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Key Takeaways

  • Ransomware attacks are increasing and expected to cause $265 billion in annual damages by 2031.
  • Understanding the dangers is crucial for protection.
  • Ransomware encrypts files or locks you out of your computer to hold your data hostage. Attackers demand ransom in exchange for the decryption key.
  • Different types of ransomware exist, including crypto ransomware, leakware, DDoS ransomware, scareware, and screen lockers.

The volume of ransomware attacks has increased over the years. It is ranked among the top malicious tactics cybercriminals employ to get to their victims and is expected to cause $265 billion in annual damages by 2031.

With almost every computing device needing the internet to function these days, an end to this form of attack may not be in sight - but understanding the dangers of ransomware is a step in the right direction to protect you and your sensitive information. Ransomware attacks can be targeted at individuals, enterprises, or government bodies. Most ransomware attacks aim to get hold of your sensitive information and deny you access to the information unless a ransom is paid.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is malicious software or malware that cybercriminals use to encrypt your files or lock you out of your computer to hold your data hostage. Once your files are encrypted, the attackers typically demand a ransom, usually in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, in exchange for the decryption key to unlock your files. In most cases, the attacker mounts psychological pressure on you by sending threatening messages with countdown timers, all geared toward pushing you to pay the ransom quickly. If you refuse to pay or cannot pay, you risk losing access to your important data permanently.

Being a victim of a ransomware attack often leaves you with high levels of anxiety and stress during and even after the attack. The uncertainty of whether to pay the ransom, the fear of permanently losing valuable data, and the pressure to make quick decisions can be emotionally overwhelming. You may fear using your computers or online services because of the risk of being hacked. You may also become overly cautious and paranoid about opening emails or downloading files, which can lead to a heightened sense of mistrust in digital environments.

How does ransomware work?

Malicious actors send malware in the form of fake software downloads or through malicious email attachments. Clicking on this infected attachment or running the infected software will automatically install ransomware on your computer. Ransomware implementation might differ from one variant to another, but they all adopt the same processes to attack your computer:

  1. Infection and distribution: Most ransomware vectors have different transmission or distribution channels. They can be delivered through phishing emails, hidden in email attachments, through fake website links, or zipped together with a legitimate software download link. When you click on the malicious link or download the malicious file, the malware automatically attacks your computer by encrypting your files or even locking you out of your computer. Another way the attacker can install ransomware on your computer is by using Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) services. This method allows the attackers to steal your logins with which they access your computer and then download the malware without your knowledge.
  2. Data encryption: After installing the malware, the attacker has access to your files and starts encrypting your data, replacing the original files with the encrypted ones, and then deleting any backup file on your computer to make file recovery more difficult without the decryption key.
  3. Ransom demand: When the cybercriminal is done infecting and encrypting your files, it’s now time to demand the ransom. Some ransomware variants send a text in one of the encrypted files containing the amount of ransom to be paid.

What are the different types of ransomware?

Ransomware attacks are mostly financially motivated, but they differ in the technique used in hacking. The following are different types of techniques:

  1. Crypto ransomware: This type encrypts your data and corrupts your backups to restrict you from restoring your files until you make the ransom payment. Crypto ransomware is highly lucrative, which is why it's the most common type of ransomware.
  2. Leakware: Malicious actors steal sensitive or confidential data and threaten to leak it to the public, which can affect your business or reputation. They may also encrypt your backup to increase the ransom pressure.
  3. DDoS ransomware: Unlike crypto-ransomware, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks your network, not your data. The malicious actors send fake connection requests to your server to slow it down; these requests contain the amount of ransom to be paid before they stop flooding your server. Cybercriminals may only be able to sustain the threat for a short time because DDoS is resource-intensive.
  4. Scareware: A type of ransomware that displays an alert on your screen and leads you to believe that malware has corrupted your computer. Meanwhile, if you install the software by paying the amount they asked for, it will remove the message that keeps popping up, or it might contain malware that will cause more havoc on your system.
  5. Screen lockers (Locker ransomware): This type of malware infects your computer without encrypting your files, which makes it easier to recover. This type often uses a screen locker to lock you out of your computer and gives you a countdown to scare you into paying the ransom, or you lose your files. This type of ransom is easy to overcome because you can easily restart your system in a safe mood or by installing antivirus software to get it quarantined.

How you can protect yourself from ransomware

To avoid losing files to cybercriminals or data theft, you can install security software like an antivirus solution and also pay close attention to the following measures:

  • Email security: These predict, detect, and protect you against malicious emails. While they can mistakenly categorize some healthy emails as malicious, they are a great tool if you receive high volumes of emails daily. Some of the solutions include Cisco Secure Mail, Fortimail, and Avanan.
  • Do not disclose confidential information to unauthorized channels: Avoid disclosing personal information. When you receive a message or call from a suspicious source asking you for confidential information like your date of birth, home address, Social Security Numbers, and card details, do not disclose such information until you know the caller’s identity.
  • Avoid clicking on unnecessary attachments: If you have a penchant for clicking on any link you see on the internet, then you're increasing your chances of falling victim to ransomware and other malicious attacks. You should avoid opening suspicious attachments in emails and make sure you check the sender's address and name to reduce your chances of getting hacked.
  • Cyber liability insurance: If your device or system is for business, purchasing cyber insurance is one of the best decisions you could make for your business. Cyber insurance protects your business from financial losses caused by malicious actors.
  • Avoid using unknown USB sticks: Cybercriminals can infect a USB stick and keep it where it can be found and used. When you insert an unknown USB stick into your computer, you increase your likelihood of falling prey to malware.
  • Update your security software: Ensure you update your computer regularly, especially the security features, to make it difficult for malicious actors to attack.
  • Avoid downloading files from unknown sources: Ensure the browser address is "HTTPS" instead of "HTTP," and ensure the website is trustworthy and verified. The 'S' stands for secure and ensures there is some type of security in your connection to the site.
  • Use VPN services on public Wi-Fi networks: Using public Wi-Fi makes your device more vulnerable to threats. Avoid using public Wi-Fi or use a secured VPN service.