Ransomware has become a critical threat for small and medium sized businesses in Malaysia and across South East Asia due to the ease with which Bitcoin makes extracting ransoms from their victims.
Ransomware is simple but toxic. Malicious software is inadvertently installed on the victim’s computer by way of hoodwinking the victim into clicking on an unsafe link or attachment to an email. Once downloaded, the software then starts to encrypt files on the computer system – ranging from documents through to data sets. Once the software has encrypted enough files, these files are locked to the user and a message is displayed with instructions demanding a ransom be paid to unlock the files. A failure to pay the ransom means the files remain locked and essentially are useless.
Over the past year, Ransomware has emerged as one of the most significant attacks in the hacker arsenal to small and medium sized businesses. Unlike other forms of cyber theft, which often involve stolen credit card numbers or healthcare information, Ransomware acts directly on the victim, locking down their system or data hostage until a ransom payment is made.
Recent Ransomware Attacks
The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Centre in Los Angeles paid around $17,000 to unlock files in February 2016, following an attack that paralysed a large amount of the hospital’s computer systems. This attack was sophisticated; cybercriminals broke into a hospital server the month before. After two weeks of reconnaissance of the system, the hackers struck on a Friday night, when the hospital’s IT staff was off for the weekend, encrypting data on 800 computers and 130 servers; rendering documents and data unreadable, ranging from patient records through to prescriptions.
In Canada, the University of Calgary paid a demanded $20,000 after a Ransomware cyberattack on its computer systems. The University IT team noticed certain files had become encrypted and managed to quarantine other files and systems from the attack. However, certain valuable files containing research data had already been locked down and so the University opted to pay the ransom to recover the files.
According to Symantec Corporation, Malaysia ranks as 47th globally, and 12th in the Asia Pacific, for Ransomware attacks. In 2015, Malaysians experienced around 5,000 ransomware attacks – or 14 attacks per day.
Recent research conducted by a Cyber Security Research Centre indicated that around half of the victims infected with Cyptolocker agreed to pay the ransom demanded. Though it is understandable that they wanted to retrieve their locked down data files, the payment of such ransoms spurs other hackers to jump in to the activity and create new forms of Ransomware.
Once considered a consumer problem, Ransomware has morphed to target entire networks of computers at hospitals, universities and businesses. That has made it a far more serious and costly threat.
Different Types of Ransomware
Cyptolocker was the first successful Ransomware – able to be used by hackers with medium capability but managed to fleece victims of millions of dollars in 2013 and 2014.
Newer versions of Ransomware include CryZip, Locky, Zepto, Cerber and CryptXXX and UltraCrypter
Many Ransomware attacks exploit known `zero day’ errors in software on computer systems. These holes and vulnerabilities can be found in operating systems or else individual programs, such as web browsers.
The software companies often release updates and patches to close these holes but the hackers depend on owners not installing updates – so the Ransomware can squeeze through and infect the system
Common ways of Ransomware Infection
The traditional and most effective way for a hacker to infect a computer system is by way of email attachments with malware contained inside. Often these attachments are apparently benign Microsoft Office files such as Word or Excel but can include photos or PDFs.
Effective hackers spend some time researching their victim to create emails from spoofed addresses they may trust or else name documents which use a project name or location the victim is familiar with. The victim is then tricked in to opening the document as the name of the document appears real or else they trust the sender, not knowing the sending email address has been faked.
Other hackers may try to infect a computer system by way exploit kits on infected webpages which the victim may use – often on pornographic sites or other sites which pop up and attract visitors.
Once the attachment is unzipped and run or the exploit kit runs, the infection process follows these steps:
1. During the encryption process, the malware generates the public key based on the encrypted private key
2. The malicious software begins encrypting accessible files [often the targeted extensions such as .docx or .xls
3. Once enough files have been processed, the malicious software locks all encrypted files with a private key
4. The computer system still works but cannot access these locked files
5. A ransom note is presented in three formats: text, image, and web page informing the victim of the attack and the need to make a Bitcoin transfer to obtain the encryption key to unlick the targeted files
Use of Bitcoin
The utilisation of Bitcoin has also fuelled the spread of Ransomware. Bitcoin is now the preferred payment method of most Ransomware infections because it allows users to send and receive money from anywhere in the world, often anonymously.
What Can You Do If You’re Infected by Ransomware?
Unfortunately, there is little you can do to recover your files once your system is infected with a Ransomware attack and the files are encrypted. The best defence is to have a full back up stored on a separate drive so that you can reinstall the data. However, make sure to isolate your backup to prevent these files also being encrypted and locked down.
1. Isolate the infected machine
It’s important that the system is taken offline, as the hackers essentially control your computer and could use it to gain access to other systems on the network.
2. Weigh up the pros and cons of paying a ransom
As with any form of ransom, you are not guaranteed to obtain cooperation from the hackers – they may demand further payment or else you may be the target of a repeat (and potentially more costly) ransom attack in the future.
Can you be sure that the Ransomware will indeed be unlocked? If it is unlocked, can you be sure that it hasn’t been pre-programmed to repeat its encryption and demand a higher ransom?
[However, anecdotal information indicates that the hackers want their business model to work and thus do release the data upon payment].
Run endpoint security software to discover and remove the Ransomware software. If it cannot detect the threat, wipe the machine and remove the operating system.
Review your recent data backups and restore files and operating systems with the most recent back-up.
5. Alert Law Enforcement
In Malaysia the agency is CyberSecurity Malaysia and can be contacted via website www.cybersecurity.my
In Singapore the agency is the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore – see
https://www.csa.gov.sg/singcert/about-us/faqs for details
Though they probably won’t be able to provide immediate assistance, such attacks need to be reported in an effort to track the hackers.
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