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How Ransomware Criminals Turn Friends into Enemies

Managed service providers are the latest pawns in ransomware's game of chess.

Hundreds of dental offices across the country were hit with ransomware recently after managed service provider (MSP) Digital Dental Record was compromised. Sadly, I partly saw this coming.

Sometimes predicting these kinds of attacks makes being right feel oh so wrong. This was one of those times. It was only a few weeks ago when I sat with Dark Reading's Kelly Jackson Higgins in DEF CON's Chillout Lounge, predicting this type of attack would be the next big thing.

As someone whose job it is to learn as much as possible about the online criminal ecosystem, I often spot trends before they make mainstream headlines. This type of attack was high on my list of attacks likely to increase.

Service Providers Under Fire
Supply chain attacks aren't new. They've been increasing in frequency, however, and gaining more attention. While there are many types of supply chain attacks, this particular type — compromising a service provider to gain access to its customers — is becoming more popular among skilled ransomware crews.

There were incidents following similar malicious playbooks a few years ago, but those targets were point-of-sale service providers. Back then, the goal wasn't to install ransomware but to steal credit cards from as many locations as possible.

Now the idea has been adapted to targeted attacks against niche MSPs. The goal: Hold all of its clients for ransom.

The most infamous attack to date, occurring only days after my prediction to Kelly, crippled 22 municipalities in Texas. Now, 400 dental practices are in the hotseat.

Now's the Time for Change
Managing IT can be hard, especially for small and midsize businesses lacking the necessary resources. It probably seemed like a great idea for these small dental practices to outsource IT to Digital Dental Record.

They're not alone. The managed services industry is growing extremely fast with businesses struggling to manage the technology required to run a modern establishment.

With attacks on MSPs on the rise, MSPs need to step up their security game, regardless of the kind of specialized services they provide. We've seen criminals exploit vulnerabilities in the popular Kaseya and Bomgar remote management platforms to gain access to their customers (Kaseya was used in a ransomware attack against MSPs back in June), and we're seeing criminals phish MSP employees to gain access to these systems and abuse them to deploy malware to their customers.

Now's the time if we want to nip this problem in the bud.

We must see mandatory adoption of multifactor authentication for employees who have administrative privileges reaching into tens or hundreds of customer networks.

We must end the use of shared credentials for gaining access to client networks.

We must see more secure remote access solutions, ideally protected by multifactor authentication and behind VPNs. No more using Virtual Network Computing and Remote Desktop Protocol on the open Internet.

And remote management tools like Kaseya and Bomgar must be kept up to date, especially in the wake of security advisories like those we have seen in the past year.

It's not all bad news, though. Many security problems are massively distributed, making fixes difficult. But in this space, there are a smaller number of MSPs that need to take action to harden their security posture.  

Do you work for an MSP? Look at your tools and determine whether they're attractive targets for an attack like this. All client access should be limited to VPNs, conduct regular penetration tests of both your own and your clients' networks, and be sure to stay on top of security advisories from the vendors you rely on for your tools. If we take this seriously and improve our defenses, the crooks will move on to greener pastures.

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