When Your Digital Life is Held to Ransom

crim_with_gunRansomware is a type of malware that will lock you out of your files, device, or other resources, and demand a payment to regain access.  Even if you choose to pay up, most often the payment will not result in gaining back access, and your files are permanently lost.

The threat posed by ransomware is serious, with recent infections more devastating than any malware or virus we have seen in years.  The infection rate increased throughout 2015 with a range of new variants attacking customers across PC and other platforms.

We are asked to help businesses recover from a major ransomware infection about once per week.  Where the infected site has implemented a viable backup system, files and services can usually be restored with some effort and relatively few losses.  Unfortunately, many businesses and individuals that come to us for help did not have appropriate backups in place and have lost files at huge cost.  We have seen Ransomware infections threaten the ongoing viability of businesses.

A Bad Day in The Life of …. John, the owner of a small manufacturing business who has come into the office at the crack of dawn to catch up. Coffee machine working. Check. Time to finally get this tender sorted.

Logging into his PC, John does a double take. There is an impressive looking red and white boxy thing on the screen.“ Your personal files are encrypted!…..pay us or they are gone forever.”

Files exist but nothing will open. Johns not too familiar with the backup system, but he knows they have one. Rings his accounts guy who looks after that. There are backups. They sit on a NAS in another building to the server, so they are “offsite”.

Tries to restore. Files won’t open. They have been encrypted as well. Very Bad Day.

How does Ransomware infect and hurt my computer systems?

The most common way to get infected is by clicking on an attachment or link in a malicious email.  The email may appear to have been sent from reputable company such as Australia Post or Telstra.

Other methods of infection include visiting infected web sites, malicious code embedded in downloadable applications, and attacks on security flaws in operating system software and services.  Any attack that can run executable code on your computer has the potential to infect you with malware.

The most common Ransomware will scan your computer for valuable files, such as office documents and photos, and encrypt them.  Ransomware will also encrypt files on any network accessible locations or attached disks.  Once done, the malware presents a message with a promise to decrypt the files if you pay up.

Files encrypted cannot be recovered without a key generated by the criminals or from backups.  Backup files accessible to ransomware, such as those located on an attached drive, may be encrypted alongside other files.  Backup sets may also be compromised with any backup process run after encryption has started including a mix of newly encrypted files and unencrypted files, potentially overwriting the original files depending on the backup system design.  At best this requires you to sift through backups for the last good copy.

By the time the damage is noticed, even if you have current backups you may find your business suffers with downtime to services while you restore the damage.  Even large organisations with multiple layers of security and backups have been hurt. “There was an IT security issue this morning which affected some of the ABC’s broadcasting systems and created technical difficulties for ABC News 24, as a result, we broadcast stand-by programming from 9:30am before resuming live news broadcasts from Melbourne at 10:00am.” – ABC news 8th October 2014



Are my other devices vulnerable?

Ransomware is most common and dangerous on a Windows machine, but this type of malware is also growing rapidly on other operating systems and devices.

Infections on Android devices are normally triggered by a malicious app.  When activated the malware tries to lock the user out of their device and demands payment to allow access.  There are work arounds to gain back access in most cases, but not always.  A particularly nasty variant reported in September 2015 tricks the user into clicking on a button that allows the app to change the devices PIN and disable security software, permanently locking out the user.

Ransomware can potentially attack Apple iOS and OSX devices, such as iPhones.  In 2014 Apple customers, primarily in Australia, woke to a message on their phone screens : “Hacked by Oleg Pliss. For unlock YOU NEED send voucher code by 100 $/eur one of this (Moneypack/Ukash/PaySafeCard) to helplock@gmx.com I sent code 2618911226.”  This attack was probably indirect, where a vulnerability in the user’s iCloud accounts was exploited to then attack the phones.  A handy reminder to set up two-factor authentication on important accounts and to set, and regularly change, a strong password on your accounts.



I’m not at risk, I have a virus scanner!?

It is common and dangerously mistaken belief that an up to date virus scanner can guarantee protection from malware.  A virus scanner will protect against many known, and some newly released malware, but no scanner can protect against all such threats.

Failure_300When Cryptolocker attacked in late 2013, no virus scanners I am aware of picked it up or prevented its actions.  It went right through the scanners as well as other security systems and infected many thousands of computers.  Days and weeks later virus scanners caught up and could block the malware, but then a variant of Cryptolocker was released to bypass them and a second wave of infections ensued.  To rub salt into those wounds, they also took the opportunity to raise the ransom amount.

Research by LastLine Labs (and others) confirms that anti-virus are never 100%, and can never be 100%: “On Day 0, only 51% of antivirus scanners detected new malware samples … After two weeks, there was a notable bump in detection rates (up to 61%), indicating a common lag time for antivirus vendors”

Seeing comments like the following are common after an infection, when it too late and people realise antivirus alone is not enough “…got a Crypt/Dorifel virus(an early version of cryptolocker) and all Symantec was doing is quarantining the modified documents….”

Antivirus will protect you at times, but it cannot be more than one element of a protection strategy.


Do I get my files back if I pay?

Sometimes.  These programs are written to make the criminals money.  It makes sense then that if you pay up, usually $100s to $1000s of dollars, they will decrypt your files or unlock your device so the next guy has some hope and will also pay them.

Sometimes paying will work.  More often the remote attacking servers will have been taken down, access blocked by to prevent further infections, the software simply breaks and will not decrypt correctly, or the attackers never intended to allow the option to decrypt.  If you get hit, ask for advice to look at all other possible ways to restore lost files, and only try paying up as a desperate last resort.



Is there any other way to get my files back?

Restoring from your backups is the most reliable and most often the only method to recover from a ransomware infection.  Where backups are accessible from the infected computer, they may have been encrypted and therefore practically destroyed.  Offline backups are not vulnerable and may be an option if your current most up to date backups have been compromised.

The effectiveness of backups depends on their design and many poor backup system designs are vulnerable to ransomware.  If you are reading this as a business owner and are not entirely familiar and confident about your backup system, please review it!  In our experience the majority of SMEs do not have an adequate backup system, and many who believe that have a working system in fact have no useful backups at all.

“CERT Australia was contacted by a number of organisations that had suffered significant business disruption as a result of corrupted backups.” – Australian Computer Emergency Response Team on Ransomware advisory.


For users of some versions of windows, you may be able to restore older versions of files, the ones present before the malware attacked, by accessing the shadow copy snapshots stored on your computer (if the feature is enabled – and note it is not available on the basic home versions of windows).

In rare cases, security organisations have discovered flaws in the encryption process or intercept encryption keys from the attackers, allowing files to be decrypted.  This is a long shot.

There may be other copies of your information cached or stored in places you are not aware of.  Think about files that may have been copied to pen drives, other devices, uploaded into the cloud, and so on.  There may be deleted files on devices that can be retrieved.

Ask for professional advice if you appear to have lost critical files.


How can I protect my business from Ransomware?

There is no one simple solution to insure a business against ransomware or similar malware and related disasters.  Implementing a number of measures can greatly reduce your risk of serious data loss or downtime.


Some of the measures you can use to reduce the risk to your business:

  • Educate staff in ways you might be attacked and what to look out for to avoid infection, such as suspicious emails.
  • Implement a planned and verified backup system including an offline copy. Ensure a senior person fully understands the design and how to verify its operation.
  • Limit account permissions – do not log into a computer with an administrator account for general use. Limit individual users account access to network resources they need.
  • Where backups run across your network to a shared location, such as a NAS, set a password to limit access so that only the backup process can use that share.
  • Turn on User Access Control (its on by default, many people turn it off. Do not.)
  • Do not plug any PC still running Windows XP into your network (no longer supported by Microsoft and highly vulnerable to attack)
  • Turn on Volume Shadow Copy where available (keep old version of files automatically).
  • Ensure operating system patches are fully up to date on all computers.
  • Reduce your attack surface.
    • Use firewalls and NAT routers so internet traffic cannot reach devices that may be vulnerable. Be careful with port forwards and do not use the DMZ feature on your router unless you know what it is!!
    • Block access to suspicious web sites at network level.
    • Turn off services you don’t need.
  • Block malware delivery with services such as a spam and virus checking service to filter email before it hits your user mailboxes and a web filtering service to block malicious or infected websites.
  • Ensure up to date antivirus systems are installed on all computers.
  • Implement software restriction policies to block execution of unknown software and other appropriate organisation wide group policies (for server based networks).
  • If you suspect an infection, physically unplug any infected machine from the network, and if not sure what to do,shut it down immediately. If encryption is not complete this will save files.


Further Reading

How My Mom Got Hacked – New York Times

Why Ransomware Will Continue to Rise in 2015 – McAfee Labs

Cutting the Gordian Knot: A Look Under the Hood of Ransomware Attacks – LastLine Labs

Antivirus Isn’t Dead, It Just Can’t Keep Up

Ransomware @ Wikipedia

New Windows 10 scam will encrypt your files for ransom @ ZDNet

Hackers lock up thousands of Australian computers, demand ransom @ SMH

Ransomware Advisory @ CERT

Ransomware Explained @ Microsoft

Cryptolocker @ Krebs on Security

Crypto-ransomware attack targets Australians via fake Australia Post emails @ ABC

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