Your money or your data: Ransomware attacks leave everyone vulnerable

Having secure backups of information is key to thwarting sticky-fingered hackers

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How bad has the ransomware problem become? The state auditor of Ohio held a news conference because local government agencies keep falling for ransomware attacks. And a firm that tracks domain activity found a 3,500 percent increase in ransomware-related domain name registrations in the past quarter. Hackers love to cut and paste, so imitation is the surest sign that something is working.

Recall the high-profile, alarming ransomware attacks earlier this year on hospitals. These “your money or your data” crimes can do a lot of damage quickly, and confused organizations brought to their knees by missing mission-critical data often pay up. Of course, smaller organization with fewer IT resources are at greater risk.

Related story: SMBs in cross-hairs as ransomware becomes more difficult to dodge

Examples from one state

Here’s what’s going on in Ohio. Auditor of State Dave Yost issued a warning June 9 to treasurers, fiscal officers and others responsible for spending public money that cybercrimes targeting government are “on the rise.” And he offered these examples:

  • An investigation continues in an eastern Ohio county after the county’s court data was attacked by ransomware May 31. A virus had encrypted the court’s data, and hackers demanded $2,500 for the key to unlock the information. Because a recent copy of the data wasn’t available, the county agreed to pay the $2,500. (Note: Because the transaction is ongoing, the county is not identified.)
  • A similar ransomware attempt was made April 5 in Vernon Township (Clinton County). That cyber attack did not result in the payment of any ransom because the township’s data was backed up.
  • In Peru Township (Morrow County), the township fiscal officer’s computer began screeching on March 9 before a notice appeared on the screen advising that a solution was available by calling an 800 number. The township paid $200 to stop the attack.

In separate, nonransomware incidents, an employee at Big Walnut Local School District in Delaware County was tricked into issuing a check for $38,520 to a hacker. The money was recovered before it was lost. The Madison County Agricultural Society wasn’t as lucky; it was scammed out of $60,491 through someone posing as the IRS, collecting back taxes.

Thieves getting more savvy

“We’ve all seen and heard about the criminals who try to steal our personal funds. These scammers would like nothing more than to get their sticky fingers on our tax dollars, too,” Yost said. “We need to be vigilant because they are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they attempt to steal money through the internet.”

Related story: Cyber criminals use ransomware to hook big fish

Yost is right. Network security firm Infoblox reported recently that hackers were falling over one another to set up websites related to ransomware scams. The firm tracks domain registrations as a way of monitoring the internet for threats, and it says it found a 35-fold increase in newly observed ransomware domains from the fourth quarter of 2015.

“There is an old adage that success begets success, and it seems to apply to malware as in any other corner of life. In the first quarter of 2016, there were numerous stories in the news about successful ransomware attacks on both companies and consumers,” the firm said. “We believe the larger cyber criminal community has taken notice.”

Costs of breach climb

According to the FBI, ransomware victims reported costs of $209 million in the first quarter, compared to $24 million for all of 2015.

“Unless and until companies figure out how to guard against ransomware—and certainly not reward the attack—we expect it to continue its successful run,” Infoblox said.

Yost said all the crimes began with some variation of phishing, and urged all government employees to be on alert.

“The internet is the tool of choice for criminals, and we need to make it as difficult as possible for thieves to access community treasure chests,” Yost said.

The best way to do that, as Vernon Township showed above, is to keep good backups.

Stories related to ransomware:
Understanding ransomware helps organizations devise solutions
Ransomware is a real and persistent threat, even to Apple users
Hospitals show little resistance to ransomware virus