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Cerber Ransomware Could Net $2 Million Its First Year

A study of the Cerber operation's ransomware-as-a-service model highlights just how lucrative this cybercrime can be.

The developers of Cerber, a crypto ransomware tool that surfaced earlier this year, appear to be raking in money by distributing their malware through an affiliate network consisting of a large number of mostly unskilled threat actors.

Data collected by security vendor Check Point Software Technologies showed that in July alone, Cerber affiliates managed to extort $195,000 from victims across multiple countries -- mostly notably the Republic of Korea, United States, China, and Taiwan. A total of 161 affiliates used Cerber to infect about 150,000 computers during that period.

The developers of Cerber itself collected about $78,000, or 40%, of the total loot. The remaining 60% was split among the affiliates based on number of successful infections and the ransom payments each affiliate generated, Check Point said in an alert released this week.

“From a yearly perspective, the ransomware author’s estimated take is approximately $946,000—a significant sum,” the company noted in the alert. Victims on average had to pay 1 Bitcoin, or about $590 at current rates, to get the keys for decoding files that Cerber had encrypted.

The ransomware-as-a-service business model is a relatively new phenomenon in the cyber underground. It is a model that allows individuals with very little technical know-how to buy readymade ransomware kits for use against targets of their choice. Often, the developers of the malware allow the so-called affiliates to even specify the ransom amount they want from victims.

Any ransom amounts that are paid by the victim go directly to the developers of the malware who take a cut from it and then pass the rest along to the affiliate. The cuts can range anywhere from 20- to 40% of the total ransom. In the case of Cerber, the developers of the malware are using a bitcoin mixing service—a sort of money laundering tactic—to keep identities hidden from the affiliates using their malware, according to Check Point.

The ransomware service model has significantly lowered the barriers to entry for aspiring cybercriminals and given malware developers a new way to monetize their wares. “Even the most novice hacker can easily reach out in closed forums to obtain an undetected ransomware variant and the designated set of command and control (C&C) infrastructure servers required to easily manage a successful ransomware campaign,” Check Point said in its report.

Just this week Symantec warned of another ransomware tool whose developers appear to have taken the same approach as those behind Cerber. The new ransomware -- dubbed Shark -- is currently available for free in underground forums. Individuals that use the tool to extort money from victims pay a 20% cut to the developers.

According to Symantec, Shark is being distributed through a professional-looking website that provides would-be criminals details on how to download and use the malware.

For enterprises, the main takeaway is that the ransomware business is vastly growing, says Maya Horowitz, group manager of threat research at Check Point. “It is now not only spread by threat actors who are capable of creating their own malware, but also by less technically skilled actors who merely purchase this service.”

Horowitz says the presence of more actors in this space will lead to more attacks. “So for organizations, it emphasizes the need to create backups and to deploy strong security measures.”

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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