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Ransomware attacks shaking up threat landscape -- again

Threat actors have employed new techniques and built more sophisticated business models for their ransomware campaigns, which has had devastating consequences.

Ransomware is changing the threat landscape yet again, though this time it isn't with malicious code.

A spike in ransomware attacks against municipal governments and healthcare organizations, coupled with advancements in the back-end operations of specific campaigns, have concerned security researchers and analysts alike. The trends are so alarming that Jeff Pollard, vice president and a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said he expects local, state and city governments will be forced to seek disaster relief funds from the federal government to recover from ransomware attacks.

"There's definitely been an uptick in overall attacks, but we're seeing municipality after municipality get hit with ransomware now," Pollard said. "When those vital government services are disrupted, then it's a disaster."

In fact, Forrester's report "Predictions 2020: Cybersecurity" anticipates that at least one local government will ask for disaster relief funding from their national government in order to recover from a ransomware attack that cripples municipal services, whether they're electrical utilities or public healthcare facilities.

Many U.S. state, local and city governments have already been disrupted by ransomware this year, including a massive attack on Atlanta in March that paralyzed much of the city's non-emergency services. A number of healthcare organizations have also shut down from ransomware attacks, including a network of hospitals in Alabama.

The increase in attacks on municipal governments and healthcare organizations has been accompanied by another trend this year, according to several security researchers: Threat actors are upping their ransomware games.

Today's infamous ransomware campaigns share some aspects with the notable cyberattacks of 20 years ago. For example, the ILoveYou worm used a simple VB script to spread through email systems and even overwrote random files on infected devices, which forced several enterprises and government agencies to shut down their email servers.

Ransomware attacks have been increasing, statistics show.
Ransomware attacks have been increasing, statistics show.

But today's ransomware threats aren't just using more sophisticated techniques to infect organizations -- they've also built thriving financial models that resemble the businesses of their cybersecurity counterparts. And they're going after targets that will deliver the biggest return on investment.

New approaches

The McAfee Labs Threats Report for August showed a 118% increase in ransomware detections for the first quarter of this year, driven largely by the infamous Ryuk and GandCrab families. But more importantly, the vendor noted how many ransomware operations had embraced "innovative" attack techniques to target businesses; instead of using mass phishing campaigns (as Ryuk and GandCrab have), "an increasing number of attacks are gaining access to a company that has open and exposed remote access points, such as RDP [remote desktop protocol] and virtual network computing," the report stated.

The concept of ransomware is no longer the concept that we've historically known it as.
Raj SamaniChief scientist, McAfee

"The concept of ransomware is no longer the concept that we've historically known it as," Raj Samani, chief scientist at McAfee, told SearchSecurity.

Sophos Labs' 2020 Threat Report, which was published earlier this month, presented similar findings. The endpoint security vendor noted that since the SamSam ransomware attacks in 2018, more threat actors have "jumped on the RDP bandwagon" to gain access to corporate networks, not just endpoint devices. In addition, Sophos researchers found more attacks using remote monitoring and management software from vendors such as ConnectWise and Kaseya (ConnectWise's Automate software was recently used in a series of attacks).

John Shier, senior security advisor at Sophos, said certain ransomware operations are demonstrating more sophistication and moving away from relying on "spray and pray" phishing emails. "The majority of the ransomware landscape was just opportunistic attacks," he said.

That's no longer the case, he said. In addition to searching for devices with exposed RDP or weak passwords that can be discovered by brute-force attacks, threat actors are also using that access to routinely locate and destroy backups. "The thoroughness of the attacks in those cases are devastating, and therefore they can command higher ransoms and getting higher percentage of payments," Shier said.

Jeremiah Dewey, senior director of managed services and head of incident response at Rapid7, said his company began getting more calls about ransomware attacks with higher ransomware demands. "This year, especially earlier in the year, we saw ransomware authors determine that they could ask for more," he said.

With the volume of ransomware attacks this year, experts expect that trend to continue.

The ransomware economy

Samani said the new strategies and approaches used by many threat groups show a "professionalization" of the ransomware economy. But there are also operational aspects, particularly with the ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model, that are exhibiting increased sophistication. With RaaS campaigns such as GandCrab, ransomware authors make their code available to "affiliates" who are then tasked with infecting victims; the authors take a percentage of the ransoms earned by the affiliates.

In the past, Samani said, affiliates were usually less-skilled cybercriminals who relied on traditional phishing or social engineering tactics to spread ransomware. But that has changed, he said. In a series of research posts on Sodinokibi, a RaaS operation that experts believe was developed by GandCrab authors, McAfee observed the emergence of "all-star" affiliates who have gone above and beyond what typical affiliates do.

"Now you're seeing affiliates beginning to recruit individuals that are specialists in RDP stressing or RDP brute-forcing," Samani said. "Threat actors are now hiring specific individuals based on their specialties to go out and perform the first phase of the attack, which may well be the initial entry vector into an organization."

And once they achieve access to a target environment, Samani said, the all-stars generally lie low until they achieve an understanding of the network, move laterally and locate and compromise backups in order to maximize the damage.

Sophos Labs' 2020 Threat Report also noted that many ransomware actors are prioritizing the types of data that certain drives, files and documents encrypt first. Shier said it's not surprising to see ransomware campaigns increasingly use tactics that rely on human interaction. "What we've seen starting with SamSam is more of a hybrid model -- there is some automation, but there's also some humans," he said.

These tactics and strategies have transformed the ransomware business, Samani said, shifting it away from the economies of scale-approach of old. "All stars" affiliates who can not only infect the most victims but also command the biggest ransoms are now reaping the biggest rewards. And the cybercriminals behind these RaaS operations are paying close attention, too.

"The bad guys are actively monitoring, tracking and managing the efficiency of specific affiliates and rewarding them if they are as good as they claim to be," Samani said. "It's absolutely fascinating."

Silver linings, dark portents

There is some good news for enterprises amid the latest ransomware research. For one, Samani said, the more professional ransomware operations were likely forced to adapt because the return on investment for ransomware was decreasing. Efforts from cybersecurity vendors and projects like No More Ransom contributed to victims refusing to pay, either because their data had been decrypted or because they were advised against it.

As a result, ransomware campaigns were forced to improve their strategies and operations in order to catch bigger fish and earn bigger rewards. "Return on investment is the key motivator to the re-evolution or rebirth of ransomware," Samani said.

Another positive, according to Shier, is that not every ransomware campaign or its affiliates have the necessary skills to emulate a SamSam operation, for example. "In terms of other campaigns implementing similar models and techniques, it's grown in the past 18 months," he said. "But there are some limitations there."

On the downside, Shier said, cybercriminals often don't even need that level of sophistication to achieve some level of success. "Not everyone has the technical expertise to exploit BlueKeep for an RDP attack," he said. "But there's enough exposed RDP [systems] out there with weak passwords that you don't need things like BlueKeep."

In addition, Samani said the ransomware operations that earn large payments will be in a position to improve even further. "If you've got enough money, then you can hire whoever you want," Samani said. "Money gives you the ability to improve research and development and innovate and move your code forward."

In order to make the most money, threat actors will look for the organizations that are not only most vulnerable but also the most likely to pay large ransoms. That, Samani said, could lead to even more attacks on government and healthcare targets in 2020.

Shier said most ransomware attacks on healthcare companies and municipal governments still appear to be opportunistic infections, but he wouldn't be surprised if more sophisticated ransomware operations begin to purposefully target those organizations in order to maximize their earnings.

"[Threat actors] know there are organizations that simply can't experience downtime," Shier said. "They don't care who they are impacting. They want to make money."

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