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Identifying the Source of a Ransomware Infection

Ransomware is one of the most prolific and effective versions of malware in existence. Over the past several years, ransomware programs have grown significantly more sophisticated. Digital security is a constantly shifting battleground in which security professionals constantly strive to create new defenses against cyber-attacks, while hackers are always switching up tactics and testing new methods to get around the latest defenses. Thanks to easier anonymous and untraceable browsing and payment options, ransomware presents an easy money-making opportunity – one that preys on human nature – to hackers.

The best defense against ransomware is prevention, and most of the top tips are simply the best practices for general internet use: don’t click on suspicious links, don’t download files or attachments from unknown or suspicious senders, keep backup copies of all your important files and check them regularly, and keep your software and antivirus programs up to date. However, if ransomware does infect your system, it’s important to figure out how it accomplished this so you can avoid more incidents in the future.

How Does Ransomware Get into a System?

Ransomware cannot embed into a system without a user allowing it to do so. As such, hackers typically attempt to disguise their ransomware attacks by posing as legitimate senders. In other cases, hackers will access larger cybercrime networks and essentially pay for hacking their targets as a service. There are several tactics hackers use to install ransomware on a target system or network, and they typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Malicious links. Hackers will disguise themselves in order to dupe victims into clicking on a malicious link or downloading an attachment containing ransomware.
  • Pay-per-install. Some cybercrime outfits construct botnets, which are groups of infected computers that are under their control. Using these botnets, hackers can quickly access systems within it or use those systems to spread malware to other systems. One of the best examples of a pay-per-install botnet was Citadel – a pay-per-install service that would allow hackers to install malware on any systems already within the botnet in exchange for a small kickback from the ransoms.
  • “Drive-by” downloads. Some ransomware can infect a system when a user visits an infected website.

It is imperative to verify the sender of any type of file or attachment before opening it. It’s often wisest to simply delete any messages, emails, or other communications from untrustworthy senders. If it happens to be someone you know and trust, having them resend their message is much less stressful than a ransomware infection.

How Ransomware Plays on Emotions

One of the most important things to remember about ransomware is that paying the ransom never truly guarantees that your system will be restored. Once ransomware has infected your files, you are basically at the mercy of the hacker. Top digital security experts agree that, in some cases, paying the ransom is the best option. You can then review your files or have a professional digital security team check your system and files and help you situate your backup. However, it’s vital that you never assume paying the ransom will make the problem go away. If a hacker demands an astronomical sum, it may be better to cut your losses.

If you have a reliable backup, then there is no need to pay the ransom. If your files were stolen, they are still essentially out in the open, but this is typically preferable to losing them entirely. However, losing data in this manner can be extremely damaging to a company depending on what types of files were stolen. In most cases, files are simply encrypted so you cannot access them.

Ransomware Feeds On Fear

Ransomware is effective thanks to fear and pressure. Victims will pay ransoms out of fear that they will lose precious files or vital company records. Other forms of ransomware threaten to fill the victim’s system with illegal material and report them to law enforcement, essentially framing them for a crime unless they pay. Others pay out of necessity or desperation, such as when Medstar Health was forced to pay $17,000 in Bitcoins after hackers locked the hospital out of its patient information.

Doctors could not administer care to their patients without being able to check their records, so the downtime caused by the ransomware was far more devastating than the ransom itself. If ransomware strikes your system, it’s best to remain calm and consult with a digital security expert to determine the best next steps.

Preventing Future Attacks

In many cases, victims’ systems are infected without them realizing that anything is wrong. Ransomware may lie dormant for some time or only activate once specific conditions have been met. Whatever the case may be, once you’ve been the victim of a ransomware attack, one of your best options is to speak with a reliable digital security consultant about how to resolve the issue. In some cases, you may fare better by paying the ransom and cleaning up the results afterward, and in other cases, paying the ransom would essentially be a waste of money.

Once the infection has been removed from your system, it’s important that you verify your backups are still intact and up to date. Next, make sure your operating system and all of your antivirus and antimalware programs are fully updated. Finally, it’s a good idea to file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center so they have a record of the incident. The more ransomware samples law enforcement agencies receive, the better the chances of preventing similar attacks in the future.