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Ransomware Getting Easier For Both Bad Guys & Victims

Ransomware operators can make a tidy living without much technical expertise or legwork.

Good news, everyone: it's getting easier to pay ransoms. Bad news: it's getting easier to run ransomware campaigns.

Although CryptoLocker -- the biggest, baddest ransomware of them all -- was largely taken down by the sting that disrupted the Gameover Zeus botnet in June, there are many other ransomware schemes taking its place, including CryptoWall, TorrentLocker, Simplocker, and Koler.

The infection vectors are expanding -- Koler spreads through SMS text messages and CryptoWall uses malvertising -- but email phishing messages are still the most common method of ransomware distribution. The techniques don't need to be too sophisticated, because the attacks are not targeted.

"It's a numbers game," says Joram Borenstein, vice president of marketing for NICE Actimize. Ransomware is not generally being used by nation-states, he says. It's generally just used to make money.

Ben Johnson, chief security strategist for Bit9 and Carbon Black, adds that the attackers are not distinguishing between a corporate user or a home user, a rich person or a poor person. An email address is an email address, a device is a device. The more devices they infect, the more ransoms they get, the better.

Managing relationships with so many victims could be quite a lot of work -- not just infecting a system, but issuing the ransom request, accepting payment, returning or decrypting stolen files, and all the "customer" service communications required in between. Yet, ransomware operators don't have that problem now.

"They set up these [automated] infrastructures," says Johnson, so the entire process, from infection to cash-out to decryption, might be carried out and "maybe there was never a human involved."

The ransomware underground is becoming more of a business. Malware authors issue better software with regular updates. Anonymity services get wrapped into the offerings. Cash-out mechanisms are simpler. Even the ransoms themselves are simple. They identify a good price point -- one that's high enough to be worthwhile, but not so high that an average home user won't pay it -- and charge everyone the same. The logistics of operating a ransomware scheme are not too challenging anymore.

"The threshold to become a cybercriminal who wants to run a ransomware campaign has been dropping," says Borenstein, "both in terms of price... and the technical capabilities required."

"The lower the bar gets," says Johnson, "the more people who can pick up the baton and run with it."

But making things easy for the operator is only one half of the ransomware business model; the other part is to make things easy for the victims.

While Bitcoin is the main go-to currency for ransoms -- largely because of the anonymity it provides -- some criminals are providing victims with a wider variety of payment options, including PayPal, wire transfers, MoneyPak, Ukash, and paysafecard.

Johnson says that some criminals will even provide tech support to victims who have paid their ransom but have not been able to recover access to their systems and files.

On the other hand, there are some cases in which people promptly pay the ransom and never get their stuff back. Yet, both Johnson and Borenstein say that is not the norm.

If the ransomware operators don't hand over the decryption key, says Johnson, "it's a macro-economic gamble on their part." If enough people pay and get nothing in return, nobody will continue paying at all.

"For the most part criminals tend to keep their word," says Borenstein. However, what worries him is "just because the machine or information has been decrypted, it doesn't mean that the crumbs aren't still lying around. Is that device still infected... and is that going to be used for another attack later?"

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
11/6/2014 | 1:20:46 PM
How Nice of Them
First off, "Johnson says that some criminals will even provide tech support to victims who have paid their ransom but have not been able to recover access to their systems and files." -- how nice of them! Unbelievalbe...


User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2014 | 7:30:51 PM
Re: No Accountability...
Unfortunately Security Awareness Training is not a solution. Although it may prevent some attack vectors, these incidents will continue to occur and will still be successful. There are many users in any organization that even with extensive SAT will continue their behavior resulting in their machine/network being compromised. Yes, the user should be held accountable and a properly enforced AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) should be signed by all employees. Accountibility is also hard to enforce because more often User account privilges are not properly applied to network shares resulting in greater damage to a company. A proper ACL (Access Control List) also needs to be in place and audits need to be performed often. When a Ransomware incident does occur because a link is 'clicked', there is no indication to the End User the actions of the malicious payload being performed. The contents of your hard drive, removable storage, and networks shares are encrypting as a background proccess. How does a user have any knowledge of any wrong doing? It isn't until the encryption of your data is complete and the private key is securely transmitted to the bad guy that an actual Ransom message is displayed on the User's screen. But it's already too late. The damage is done. 
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
11/5/2014 | 3:51:22 PM
tech support to victims
This really takes the cake! I guess ransomware is becoming a full-service business. 
User Rank: Black Belt
11/5/2014 | 2:33:59 PM
Re: No Accountability...
Sad but true. Security Awareness Training is one way to solve the problem - good training, not the annual death by PPT presentation. Gartner has an MQ on it now, just published and PCI DSS has also come out with a 25 page guideance on best practices for SAT. Users have always been the weakest link and should be billed and drilled on secure behavior practices over a period of time to create awareness. Accountability helps.
User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2014 | 1:44:53 PM
Re: Numbers Game vs Dollars Game
@ Kelly Jackson Higgins,... I understand, better to be safe than to clean up a mess. :)
Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
11/5/2014 | 1:41:12 PM
Re: Numbers Game vs Dollars Game
@ODA155, thanks for reposting your comment. Sorry about the link panic. =)
User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2014 | 11:33:31 AM
Re: Numbers Game vs Dollars Game
@ unloadlocal... yeah, just "Click Here".
User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2014 | 9:55:02 AM
No Accountability...
"...but email phishing messages are still the most common method of ransomware distribution."

That will always be the case as long as there are people who will click on ANYTHING bright and shinny in their inbox. What I mean by "No Accountability" is that the only people who ever catch any flack in a corporation when a user is infected with a ransomware\malware are the security people... "How could this happen... why didn't our AV catch it first?", never do you hear about someone actually getting repremanded for endangering company resources.

Maybe it's time that companies started to hold these people accountable, because clearly education isn't working. I'm not saying they should be fired, but we have to do more than just reimage, restore and move on and hope that it doesn't happen again.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/4/2014 | 9:49:00 PM
Numbers Game vs Dollars Game
It reminds me of the economics of SPAM. The typical SPAM campaign has a fairly low click rate, but it's worthwhile for the SPAMers because they know that there are a number of users, albeit small, that will click on anything, so when millions of emails get sent out the SPAMer can count of at least a few hundred to a few thousand users clicking on their links.

With ransomware, i'd say the cybercriminals are going for the same thing; numbers. I wouldn't be surprised however if we saw targeted ransomware campaigns in the future against businesses. The average home user might only be able to part with a couple hundred dollars, a business that is lacking the proper backup & recovery plan will be willing to pay much more for their business critical data.


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