What is extortionware? How does it differ from ransomware?

Prevention is the only line of defense against an extortionware attack. Learn how extortionware works and why it can be more damaging than ransomware.

All businesses process, store and transmit private customer, partner and company data. This data ranges from internal documents to price lists to HR notes on employee behavior. If released to the public, however, this information could cause tremendous embarrassment and potential legal troubles for an organization.

The confidentiality and importance of such data make it a ripe target for threat actors looking to extort money from their victims.

Let's look at how extortionware works, how it compares to ransomware and why the threat of extortionware is likely to continue growing in years to come.

How does extortionware work?

In most cases, extortionware uses traditional malware to infiltrate a company's digital resources. Once access is gained, the victim's data is stolen and analyzed to identify information that can be used against them. Cybercriminals then contact the victim and threaten to release sensitive, embarrassing or illegal information to the public unless the victim meets the criminals' demands. Typically, the demands are monetary in nature and involve the transfer of cryptocurrency.

Comparing extortionware vs. ransomware

Extortionware may sound a bit like ransomware, and it is. Both ransomware and extortionware access and exfiltrate company data, usually with the intent of making money off the company from which it was stolen.

Unlike ransomware, which forces the business to either pay up or lose access to the stolen data, extortionists threaten to publicly release the collected information. This often pressures the business to comply, which increases the likelihood the victim will adhere to the extortion demands.

Recent ransomware variants, however, include extortionware features. Double extortion ransomware, for example, is when a malicious actor encrypts or locks access to systems and also threatens to release data stolen during the attack.

How risky is extortionware?

Most of the risks associated with ransomware can be mitigated by frequent offline data backups. With backups, businesses can easily restore their encrypted data.

Offline backups prove worthless when cybercriminals threaten to release data, rather than delete it. As such, the only way to combat extortionware is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This distinction makes extortionware a greater risk to businesses than ransomware.

Despite the risk, ransomware remains far more common than extortionware. The reason is simple: Hackers can automate the ransomware process, casting a wide victim net, while extortionware calls for a more time-consuming, targeted approach. Extra effort is required to review the stolen content to determine if any of the information can be used for extortion purposes. Thus, extortionists usually do their homework before attacking to ensure a target is worth the effort.

Ransomware remains the preferred attack method of cybercriminals because many organizations still don't have proper offline backup procedures. However, once the lure and lucrativeness of ransomware dry up, expect a rapid shift to extortionware.

How to prevent an extortionware attack

Ransomware prevention best practices also apply to preventing extortionware. However, victims of ransomware attacks can often avoid paying the ransom by restoring the encrypted files from offline data backups.

With extortionware, prevention is the only way to keep bad actors from obtaining data and the only way an organization can remain unharmed. Extortion prevention measures include the following:

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This was last published in September 2021

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