What is ransomware?

You shouldn’t feel helpless when thinking of the crushing effects of ransomware. There are a lot of practical provisions you can take to block or limit the impact of cyber attacks on your data. And I’m about to show you just what to do.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a sophisticated piece of malware that blocks the victim’s access to his/her files.

There are two types of ransomware in circulation:

  1. Encrypting ransomware, which incorporates advanced encryption algorithms. It’s designed to block system files and demand payment to provide the victim with the key that can decrypt the blocked content. Examples include CryptoLocker, Locky, CrytpoWall and more.
  2. Locker ransomware, which locks the victim out of the operating system, making it impossible to access the desktop and any apps or files. The files are not encrypted in this case, but the attackers still ask for a ransom to unlock the infected computer. Examples include the police-themed ransomware or Winlocker.
  3. Another version pertaining to this type is the Master Boot Record (MBR) ransomware. The MBR is the section of a PC’s hard drive which enables the operating system to boot up. When MBR ransomware strikes, the boot process can’t complete as usual, and prompts a ransom note to be displayed on the screen. Examples include Satana and Petya ransomware.

However, the most widespread type of ransomware is crypto-ransomware or encrypting ransomware, which I’ll focus on in this guide. The cyber security community agrees that this is the most prominent and worrisome cyber threat of the moment.

Ransomware has some key characteristics that set it apart from other malware:

  • It features unbreakable encryption, which means that you can’t decrypt the files on your own (there are various decryption tools released by cyber security researchers – more on that later);
  • It has the ability to encrypt all kinds of files, from documents to pictures, videos, audio files and other things you may have on your PC;
  • It can scramble your file names, so you can’t know which data was affected. This is one of the social engineering tricks used to confuse and coerce victims into paying the ransom;
  • It will add a different extension to your files, to sometimes signal a specific type of ransomware strain;
  • It will display an image or a message that lets you know your data has been encrypted and that you have to pay a specific sum of money to get it back;
  • It requests payment in Bitcoins, because this crypto-currency cannot be tracked by cyber security researchers or law enforcements agencies;
  • Usually, the ransom payments has a time-limit, to add another level of psychological constraint to this extortion scheme. Going over the deadline typically means that the ransom will increase, but it can also mean that the data will be destroyed and lost forever.
  • It uses a complex set of evasion techniques to go undetected by traditional antivirus (more on this in the “Why ransomware often goes undetected by antivirus” section);
  • It often recruits the infected PCs into botnets, so cyber criminals can expand their infrastructure and fuel future attacks;
  • It can spread to other PCs connected in a local network, creating further damage;
  • It frequently features data exfiltration capabilities, which means that ransomware can extract data from the affected computer (usernames, passwords, email addresses, etc.) and send it to a server controlled by cyber criminals;
  • It sometimes includes geographical targeting, meaning the ransom note is translated into the victim’s language, to increase the chances for the ransom to be paid.

The inventory of things that ransomware can do keeps growing every day, with each new security alert broadcasted by our team or other malware researchers.

As ransomware families and variants multiply, you need to understand that you need at least baseline protection to avoid data loss and other troubles.

Encrypting ransomware is a complex and advanced cyber threat which uses all the tricks available because it makes cyber criminals a huge amount of money. We’re talking millions!

If you’re curious how it all started, it’s time to go over:

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