as Web-based instant messaging applications. Additionally, newer methods of ransomware infection have been observed. For example, vulnerable Web servers have been exploited as an entry point to gain access to an organization’s network.
The authors of ransomware instill fear and panic into their victims, causing them to click on a link or pay a ransom, and users systems can become infected with additional malware. Ransomware displays intimidating messages similar to those below:
- “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 not only targets home users; businesses can also become 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, and
- 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.
Infections can be devastating to an individual or organization, and recovery can be a difficult process that may require the services of a reputable data recovery specialist.
US-CERT recommends that users and administrators take the following preventive measures to protect their computer networks from ransomware infection:
- 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.
- Keep your operating system and software up-to-date with the latest patches. Vulnerable applications and operating systems are the targets of most attacks. Ensuring these are patched with the latest updates greatly reduces the number of exploitable entry points available to an attacker.
- 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, and apply the principle of “Least Privilege” to all systems and services. Restricting these privileges may prevent malware from running or limit its capability to spread through the network.
- Avoid enabling macros from email attachments. If a user opens the attachment and enables macros, embedded code will execute the malware on the machine.
- Do not follow unsolicited Web links in emails. Refer to the Phishing resources found on this website for more information.
Individuals or organizations are discouraged from paying the ransom, as this does not guarantee files will be released. However, the FBI has advised that if Cryptolocker, Cryptowall or other sophisticated forms of ransomware are involved, the victim may not be able to get their data back without paying a ransom.
Signs your system may have been infected by Ransomware:
- Your web browser or desktop is locked with a message about how to pay to unlock your system and/or your file directories contain a "ransom note" file that is usually a .txt file
- All of your files have a new file extension appended to the filenames
- Examples of Ransomware file extensions: .ecc, .ezz, .exx, .zzz, .xyz, .aaa, .abc, .ccc, .vvv, .xxx, .ttt, .micro, .encrypted, .locked, .crypto, _crypt, .crinf, .r5a, .XRNT, .XTBL, .crypt, .R16M01D05, .pzdc, .good, .LOL!, .OMG!, .RDM, .RRK, .encryptedRSA, .crjoker, .EnCiPhErEd, .LeChiffre, .keybtc@inbox_com, .0x0, .bleep, .1999, .vault, .HA3, .toxcrypt, .magic, .SUPERCRYPT, .CTBL, .CTB2, .locky or 6-7 length extension consisting of random characters
Responding to a Ransomware Infection
What to do if you believe your system has been infected with ransomware
1. Disconnect From Networks
- Unplug Ethernet cables and disable wifi or any other network adapters.
- Put your device in Airplane Mode
- Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
This can aid in preventing the spread of the ransomware to shared network resources such as file shares.
2. Disconnect External Devices
- USB drives or memory sticks
- Attached phones or cameras
- External hard drives
- Or any other devices that could also become compromised
3. Report the Incident
It is important that incidents are reported as early as possible so that campus can limit the damage and cost of recovery.