Ransomware emerged into the mainstream in 2017 with the WannaCry outbreak. In a few short years, it has become a sophisticated, professionalized threat that costs victims $1.85 million on average.
In 2021, the sophistication of ransomware advanced by leaps and bounds. The evolution of corporate IT environments driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing professionalism of ransomware gangs prompted the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), and the Australian Cyber Security Center to issue a joint advisory about the ransomware threat.
Exploiting Digital Transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on many organizations’ business operations. Within the space of a few weeks, companies shifted from mostly or wholly on-site work to a remote workforce. As a result, corporate IT infrastructure rapidly – and insecurely – evolved to support the remote workforce.
In response, ransomware operators shifted their focus to take advantage of these changes. Some of these tactical shifts include:
- Rise in Phishing Attacks: Phishing has always been a common delivery mechanism for malware, but the COVID-19 pandemic shifted this into overdrive. The COVID-19 environment of uncertainty and rapid change was ideal for phishing attacks, and ransomware actors took full advantage in their attacks.
- Exploiting Compromised Credentials: Remote workers require access to corporate networks and resources, so many companies rolled out virtual private networks (VPNs) and the remote desktop protocol (RDP) to support them. These tools provided an ideal environment for attackers to test and exploit compromised credentials. With authenticated access, ransomware operators could explore corporate environments and plant malware where it could do the most damage.
- Targeting VPN Vulnerabilities: VPN solutions are notoriously prone to vulnerabilities, and the need for availability means that companies are often slow to patch them. Ransomware attackers took full advantage of these vulnerabilities to access and infect corporate networks.
These are the three primary ransomware infection vectors of 2021, and they take advantage of remote work-driven changes in corporate IT environments. Since many companies plan to support extended telework programs, these attacks are likely to be successful and popular among cybercriminals for some time.
Optimizing Profitability and Sustainability
Ransomware is a business and a profitable one at that. In 2021, the average ransom payment was $170,404. After WannaCry and follow-on attacks demonstrated that ransomware attacks were a viable and profitable business model, ransomware gangs exploded and went corporate.
As a business, ransomware operators have consistently worked to evolve their strategies and align them with business needs. Some of the main changes that have occurred in recent years include:
- Role Specialization: A successful ransomware attack requires both access to high-quality malware and the ability to deliver it to a target. Ransomware gangs have largely shifted to an affiliate-based model where malware developers provide it to other groups for delivery and a share of the profits. This enables ransomware developers to dramatically scale their efforts and gives intrusion specialists a means of entering the market.
- Attack Diversification: The biggest problem with ransomware is that good backups eliminate the need to pay a ransom. For this reason, ransomware operators have begun stealing sensitive data, threatening targets with Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and targeting victims’ customers. With additional leverage, these groups increase their probability of a payday.
- Industry Collaboration: In 2021, ransomware groups in Europe and Asia began sharing information about victims, including access to corporate networks. This collaboration can support further growth of ransomware attacks as less-sophisticated groups purchase access to targets and follow through on the attacks.
- Target Selection: In recent years, the U.S. and other governments have taken action against the biggest and most disruptive ransomware groups in operation. For this reason, some groups are deliberately avoiding high-profile attacks such as the Colonial Pipeline, Kaseya Limited, and JBS Foods to avoid the wrath of authorities and remain in operation.
- Supply Chain Exploits: Exploiting trust relationships, such as those between MSSPs or software developers (like SolarWinds) and their customers, has become a common tactic of ransomware groups. This allows them to dramatically scale their attacks by leveraging a single successful intrusion into access to multiple organizations’ networks.
Ransomware has come a long way in the past five years. As such a successful and profitable business line, it is likely to only continue to grow and evolve.
Managing the Ransomware Threat
Ransomware operations are growing more professional and sophisticated. In the last few years, ransomware has pivoted to leverage changes in corporate IT infrastructure and has refined its techniques to improve profitability and success rates. At the same time, many organizations have taken a step back in terms of security, rolling out new solutions and IT infrastructure without developing and implementing a plan to secure them.
Mitigating the risk and cost of a ransomware attack requires a proactive approach. Instead of waiting for ransomware operators to uncover your organization’s security weaknesses, find and fix the issues before they’re exploited with a penetration test.
Netragard provides authentic simulations of real-world ransomware attack vectors using Real-Time Dynamic Testing to identify security holes that ransomware organizations may leverage to compromise your network. Netragard can help close these security holes in your systems to prevent future attacks. To learn more about ransomware prevention and attack simulation, contact us.