How a Ransomware Attack Works

Ransomware operates by leveraging vulnerabilities in the security of a computer system. Cybercriminals commonly employ email phishing or other deceptive strategies to deploy malicious software on the target’s computer. Upon infiltration of the system by the ransomware, it will initiate the process of locking down files and encrypting them using sophisticated cryptography techniques, rendering them inaccessible. The cybercriminal will subsequently request payment for a decryption key that will enable the victim to restore access to their files.

Stage 1 involves the distribution and infection of malware.

Ransomware attacks generally involve a multi-stage process that initiates with malware distribution and concludes with the encryption of a victim’s files. During the initial stage, referred to as malware distribution and infection, threat actors utilize a variety of methods to introduce malicious software onto a target’s device.

Phishing is a prevalent attack vector in which attackers distribute deceptive email attachments or messages containing malicious files or links. Upon interaction with these elements, unsuspecting users inadvertently download and execute the malware on their devices. One method involves exploiting software vulnerabilities. Threat actors identify vulnerabilities in operating systems or applications, develop or obtain malware to exploit these weaknesses, and distribute the malware via infected websites or through drive-by downloads.

Another method involves focusing on vulnerable Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connections or exploiting compromised credentials. Attackers can gain unauthorized access to a victim’s device in order to install and execute ransomware. This method is commonly used in attacks targeting organizations.

Stage 2 involves command and control.

During the second stage of a ransomware attack, referred to as command and control (C2), the malware initiates a communication channel with the attacker to facilitate bidirectional data exchange. This stage is critical for the attacker to retain control of the infected system and carry out additional malicious activities.

Upon infecting a device, the ransomware triggers the Command and Control (C2) process by establishing a connection to a remote server under the control of the attacker. The communication enables the attacker to remotely manipulate the malware and send commands. The ransomware can use this avenue to download additional malware onto the compromised system.

Within the command and control stage, the ransomware could potentially stay inactive, ready to receive additional commands from the attacker. The threat actor can select the most advantageous moment to launch the attack and encrypt the victim’s files. During this stage, the attacker may utilize lateral movement techniques within the network to locate valuable data and compromise additional devices or backup systems.

Ensuring command and control is crucial for ransomware operators. The software provides users with the capability to tailor the attack, request ransom payments, and potentially decrypt files once payment is received. Security teams are tasked with identifying and neutralizing ransomware attacks. Understanding the command and control stage is essential for mitigating the impact and preventing additional infections.

Stage 3 involves the processes of discovery and lateral movement.

During the discovery and lateral movement stages of a ransomware attack, attackers seek to increase their impact within the victim’s network by propagating the infection and escalating their access privileges.

The initial step involves the attackers collecting data about the victim’s network. The task can be accomplished through a variety of methods, including scanning the network for vulnerabilities, analyzing public information about the organization, or acquiring stolen credentials from the dark web. Understanding the network layout and potential security vulnerabilities allows attackers to identify potential entry points.

Upon infiltrating the network, the attackers leverage security vulnerabilities to obtain unauthorized access to additional devices. The methods employed may include password cracking, software vulnerability exploitation, or brute force attacks. The objective is to perform lateral movement within the network, infecting multiple devices and escalating access privileges.

Attackers utilize a variety of techniques to avoid detection and enhance their likelihood of success. The behavior may involve masquerading as legitimate users or utilizing legitimate tools and processes to conceal their activities. Techniques such as creating backdoors, manipulating security controls, or exploiting weaknesses in the network infrastructure may also be employed.

Stage 4 involves malicious theft and file encryption.

During Stage 4 of a ransomware attack, attackers employ a variety of techniques to execute malicious theft and encrypt files. One of the main goals is to transfer sensitive data to the Command and Control (C&C) server for future use or to exploit it for ransom requests.

The process commences with the attackers identifying valuable data using predefined criteria like file types, sizes, or specific folders. The connection to the C&C server is established through various methods, including setting up a direct network connection, utilizing a previously compromised system, or employing a remote access tool.

Upon establishing a connection to the Command and Control (C&C) server, the attackers commence the exfiltration process by transferring the identified data to their infrastructure. The data is frequently encrypted to avoid detection or interception. Common encryption methods utilized consist of symmetric or asymmetric encryption algorithms.

Concurrently, the attackers concentrate on encrypting the victim’s systems and files to make them inaccessible. The malware may focus on specific components, such as the master boot record (MBR) or individual files, based on its objective. Encrypting critical components allows attackers to maximize damage and increase the chances of victims complying with ransom demands.

Stage 5: Extortion

Ransomware attacks involve threat actors attempting to extort ransom payments from victims by encrypting their valuable files and data. This phase of the attack includes the utilization of encrypted files to request ransom payments.

Following the encryption of the victim’s files using a sophisticated algorithm, the ransomware operators will then provide a ransom note. The document provides guidance on the process of making the ransom payment to restore access to the encrypted files. The note typically contains information regarding the ransom amount, the specified cryptocurrency for payment (typically Bitcoin), and the payment deadline.

Ransomware operators utilize a variety of methods to communicate with the victims. The information may consist of email addresses found in the ransom note or encrypted communication platforms that can be accessed through the Tor network. Threat actors may establish communication channels with victims to negotiate the ransom amount or provide additional instructions.

Stage 6: Resolution

The resolution phase of a ransomware attack entails managing the incident and restoring regular operations. This stage is critical for minimizing disruption, regaining control over the affected systems, and preventing additional damage. Organizations have multiple options to evaluate during the resolution phase.

Restoring backups is typically the initial action taken when recovering from a ransomware attack. Implementing regular backups is essential for organizations to restore their systems to a clean state prior to any potential attack. Organizations can recover access to critical data and applications and resume standard operations by restoring backups.

The implementation of a ransomware recovery plan is another crucial step. Organizations can efficiently respond to ransomware incidents, speed up recovery efforts, and effectively allocate resources by implementing a well-defined plan. The plan should detail the required steps, including isolating affected systems, notifying the relevant authorities, and involving cybersecurity experts.

Engaging in negotiations with attackers is not advised, but it could be viewed as a final option. Some organizations may opt to participate in negotiations to acquire the decryption key or decrease the ransom payment. However, this option carries risks, as there is no assurance that the attackers will fulfill their part of the agreement, potentially leading to more attacks.

Classification of Ransomware

Ransomware attacks manifest in diverse forms, each employing distinct techniques to infiltrate systems and seize vital data for ransom. The primary categories of ransomware attacks consist of encrypting ransomware, non-encrypting ransomware, leakware/doxware, mobile ransomware, and destructive ransomware. An increase in the development of new ransomware variants has presented challenges for monitoring and defense strategies.

1. Encryption of Ransomware:

The described ransomware variant encrypts files on the target system, making them inaccessible until a ransom is paid. Two examples are WannaCry and CryptoLocker. Subcategories of encrypting ransomware include:

2. Non-Encrypting Ransomware:

A type of ransomware that does not encrypt files but still poses a threat to the victim. The software commonly presents counterfeit law enforcement alerts or intimidating messages in order to solicit money. An example is the FBI ransomware.

3. Leakware, or doxware:

A type of ransomware that encrypts files and also threatens to leak sensitive information unless the ransom is paid. The attack targets organizations or individuals possessing valuable data with the goal of exploiting their fear of data exposure.

4. Mobile ransomware:

A type of malware specifically created for mobile devices, targeting smartphones and tablets. The malware has the capability to lock the device or encrypt files, and it typically demands a ransom payment in exchange for the release of data.

5. Destructive Ransomware/Wipers:

This type of ransomware does not encrypt data for ransom purposes. It is designed to erase or corrupt the target’s files or entire system, resulting in permanent harm.

Understanding the various ransomware attack types can assist businesses and individuals in putting in place effective security measures and lower their risk of falling victim to these cyber threats.

Ransomware Statistics

Ransomware attacks have seen an increase in frequency in recent years, emerging as a significant and harmful cyber threat. Recent statistics indicate a notable rise in ransomware attacks on a global scale in 2022 and 2023.

  • In 2022, there was a 75% increase in ransomware attacks compared to the previous year, impacting millions of individuals and organizations. 
  • Phishing emails are a primary technique utilized in ransomware attacks.
  • In 2022, there was a 150% increase in ransomware attacks compared to the previous year. 
  • Phishing attacks are responsible for around 70% of ransomware infections. 
  • In 2022, global ransom payments totaled $1.24 billion, with an average ransom demand of $170,000 per attack.

What are the consequences of ransomware attacks?

Ransomware attacks can result in severe consequences for businesses, including substantial financial losses, data loss, reputational damage, and potential business closure. The consequences of a ransomware attack can be disorderly and incapacitating.

Businesses often experience financial losses as one of the immediate impacts they face. Ransom payments requested by attackers may be excessive, depleting resources and affecting financial performance. Moreover, businesses might face expenses related to system restoration, forensic investigations, and the implementation of improved security measures.

Data loss is a significant concern that needs to be addressed. Ransomware encrypts data of value, making it inaccessible until a decryption key is acquired. Failure to maintain reliable backups and refusing to pay the ransom can result in the loss of critical data, which may cause operational disruptions, compliance violations, and legal consequences.

Reputational damage is a persistent outcome of ransomware attacks. News of a successful attack has the potential to diminish customer trust and confidence, which can affect future business opportunities. Negative publicity and potential lawsuits can exacerbate damage to a business’s reputation, complicating the recovery process.

In severe instances, businesses may face the possibility of closure due to a ransomware attack. Financial and operational challenges, combined with a decline in customer confidence, may reach a point where businesses have no choice but to halt operations.

Businesses must prioritize preparedness to mitigate the aftermath of ransomware attacks. By implementing robust cybersecurity measures, such as regular backups, security software, and employee training on identifying phishing emails and suspicious links, the risk of falling victim to ransomware can be significantly reduced.

At TN Computer Medics, a variety of services are available to assist organizations in defending against cyber threats, such as ransomware defense assessments, email phishing assessments, and mobile application testing. These services aim to help organizations combat the specific threat of ransomware attacks. Contact us today.

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