Executive Summary

A Ransomware attack is a sophisticated form of malware attack that looms as a serious and costly threat to virtually every enterprise organization, regardless of size, by putting their critical data at risk of destruction and data breach while rendering IT systems inoperable. Enterprise ransomware attacks have been increasing in volume and sophistication for years, and detecting ransomware on the network is getting very difficult.

In 2020, the average ransomware attack on businesses was $233,817. Organizations hit by ransomware suffered untold losses in business disruption, being effectively disabled on average for about 19 days. Ransomware caused at least $11.5 billion in damages in 2019 and increased to $20 billion in 2020. More than a quarter of all malware incidents - about 27 percent - are ransomware incidents. While email-based spear phishing has long been a favorite vector of ransomware attackers, attacks are increasingly occurring on social media accounts, mobile chat, and digital collaboration channels. In other words, the way we are all working today puts us at greater risk than ever; social channels like Facebook, collaboration apps like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and messaging apps like WeChat and Telegram have quickly become embedded in today’s brands and business relationships. These channels take our employees, even executives, into shadowy places beyond the usual scope of enterprise data management.

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In just 15 years, ransomware attacks have gone from a slapdash type of scam to a significant and lucrative weapon for cybercriminals.

2005 to 2012

Early ransomware emerged as a subclass of “scareware” – a fundamental social engineering technique that attempted to frighten users into buying software (usually phony antivirus software). Early ransomware was unsophisticated, relying on panic more than advanced cryptography. Often, targets were able to reclaim their targeted data with ease.

Even as ransomware evolved, bad actors faced a significant challenge: collecting ransoms. Since ransomware amounts to fraud, cybercriminals need to collect money from victims in a quick, anonymous, and untraceable way. Until 2012, using prepaid cash cards, retail shopping carts, and other jury-rigged methods was the only way to do this. Though there was plenty of ransomware software floating around online, the difficulty of collecting on ransoms meant that overall damages were low.

2012: Bitcoin

The arrival of the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, changed everything. As a decentralized digital currency operated over a blockchain network, Bitcoin the ability offered to move large amounts of money with anonymity quickly. Bitcoin was the ransomware tool that cybercriminals had been waiting for. Rather than asking their victims to pay them in piecemeal amounts using odd methods, they could instantly ransom dollars in electronic form. Today, all significant variants of ransomware require payment in Bitcoin, ethereum, or other cryptocurrencies.

2013/2014: CryptoLocker

In the wake of bitcoin’s emergence, ransomware quickly grew more sophisticated. A type of ransomware called CryptoLocker was created. CryptoLocker spread via a trojan botnet, and wielded a powerful new form of encryption technology. CryptoLocker earned its distributors $300 million within a 100-day stretch before a combined effort led by the FBI and a team of cybersecurity experts managed to shut it down. CryptoLocker was a turning point in the world of ransomware; its criminal success caught the attention of larger criminal syndicates and inspired cybercriminals to refine their ransomware approach even further.

2015 to present: Bigger Targets

Since 2015, ransomware has become more and more powerful. In 2017, a brand of ransomware called WannaCry began attacking older Windows systems. After attacking computers attached to the UK’s National Health Service, within a day, WannaCry had spread across tens of thousands of systems in more than 150 countries. The largest ransomware epidemic in history, WannaCry has cost businesses millions of dollars in damages. Through 2019, WannaCry remained the most common encryption family used in ransomware attacks.
This pivot to attacking commercial and civic targets represents ransomware’s new phase. As part of this shift, many ransomware attackers have traded quantity for quality. Rather than going after numerous individuals, they are targeting a smaller amount of large organizations handling more sensitive data and possessing more funds for ransom payouts.

Today, one in three ransomware attacks target a business. Ransomware is so effective that it's responsible for 24% of malware-based cyberattacks. On the Dark Web, a lucrative trade has sprung up around ransomware codes and exploit kit components – tools that help cybercriminals target victims.

Ransomware is such an issue because the 15-year history of this threat has seen various nefarious forces coalesce.

  • Email gateways are overwhelmed because of massive, botnet-driven campaigns, polymorphic malware, and URLs escaping attachment detection techniques.
  • The explosion in third-party cloud channels, used by every enterprise and seemingly every individual on earth, has dramatically expanded the threat surface. There are far more attack vectors than there were even a couple of years ago. Phishing attacks (the primary source of ransomware attacks) are occurring now on far more than just email.
  • Social digital defenses are relatively weak compared to the $3B email security industry. Simply put, cybercriminals have a higher probability of success in these channels.
  • The increased accessibility of technologies for encryption and malware development has lowered the bar to entry. Building ransomware is cheaper than ever before. As a result, far more cybercriminals are experimenting with ransomware than ever before.
  • Encryption technologies are better than ever. With modern ransomware, once the encryption of a hard drive or a set of files takes place, it can be near impossible to perform the de-encryption without purchasing the key from the attacker.
  • Organizations are more interconnected than ever before. A single ransomware trojan can flow like poison through an entire organization in the space of days or even hours.
  • There is no honor amongst malware thieves: With ransomware, victims who pay are frequently targeted again.

There are three main vectors that ransomware uses to get inside a device or system. The most common are:

1] Email Phishing

Most of the ransomware in history has spread through phishing emails. These emails trick users into opening a malicious attachment or clicking a malicious URL. Opening the attachment or clicking the link activates the ransomware, which then infects the recipient’s computer or device and potentially spreads throughout the entire IT infrastructure.

While emails are common deployment systems for most cyberattacks, many people still fall for it. Malicious emails are highly effective, especially when they appear to be legitimate contacts and parties the recipient trusts. Part of the scammer’s sophisticated approach is to craft convincing emails containing authentic-looking email addresses, logos, and other elements like specific text types and tone of the message.

2] Social Media Phishing

Ransomware attacks occurring through social media – rather than email – make up an increasing proportion of overall attacks. In 2019, Facebook experienced a massive 176% year-on-year growth in phishing URLs, many of which contained ransomware.

Social media ransomware attacks mimic their email counterpart: bad actors send malicious links via direct message. Usually, these links spoof an actual login page and steal credentials. Phishing links sent via direct message tend to be opened even more than those sent over email, as people are generally wiser to email threats but tend to open messages without thinking.

3] Exploit Kits

Exploit kits are automated programs used by attackers to exploit known vulnerabilities within systems or applications. A user will visit a particular website or use a piece of software, and the exploit kit will silently download ransomware onto the user’s device and/or execute it. Certain pieces of software, such as Adobe Flash and Oracle Java, are known to contain vulnerabilities. The computing community attempts to track these in a reference list of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE), but bad actors can often be a step ahead.

WannaCry infected people via an exploit pack. The most devastating ransomware in history used a Microsoft exploit stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA).

All forms of ransomware restrict access to files or data that are valuable to the user and then demand payment to recover that access. Within this overall approach, there are various types of ransomware:


The most popular form of ransomware and highly damaging crypto-malware gets inside a system and encrypts all the files and data contained within. Access is impossible without the malefactor’s decryption key.


Once executed, scareware automatically locks a user’s computer and displays a message claiming that it has detected a virus or an error. The scareware instructs the victim to pay a specific amount to “fix” the issue. Some forms of scareware don’t technically encrypt files but flood the screen with pop-up messages that make using the system impossible.


Rather than encrypting select files, lockers lock victims out of their systems completely, preventing them from accessing anything. Locker-based attacks include a screen display that tells the victim the ransom demand and often includes a countdown timer, intended to induce panic and force victims to pay without finding another solution.


This type of ransomware claims and encrypts a certain sort of data. It then threatens to release victims’ personal (in the case of an individual) or sensitive (in the case of a business) data to specific parties or the general public. Victims of doxware/leakware are driven to pay the ransom for fear of highly private data being exposed.

RaaS (Ransomware as a Service)

For parties that want to initiate a ransomware attack but don’t have the time, the tools, and/or the expertise, the cybercriminal market has a solution. People can reach out to a professional hacker to do the job for them. This hacker will carry out the attack and receive a portion of the ransom reward in exchange for their services.


According to Recorded Future, many ransomware attackers are now carrying out extortion by threatening to release exfiltrated files unless a victim pays a ransom. This is partly because extortion cases garner media attention, something many cybercriminals crave. This publicity aids the sales of their Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) offerings.

Big Game Hunting

This is a targeted, complex, low-volume, high-return form of a ransomware attack. The attacker gains entry makes lateral movements to observe the network, then gains access to exfiltrate files and deploy the ransomware. Big game hunters are patient. It typically takes days for an attacker to understand the network, acquire the proper access, and deploy.

The spear-phishing techniques deployed on email and social channels are very similar and involve social engineering to enable the initial compromise to succeed. In the case of social media compromise, the attacker can often perform their target recon on the channel itself (e.g., LinkedIn) and then simply make a connection request to the target to begin establishing the trust relationship. The more connections the attacker makes within the organization, the greater the found sense of trust.

At this point, the attacker is in an excellent position to launch the attack by sending a malware-laced attachment or link to the targeted victim under the pretext of a legitimate purpose. For example, cybercriminals might adopt the guise of a recruiter. After penetrating the organization with a multiplicity of connection requests, they may now send a malware-laced file link under the cover of a job description. Once the victim clicks through on the document, the host device can be compromised with a first-stage malware payload.

This would only be the first stage in an enterprise attack and would unlikely contain ransomware per se. The longer-term objective would be to effect lateral movement for long-term resistance and establish command and control for data exfiltration and ransomware deployment.

Given the nature of these “Big Game Hunting” scenarios where ransomware is often delivered as part of a multi-stage attack process and may occur on any one of several attack surfaces, it is essential to coordinate defensive counter-measures across all of these vectors.

For example, detecting a malware attack on a social channel could also indicate a broader attack front across multiple attack surfaces such as email and remote access management tools.

On the whole, ransomware attacks are frighteningly successful. The malware and the techniques are constantly evolving, and once encryption takes place, it can be tough to reverse. The reality is that hit with a sophisticated ransomware attack, most enterprises pay.

For this reason, the absolute best course of action against ransomware is proactive prevention combined with continuous data backup.

Some best practices include:

1] Back-Up and Test Restoring

The most important part of a ransomware security strategy is the use of regular data backups. Enterprises should perform these as often as possible, and they should be combined with backup and restore drills. Both processes are essential; restore drills are the only way to know if a backup plan is good. If a team can convert from a very recent backup, they put themselves in a position they might not need to pay to get data back.

2] Gain Powers of Detection

The malicious links and attachments that are the primary source of ransomware attacks can arrive through multiple routes. Not only email, but social media messages, collaboration tools, and any other cloud channel. Only a modern, comprehensive digital risk protection platform can proactively monitor all digital communications and immediately detect and quarantine potentially problematic links, attachments, and URLs. Today enterprises are beginning to understand that collaboration, mobile chat, and social media apps have offered criminals the perfect storm. These third-party, cloud-based apps are outside the purview of the traditional enterprise and therefore escape the policy governance and enforcement of conventional tools. Generally, enterprises don’t own the data and content offered by their brands over these channels. They yet are faced with the job of managing compliance in places where they cannot see, such as direct message and chat streams over platforms like Zoom or WhatsApp. Protecting their employees, customers and brands is a real challenge in today’s largely remote, cloud-based workforce. Traditional antivirus software is inadequate; enterprises need next-gen solutions leveraging machine learning to detect both known and unknown forms of ransomware.

3] Educate Employees on Cybersecurity Best Practices

A recent study by Kaspersky revealed that almost half of employees don't know how to respond to ransomware attacks. All employees should understand what ransomware is, how it usually arrives, and what the warning signs are. They should know who to report suspicions to and what to do if their actions trigger ransomware execution.

4] Constantly Update and Patch Operating Systems and Software

Attackers work relentlessly to discover vulnerabilities that can be exploited. IT professionals need to be equally rigorous in return. CVEs are always being patched. By constantly updating systems and patching software, enterprises significantly reduce their exposure to vulnerabilities.

5] Educate Employees on Cybersecurity Best Practices

A recent study by Kaspersky revealed that almost half of employees don't know how to respond to ransomware attacks. All employees should understand what ransomware is, how it usually arrives, and what the warning signs are. They should know who to report suspicions to and what to do if their actions trigger ransomware execution.

6] Incorporate Digital Risk Protection Into the Core of Cybersecurity Efforts

To keep up with the growing and ever-changing threat of ransomware, enterprises need to invest in digital risk protection tools that provide full threat intelligence. This way, IT teams can automatically identify, assess, and proactively respond to threats and stop any ransomware spread before it begins.

7] Monitor Endpoints for IOAs (Indicators of Attack)

A dedicated set of cybersecurity solutions offer endpoint detection and response (EDR). These solutions can closely monitor activities across all endpoints and capture raw events deemed suspicious. These solutions can deliver unhindered environment visibility for proactive threat recognition and response at the endpoint level.


Tips for Mitigating a Ransomware Attack

When it comes to ransomware, prevention is better than cure. However, should an organization be unfortunate enough and fall prey to ransomware, the following steps should be followed:

1] Remove the Device From the Network

Ransomware on one device is terrible, but ransomware proliferating through a network of devices is catastrophic. Employees should be trained to immediately disconnect their device from the network if they see a ransomware demand displayed on their screen. They should also do the same if they observe anything peculiar, such as an inability to access their files. Employees must not attempt to restart the device; it should be sent immediately to the IT department. Today, using a modern solution purpose-built for the cloud, companies can enforce policy and security even to the level of individual’s phones.

2] Notify Law Enforcement

Ransomware is a crime. Theft and extortion rolled into one make it a law enforcement concern. Organizations should all default to immediately contact the police cybercrime department should they fall victim to a ransomware attack.

3] Use Digital Risk Protection to Establish the Scope of Attack

In the wake of a ransomware attack, security teams need to gather as much intelligence as they can, as fast as they can. This will help both internal IT teams and law enforcement agencies formulate a response. Enterprises should strive to figure out the nature of the attack: who is behind it, what tools they used, who they targeted, and why. Answering such questions can help your IT managers and network administrators figure out the extent of the attack and protect networks from future attacks.

4] Consult with Stakeholders to Develop the Proper Response

Enterprises suffering a bad ransomware attack need to answer a host of questions: Can they afford to lose access to the targeted files, either because they have been backed up, or because they are not of the highest priority? Can the organization afford the ransom? Is there any room for negotiation? All stakeholders, from shareholders to legal counsel, should be consulted.

5] Get the Post-Mortem Right

The best way to resist a ransomware threat is to have learned from the last one. After an attack, enterprises should task their IT technicians, network administrators, and cybersecurity teams with a thorough review of the breach. A meticulous assessment of an organization's infrastructure, practices, and processes is required to discover security flaws and reinforce an enterprise against existing and future threats.

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