The FBI urges victims to report ransomware incidents to federal law enforcement to help authorities gain a more comprehensive view of the current threat and its impact on U.S. victims.
Ransomware infections impact individual users and businesses, regardless of size or industry, by causing service disruptions, financial loss and, in some cases, permanent loss of valuable data. While ransomware infection statistics are often highlighted in the media and by computer security companies, the FBI faces challenges ascertaining the true number of ransomware victims as many infections go unreported, according to the Bureau.
“Victims may not report to law enforcement for a number of reasons, including concerns over not knowing where and to whom to report; not feeling their loss warrants law enforcement attention; concerns over privacy, business reputation, or regulatory data breach reporting requirements; or embarrassment,” the FBI says. “Additionally, those who resolve the issue internally either by paying the ransom or by restoring their files from back-ups may not feel a need to contact law enforcement.”
The FBI is urging victims to report ransomware regardless of the outcome. Victim reporting provides law enforcement with a greater understanding of the threat, justifies ransomware investigations, and helps investigate other ransomware cases. Knowing more about victims and their experiences with ransomware will help the FBI determine who is behind the attacks and how they identify or target victims.
Recent variants have targeted and compromised vulnerable business servers (rather than individual users) to identify and target hosts, multiplying the number of potential infected servers and devices on a network. Actors engaging in this targeting strategy also charge ransom based on the number of hosts (or servers) infected. Additionally, recent victims of these types of ransomware variants have not been provided the decryption keys for all their files after paying the ransom, and some have been extorted for even more money after the first payment, the announcement says.
This recent technique of targeting host servers and systems could force victims to pay more to get their decryption keys, prolong recovery time, and raise the possibility that victims will not obtain full decryption of their files.
The FBI does not support ransom payments. Paying a ransom does not guarantee the victim will regain access to the data; in fact, some individuals or organizations are never provided with decryption keys after paying a ransom. Payment emboldens the adversary to target other victims for profit, and could encourage other criminals to engage in similar illicit activities. The FBI, however, recognizes executives, when faced with inoperability issues, will evaluate all options to protect their shareholders, employees, and customers.
The FBI recommends users consider the following prevention and continuity measures to lessen the risk of a successful ransomware attack:
- Regularly back up data and verify the integrity of those backups. Backups are critical in ransomware incidents; if you are infected, backups may be the best way to recover your critical data.
- Secure your backups. Ensure backups are not connected to the computers and networks they are backing up. Examples might include securing backups in the cloud or physically storing them offline. It should be noted, some instances of ransomware have the capability to lock cloud-based backups when systems continuously back up in real-time, also known as persistent synchronization.
- Scrutinize links contained in e-mails and do not open attachments included in unsolicited e-mails.
- Only download software – especially free software – from sites you know and trust. When possible, verify the integrity of the software through a digital signature prior to execution.
- Ensure application patches for the operating system, software, and firmware are up to date, including Adobe Flash, Java, Web browsers, etc.
- Ensure anti-virus and anti-malware solutions are set to automatically update and regular scans are conducted.
- Disable macro scripts from files transmitted via e-mail. Consider using Office Viewer software to open Microsoft Office files transmitted via e-mail instead of full Office Suite applications.
- Implement software restrictions or other controls to prevent the execution of programs in common ransomware locations, such as temporary folders supporting popular Internet browsers, or compression/decompression programs, including those located in the AppData/LocalAppData folder.
Additional considerations for businesses include the following:
- Focus on awareness and training. Because end users are often targeted, employees should be made aware of the threat of ransomware, how it is delivered, and trained on information security principles and techniques.
- Patch all endpoint device operating systems, software, and firmware as vulnerabilities are discovered. This precaution can be made easier through a centralized patch management system.
- Manage the use of privileged accounts by implementing the principle of least privilege. No users should be assigned administrative access unless absolutely needed. Those with a need for administrator accounts should only use them when necessary; they should operate with standard user accounts at all other times.
- Configure access controls with least privilege in mind. If a user only needs to read specific files, he or she should not have write access to those files, directories, or shares.
- Use virtualized environments to execute operating system environments or specific programs.
- Categorize data based on organizational value, and implement physical/logical separation of networks and data for different organizational units. For example, sensitive research or business data should not reside on the same server and/or network segment as an organization’s e-mail environment.
- Require user interaction for end user applications communicating with Web sites uncategorized by the network proxy or firewall. Examples include requiring users to type in information or enter a password when the system communicates with an uncategorized Web site.
- Implement application whitelisting. Only allow systems to execute programs known and permitted by security policy.
Cyber security companies cited by the FBI reported that, in the first several months of 2016, global ransomware infections were at an all-time high. Within the first weeks of its release, one particular ransomware variant compromised an estimated 100,000 computers a day.
Ransomware was seen as a major threat in the top predictions list in cyber security for 2016 by Bitdefender CTO Bogdan Dumitru. This March, Palo Alto Networks researchers revealed KeRanger ransomware targeted Mac users for the first time, realizing Bitdefender’s predictions about ransomware’s expansion to new operating systems in 2016.
“We’ve already seen ransomware for Linux, Windows and Android. Mac OS is just around the corner,” Dumitru said in December 2015. “It targets both consumers and companies, and the 2016 versions not only will encrypt files and ask for ransom, but will also make all documents available on the internet if ransom is not paid. In an ironic twist, the victim will be able to recover encrypted files – when they are uploaded on the internet for public shaming.”
“Ransomware has probably been the largest unresolvable threat to Internet users ever since 2014, and it will remain one of the most important drivers of cybercrime in 2016,” Bitdefender noted. “While some operators will prefer the file encryption approach, some more innovative groups will focus on developing ‘extortionware’ (malware that blocks accounts on various online services or that expose data stored locally to everybody on the Internet). Throughout 2016, file-encrypting ransomware will most likely expand to Mac OS X as well.”
Last year, reports show millions of users fell victim to CryptoWall version 3.0 (and many go unreported), adding over $350 million to cyber-criminals’ bank accounts.