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Ransomware: Where It’s Been and Where It’s Going

About Ransomware Campaigns

About Ransomware Campaigns

Ransomware has become prevalent because it is an easy way for criminals to make a quick buck; and because in many ways defenders have forgotten the basics of cybersecurity. The efficiency of ransomware as an illicit means of making money is supported by the emergence of ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), and Bitcoin as a secure method of ransom collection. These are conclusions drawn from an analysis of more than 1000 ransomware samples categorized into 150 families.

“Attackers are looking to make quick, easy money with unsophisticated malware combined with sophisticated delivery methods,” say Carbon Black’s researchers Brian Baskin and Param Singh in a blog post on Thursday. “The majority of today’s ransomware aims to target the largest vulnerable population possible.” As a result, ransomware campaigns are often delivered by large scale phishing/spam campaigns. “These ‘spray and pray’ attacks often rely on spamming and phishing campaigns to guarantee a small percentage of infections to extort money. Similar to many spam campaigns, ransomware has been sent en masse to thousands of email addresses at a single organization, requiring just one person to execute the payload for a successful attack.”

Separately, Datto’s State of the Channel Ransomware Report (PDF), also published Thursday, claims that an estimated $301 million was paid in ransoms from 2016-2017. Datto analyzed data from 1,700+ Managed Service Providers (MSPs) serving 100,000+ small-to-mid-sized businesses (SMBs) around the globe. Despite the success of ransomware, Datto notes, “With a reliable backup and recovery solution (BDR) in place, 96% of MSPs report clients fully recover from ransomware attacks.”

Webroot’s September Threat Trends Report suggests that “some 93% of all phishing emails now lead to ransomware”. Merging these two statistics suggests that a combination of effective spam/phishing prevention and good BDR would go a long way to combating the ransomware epidemic. Clearly, this is not yet happening.

Carbon Black’s research suggests that businesses have taken the decision to concentrate on recovery rather than prevention. “These businesses implemented policies to quickly re-image the machine with its most recent backup and move on.” However, it adds, “WannaCry and NotPetya have changed that equation by including worm functionality to spread across networks… Businesses that had accepted the risk of handling few ransomware incidents now risked losing complete networks.”

While improved phishing/spam detection could prevent a high proportion of current ransomware getting through to the target, this is unlikely ever to be 100% effective. The next line of defense would be anti-virus software. However, malware in general — and including ransomware — is moving towards fileless delivery, employing scripts embedded in attachments to effect the infection. In such circumstances, there is no file for traditional anti-virus to detect. 

An example of a large scale fileless ransomware campaign was described by Trustwave’s SpiderLabs at the end of August 2017. Dr. Fahim Abbasi and Nicholas Ramos describe a campaign that involved millions of spam messages with obfuscated JavaScript in the attachment. If the JavaScript ran, it caused either Cerber or FakeGlobe ransomware to be downloaded and executed.

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“File-based solutions that focus on static indicators of files such as file names, unique strings, and hashes, are missing ransomware attacks as they don’t have visibility into the ‘DNA’ of an attack,” warns Carbon Black. “Without tracking malicious behavior and intent, such defensive methods could be unable to accurately predict future attacks involving volatile code leveraging such tools as JavaScript, PowerShell, Visual Basic, and Active Server Pages (ASP).”

Although ransomware uses the latest fileless techniques to beat defenses, the malware itself is often very simple. The Carbon Black researchers do not expect this to continue.

While most ransomware attacks Windows, they suggest that Linux will increasingly be targeted so that larger organizations can be extorted. “For example,” they say, “attackers will increasingly look to conduct SQL injections to infect servers and charge a higher ransom price. We have already observed attacks hitting MongoDB earlier this year which provide an excellent foreshadowing.” This will be in tandem with more focused targeting, both in sectors attacked and content encrypted. “A focused targeting of extensions can allow many ransomware samples to hide under the radar of many defenders.”

Currently, most ransomware simply encrypts files. In the future, Baskin and Singh expect more of the malware to exfiltrate data prior to encrypting and ransoming files. They also believe that ransomware will increasingly be used as a smokescreen, just as DDoS attacks are already used to complicate response to financial fraud. In such circumstances, following large scale data exfiltration, “adversaries can thwart many incident response efforts by forcing responders to focus on decrypting files instead of investigating data and credentials exfiltrated.”

More worryingly, the researchers also expect ransomware to become a false flag disguising a nation-state cyber weapon, “as seen with NotPetya. Solely from dynamic analysis it was perceived to be Petya, when more detailed analysis showed it wasn’t. Such quick analysis also insinuated it to be obvious ransomware, but a greater depth of disassembly showed that data was not held at ransom; it was simply destroyed.” Ransomware without decryption is nothing short of a wiper.

The simple message from Carbon Black is that despite the current success of ransomware, it is largely in the hands of relatively unskilled criminals. This won’t continue. Ransomware will increasingly be adopted by sophisticated groups who will use it in a targeted manner, often to augment or disguise other purposes – or simply as an obfuscated nation-state cyber weapon. While the problem of ransomware is severe today, it will likely get much worse over the next few years.

Written By

Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.

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