Attackers Prefer Ransomware to Stealing Data

Financial data is still in demand, but ransomware becomes the most popular way to try to cash in from compromised companies, according to Trustwave.

4 Min Read

For the first time, more cybersecurity incidents involved recovering from ransomware attacks rather than dealing with the fallout of stolen data — a sign that attackers are shifting their tactics, according to cybersecurity services firm Trustwave, which published its annual threat report today.

Ransomware accounted for 18% of the compromises investigated by Trustwave in 2019, up from only 4% the previous year, while attacks that targeted financial data accounted for 17% of breaches, up from 1% the previous year, according to the firm. The previous two most targeted data types — chip-and-pin information and user credentials — fell to 14% and 13%, respectively, of investigations in 2019, down from 25% and 21% of compromises in 2018.

For the attackers, ransomware ends up being simple and easy, says Karl Sigler, senior threat intelligence manager for Trustwave's SpiderLabs.

"This is the first time we have seen attackers make it their primary goal to infect customers' systems with ransomware," he says. "That's kind of interesting, considering that, as a trend, ransomware declined for a year or two. Now, instead, it has come back because it is so very easy to monetize."

The resurgence of ransomware is not the only trend highlighed in the "2020 Trustwave Global Security Report."

The report also shows the danger for companies that have not developed good detection procedures. The average company that detected a threat using internal systems did so in two days, improving significantly on the 11 days required in 2018. Yet if an outside group had to report the threat to the company, the attackers were able to work inside the company network for 86 days, an increase over the 55 days in 2018.

"When you can detect a compromise quickly and do it yourself, you can limit the amount of damage that is occurring," Sigler says. "The longer the attacker has a presence on your network, the more malware that is spread, the more malware they will spread to other systems."

Part of the reason for the move to ransomware and away from data theft is that exfiltrating and distilling data to a sellable form is difficult, Sigler says. Many ransomware programs do not even have the capability to extract data, and attackers fear that any attempt to copy data will result in detection, he says. 

"To infect systems with ransomware after you steal the data from the systems becomes a harder lift," Sigler says.

More than a third of attacks against the most targeted industries — travel and hospitality — consisted of ransomware attacks, according to Trustwave data.

While e-mail remains popular as a way to conduct fraud — nearly four of every 10 spam e-mails promoted phony pharmaceuticals, and business e-mail compromise (BEC) remains the most costly type of attack — malware-ladened spam also became more targeted, sending a smaller volume of e-mails to a smaller group of people. 

In 2019, only 28% of all e-mail was classified as spam, down from 87% in 2017, and only 0.2% of spam messages had a malicious attachment, down from 6% in 2018, Trustwave's report states. 

Point-of-sale compromises are no longer a favored target of attackers, Trustwave states. In 2019, only 5% of compromises attempted to steal card data from point-of-sale devices and software, a steep decline from the 31% of incidents in 2016.

The move toward ransomware and away from point of sale will likely continue this year, especially with many nations' economies shut down. With the sudden shift caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the move to remote work, predicting whether the trends from 2019 will continue is difficult, Sigler says. 

The attack surface area of most companies, however, has likely grown significantly, he says.

"You have a huge portion of the workforce who has never worked from home before, and that makes them vulnerable," he says. "Things like fake updates and fake packages will be a major concern, where previously security at the office could have caught them."

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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