FBI says ransomware is on the rise: what is it and who's vulnerable?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is raising awareness on the prevalence and threat of ransomware attacks.

Ransomware is when a criminal demands money in exchange to unlock a system or prevent a data leak.

"I would say that ransomware is the most prevalent attack that we’re seeing today, and the reason why we’re seeing that is because it’s very lucrative to our criminals," said L.T. Chu, the Senior Supervisory Intelligence Analyst in the FBI Seattle Field Office. "In 2019, we saw one ransomware variant that dominated the cyber landscape which was known as ‘Ryuk’. Today, the FBI has investigations for over 100 ransomware variants."

Access to ransomware is becoming easier for cybercriminals, according to Chu.

"We’re seeing a change in technique where criminals are not only charging you to unlock your information, but they’re also charging you to not leak the information to the public," said Chu. "The FBI understands criminal organizations and how to take them down. Our strategy is to target three main things. That’s the actors, their infrastructure and their money."

In May, the Colonial Pipeline was hit with a major pipeline attack where criminals demanded more than $4 million in ransom to unlock its computer systems, and according to Chu, the FBI investigation recovered $2.3 million of the ransom paid.

"The unique part of this investigation was our partnerships were so strong with this company that they were able to call the FBI early on and share the information that they had with indicators of compromise," said Chu. "Everybody is vulnerable. From private citizens to corporations to government agencies, and that’s why it’s so important that we protect ourselves from these attacks."

In recent months, and even days, we’ve also seen media companies attacked with ransomware.

Mike Hamilton is the Founder of Critical Insight, Inc. A cyber security company that does managing and consulting security services. He believes the attacks on media groups are a calculated move on the part of cybercriminals.

"I think they’re intentionally going after media markets Marketron was one, Sinclair was one, Cox was one. So this is starting to look like a trend now," said Hamilton. "If you disrupt a media organization or a manufacturing line or something like that, the bills start piling up right away. The loss can be calculated on a per-minute basis and you’re going to do anything you need to do to get your organization back in working order and making money again."

Hamilton also started a nonprofit called PISCES, which stands for Public Infrastructure Security Cyber Education System. PISCES provides security monitoring for small cities and counties in return for collecting information from their networks, or metadata, that is used to train up and coming cyber security students.

"It goes over to the Washington State Academic Cyber Range where five universities teach classes on cyber. Analysts use live fire from real critical infrastructure in our state. That way we develop a workforce faster and better than any other place in the country," said Hamilton.

As for protecting ourselves, Chu believes that prevention is protection and said, "Make sure that your software is updated and patched. Secondly, back up your information and make multiple backups. Not only that, store your backups on a different server from your main server. Last but not least, refrain from clicking on any suspicious links at all costs."

Hamilton also recommends multifactor authentication, a plan in case of a security breach that has been tested and awareness about the Internet.

"The user interactive Internet exists to sell to you, to steal from you and to manipulate your opinion, and you should know that about the Internet. it’s not a nice, friendly place," said Hamilton.

If you become the target of a cyberattack, the FBI said to report it by submitting a complaint on the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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