Ransomware, ironically, is a crime based on trust. Victims pay attackers who compromise their data with an expectation it will be returned to them.
Unfortunately, a growing number of ransomware targets pay thousands of dollars to get their data back, but receive nothing. This was the most surprising result to come from a Bitdefender survey of 250 IT pros working in small and medium businesses (SMBs), says senior threat analyst Bogdan Botezatu.
The survey, conducted by Spiceworks, discovered one in five SMBs was hit with a ransomware attack within the past 12 months. Of the 20% targeted, 38% paid attackers an average of $2,423 to release their data. Less than half (45%) got their information back.
"Until now, ransomware was a business where honesty was key," Botezatu explains. "Everyone paid the ransom expecting they would get their data back … the ransomware space is continuously changing. Honor among criminals is no longer there."
He says this reflects a broader trend across cybercrime as attackers' boundaries change. Many used to avoid healthcare attacks because they could potentially harm patients. Now, healthcare organizations are frequently targeted, and lack the tech and best practices to defend themselves.
Similarly, SMBs represent a growing pool of victims as attackers seek weaker targets. Ransomware had mostly hit consumers until now, says Botezatu. Businesses weren't targeted as often because cybercriminals likely knew about their strong security tools and data backups.
"They're not going to the consumer or enterprise that much," he continues. "They found their sweet spot in the middle."
Researchers found SMBs are appealing targets for ransomware because they handle the same sensitive business information (customer data, financial records, product info) as larger organizations, but lack the strong security measures to protect it.
Attackers know they're more likely to receive payment from SMBs, which have more sensitive data than consumers. An individual may be willing to pay about $1,000 for ransomed files. A business with hundreds of customers will pay far more because they need that information, Botezatu says.
Email, cited by 77% of SMBs, is the most popular vector of attack. Cybercriminals use email to compel victims to open or download attachments, or click malicious links, reported 56% and 54% of SMBs, respectively. Nearly one-third (31%) of attacks occurred via social engineering.
"This is serious," says Botezatu. "Whatever you do, you cannot block email in a company - and hackers have a wide assortment of file extensions they can squeeze ransomware into."
Most SMBs hit with ransomware attacks were able to mitigate the attack by restoring data from backup (65%), or through security software or practices (52%). One-quarter of those targeted could not find a solution to address the problem and lost their data as a result.
Botezatu advises SMBs to "strongly consider" complementing their security strategy with a backup security solution. Ransomware is a highly volatile type of attack, he explains, and it only needs to run once to be effective. Criminals don't need to be persistent to encrypt all your data.
If you are attacked? "Don't pay up," he says. "Try to do without the data."
An attack should serve as a lesson learned, he continues. If people continue paying to get their information, ransomware attacks will continue as a means of easy money for cybercriminals. While Botezatu thinks ransomware is here to stay, he urges victims to avoid paying up.
"Every payment you make keeps the ecosystem alive," he emphasizes.