What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of cyberattack in which the attacker infects a computer with malicious software that encrypts the victim’s data. The computer usually becomes locked, presenting a message to the victim that demands payment in exchange for the decryption key, which may allow the victim to regain access to the files or systems. Payment is usually requested via a cryptocurrency. Ransomware attacks are typically financially motivated and can be highly damaging to individuals, and businesses.

Stages of a Ransomware Attack

Here’s how a typical ransomware attack unfolds:

  • Infection: Ransomware is usually delivered through phishing emails, malicious downloads, or software vulnerabilities. When a victim clicks on a malicious link or downloads an infected file, the ransomware software executes, and subsequently gains access to the victim’s computer, and all other network-connected devices.
  • Data Exfiltration: Once inside the victim’s system, the ransomware seeks specific file types, most commonly document, spreadsheet, and graphic-based files. Most current ransomware strains are programmed to copy files to an external location that is controlled by the attackers.
  • Encryption: Once the data has been copied, the ransomware then starts encrypting the files on all accessible network locations in the victim’s environment, making them inaccessible to the victim. Encryption is typically unbreakable without the decryption key.
  • Ransom Demand: Once the files have started to become encrypted, the ransomware displays a message on the victim’s screen. This note contains instructions about how to pay the ransom, which is usually demanded in cryptocurrency to maintain the anonymity of the attackers.
  • Threats and Deadlines: Ransom notes often contain threats, deadlines, and warnings about the consequences of not paying the ransom. Some ransomware attacks may threaten to delete the files on the victim’s network or leak sensitive information from the exfiltrated data if the ransom isn’t paid.
  • Payment: If the victim decides to pay the ransom, they transfer the specified amount of cryptocurrency to the attacker’s cryptocurrency wallet. Once the payment is received, the attacker provides a decryption key to unlock the victim’s files.
  • Restoration or Data Loss: If the attacker provides a working decryption key, the victim can restore their files. However, there is no guarantee that the attacker will fulfill their promise, and paying the ransom doesn’t always result in safe data recovery. Victims may sometimes suffer data loss even after paying the ransom. Paying the ransom also serves as a beacon to the attackers that the victim is susceptible to future payments.

Hidden Impact

In recent years, cybersecurity insurance has become one way to transfer the risk of ransomware. However, as ransomware insurance claims become more prevalent, insurers are reevaluating policies and rates, and some have gone so far as to exclude underwriting insurance for ransomware events.

Preventing Ransomware Attacks

To protect against ransomware attacks, individuals and organizations should focus on prevention and mitigation measures, including:

  • Regular Backups: Maintain up-to-date and secure backups of critical data to ensure data recovery without paying a ransom.
  • Security Software: Use reputable anti-malware software to detect and block ransomware threats.
  • User Training: Educate users about the dangers of phishing emails and teach them to recognize suspicious attachments or links.
  • Patch and Update Software: Keep operating systems and software up to date to patch known exploitable vulnerabilities.
  • Network Segmentation: Segment networks to limit the spread of ransomware if a breach occurs.
  • Email Filtering: Employ filtering solutions to reduce the chances of receiving phishing emails.
  • Least Privilege Access: Implement the principle of least privilege to restrict user access to only the resources they need.
  • Incident Response Plan: Develop an incident response plan that outlines how to react to a ransomware attack, including steps to take without paying a ransom.

Ransomware attacks are continually evolving as attackers become more sophisticated in their tactics. Therefore, it’s crucial to stay vigilant, regularly update security measures, and be prepared to respond effectively if a ransomware attack occurs. It is also advisable to seek assistance from law enforcement and cybersecurity experts to investigate and mitigate the attack while avoiding payment to cybercriminals. It is also important to stay abreast of reputable cybersecurity publications to learn new prevention methods.

The Future of Ransomware Attacks

The future of ransomware attacks is a growing concern as cybercriminals adapt to evolving technology. Key trends include:

  • Critical Infrastructure Targeting: Ransomware attacks will increasingly focus on essential systems like power grids and healthcare, posing catastrophic consequences and pushing for better security measures.
  • Targeted Phishing: Cybercriminals will likely use personalized phishing to infiltrate networks, exploiting human vulnerabilities.
  • Collaboration: Ransomware groups are expected to collaborate for more coordinated and sophisticated attacks, posing a challenge to cybersecurity professionals.
  • Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence is expected to play a key role in the future of cybercrime, and ransomware attacks will undoubtedly be included in that evolution.

For more essential cybersecurity definitions, check out our other blogs below: 

21 Essential Cybersecurity Terms You Should Know

40+ Cybersecurity Acronyms & Definitions

Return to Cybersecurity Glossary

Scroll to top