Ransomware Disrupting Business Operations and Demanding Higher Payouts

Malicious actors are continually fine-tuning their tactics, and one of the best examples of this is the evolution of ransomware. Ransomware has largely been an opportunistic, rather than a targeted, form of cybercrime with the goal of infecting as many users as possible. That model has worked so effectively that extortion is now ubiquitous when it comes to cybercrime — so much so that even fake attacks are proving to be successful.

As I wrote earlier this month, the surge of extortion attacks impacting organizations has led to a number of fake extortion threats, including empty ransomware demands where actors contact organizations, lie about the organization’s data being encrypted, and ask for money to remove the non-existent threat. Cybercriminals like to follow the path of least resistance, and an attack doesn’t get much easier than simply pretending to have done something malicious.

However, attacks over the past year have proven that infecting organizations with ransomware can result in much higher payouts. The more disruptive the attack, the more money some organizations are willing to pay to make the problem go away. As a result, ransomware actors are shifting their targets towards more disruptive attacks, which we examine in our latest report, Ransomware Actors Shift Gears: New Wave of Ransomware Attacks Aims to Lock Business Services, Not Just Data.

A quick look at some of the ransomware mentioned in SurfWatch Labs new report.

It was just 13 months ago that Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center made national attention by paying $17,000 to decrypt its files after a ransomware attack. The incident was novel at the time, but those types of stories have since become commonplace.

For example:

  • On November 25, 2016, an HDDCryptor infection at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency led to the temporary shutdown of ticketing machines and free rides for many passengers, costing an estimated $50,000 in lost fares.
  • On January 19, 2017, a ransomware infection of the St. Louis Public Library computer system temporarily halted checkouts across all 17 locations and led to a several-day outage of the library’s reservable computers. 
  • On January 31, 2017, a ransomware infection in Licking County, Ohio, led to the IT department shutting down more than a thousand computers and left a variety of departments – including the 911 call center – unable to use computers and perform services as normal for several days.
  • In February 2017 at the RSA Conference,  researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology presented a proof-of-concept ransomware that targets the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used in industrial control systems (ICS).

As the Georgia Institute of Technology researchers noted: “ICS networks usually have little valuable data, but instead place the highest value on downtime, equipment health, and safety to personnel. Therefore, ransomware authors can threaten all three to raise the value side of the tradeoff equation to make ICS ransomware profitable.”

In short, if actors understand what is most valuable to an organization and can find a way to effectively disrupt those goals, they can find success in yet-to-be targeted industries. It may require more legwork, but the higher potential payouts may make it worthwhile for some actors to engage in less widespread but potentially much more profitable attacks.

Government agencies, consumer services, educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and more have all had services disrupted by ransomware over the past six months.

In addition, just last week, researchers discovered a new ransomware family, dubbed “RanRan,” that doesn’t even ask for money. Instead, the ransomware attempts to force victims “to create a public sub-domain with a name that would appear to advocate and incite violence against a Middle Eastern political leader.” The malware is described by the researchers as “fairly rudimentary” and there are a number of mistakes in the encryption process, but it serves as an example of how malicious actors that are not financially motivated can nevertheless leverage ransomware to achieve their goals.

Organizations need to take action to protect themselves against ransomware actors that are trying to find more effective ways to disrupt business operations and demand even higher ransom payouts. For more information on these evolving ransomware attacks, download SurfWatch Labs’ free report: Ransomware Actors Shift Gears: New Wave of Ransomware Attacks Aims to Lock Business Services, Not Just Data.

Author: Adam Meyer

Adam Meyer has served in leadership positions in the defense, technology, and critical infrastructure sectors for more than 15 years. Prior to joining SurfWatch Labs, Mr. Meyer was the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, one of the largest public transportation systems in the United States. Preceding his role as a CISO, Mr. Meyer served as the Director of Information Assurance and Command IA Program Manager for the Naval Air Warfare Center, Naval Air Systems Command one of the Navy's premier engineering and acquisition commands.

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