What Are Ransomware Attacks?

It’s nearly Halloween again – and that means it’s time to talk about spooky cybersecurity issues (yay?). One of the scariest things we can think of is ransomware attacks, which happen all the darn time and are one of the biggest cyberthreats for SMBs. Most scary of all: small business owners have been told surprisingly little about ransomware. 

 With the time of trick-or-treating upon us, it’s definitely time to remedy that. Let’s talk about what a ransomware attack is, uncover some little-known facts about these attacks, and clarify how you can protect your business from hacker trickery.  

TL;DR: Ransomware is a malicious software that criminals trick you into downloading, so they can turn your files into unreadable garbage. Ransomware is costly and a hassle – and it’s ~2x as common in the US as COVID infection. Learn more.

What Is a Ransomware Attack?

Although ransomware is in the news all the time, cybersecurity experts rarely take the time to explain what it is. So, what is a ransomware attack? 

Ransomware is a type of malicious software (“malware”) that attacks servers, laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, and everything connected to all that equipment, like USB drives. It encrypts your files, which makes them look like corrupted garbage when you open them. Hackers demand a ransom to decrypt files; ransoms average around $5,600.00 in Bitcoin. Ransoms must be paid within a time limit, or the files are lost forever. 

Recently, hackers have started adding new wrinkles to their tried-and-true ransomware tactics. If you become the victim of a ransomware attack these days, hackers may: 

  • Blackmail you into paying the ransom by sending emails to your contacts and threatening to release their data unless you pay up
  • Advertise on the dark web to get your disgruntled employees to install ransomware into your systems

Little-Known Facts About Ransomware Attacks

Now that you understand what ransomware is, you may be surprised to learn that:

  • Ransomware is a booming business online

Remember, ransomware is malicious software. A cybercriminal launching a ransomware attack is likely to be paying a monthly subscription fee to use off-the-shelf ransomware software, just like you pay a monthly subscription fee to use off-the-shelf financial software (like QuickBooks). Neither of you know how to build the software, you just know how to use it to help your company grow. 

Like QuickBooks, ransomware is extremely popular software. 

  • Ransomware has been around for a long time

The first ransomware was probably developed between 2005 and 2009 in Eastern Europe or Russia, but the software didn’t really gain traction until eCommerce and online payment processing took off. 

Bitcoin, which is hard-to-trace online currency that you can trade for real money in the real world (like those “unmarked bills” that bank robbers always demand), made ransomware attacks a criminal’s dream. 

  • There are a lot of variants of ransomware

Here’s a depressing and creepy analogy: Just like we all understand that Delta is a unique variant of COVID-19 with its own particular properties, cybersecurity experts understand that WannaCry and CryptoLocker are variants of the ransomware epidemic, each with their own particular properties (ability to infect, how they attack, etc.) 

We hate being able to make that analogy… but it sure does make sense. 

  • Infection is extremely common

According to a Harris Poll, more than 1 in 5 Americans (21%) had already directly experienced ransomware by 2019. According to Datto’s Global State of the Channel Ransomware Report from 2020, ransomware attacks had increased 94% YoY. There’s not enough data there to do precise math, but we can assume that over 21% of Americans have now directly experienced ransomware. 

To put that in perspective, the New York Times numbers show that roughly 13% of Americans have tested positive for COVID, ever. Ransomware attacks are ~2x as common as COVID infection. Now that’s spooky. 

How to Protect Against Ransomware Attacks

The most important thing to understand about ransomware attacks is that, once you’ve been hit, your data is out of your hands forever. Even if cybercriminals return the data to you after you pay the ransom, or even if you restore the data from a backup (go you!), the damage has been done: criminals have your data and they can sell it on the dark web if they want. 

The best idea is to avoid an attack in the first place. The best way to do that is to understand how to protect against ransomware using a multilayered security approach including:

Enough about tricks; here’s a treat: Get your free DIY Network Security Assessment from Interplay. 

For 20 years, the friendly and knowledgeable team at Interplay in Seattle has helped business leaders across a range of industries get more out of their tech, stress free. Not only are we always (and we mean always) happy to offer the best managed IT services, support, and advice, we’re also the team you can trust for the best cocktail recommendations here in Seattle or in Disney World – we’re versatile! All humor aside though, we’d love to help you get your IT running smoothly and securely, around the clock.