How to keep your business safe from the threat of ransomware

If recent events are any indication, there’s a hefty ransom coming for many corporations — specifically, for IT professionals and their networks. And not paying could result in the loss of valuable files and data.

The reason? A rising form of malware called ransomware.

Smart Business spoke with Stephan J. Cico, managing director of All Covered Pittsburgh, about this growing threat and what employers can do about it.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware restricts access to a user’s data and then extorts money from the user in exchange for the access. A chameleon by design, ransomware can take many forms, all corrupted and infectious — attachments, advertisements, emails, webpages. Its ability to shape shift means that even internet-savvy companies and individuals are vulnerable.

Of late, ransoming cybercriminals have infected popular peer-to-peer file sharing services like BitTorrent, and even Adobe’s ubiquitous Flash platform.

What’s more, on March 7, 2016, ransomware infected its first set of Apple computers. This incident is wild, and it eerily confirms what many businesses are coming to know: No one, and nothing, is safe. No organization, no machine, no operating system, no network.

The ransomware hackers are evolving alarmingly quick. Ransomware itself looms and lies in wait, threateningly.

What’s important to understand about the threat?

Ransomware is a ‘strange hybrid’ — equal parts extortion, coding and customer service. The unfortunate genius behind ransomware is that, in most cases, victims can only recover their compromised data by isolating and removing the source of the infection, and then restoring from backups. If files aren’t backed up, or if the backups are also corrupted, then victims have no recourse. They have to pay the ransom.

Such a scenario can be devastating to a company. From April 2014 to June 2015, 992 victims had reported more than $18 million in losses to just one form of ransomware — CryptoWall — and even that estimate is on the low end, since many victims simply do not report their attacks, or will simply abandon their files. The figure also doesn’t include any of the ancillary losses businesses incur due to ransomware, such as a decline in productivity, the strain on IT and the breach of proprietary data.

How bad has it gotten?

The spread of ransomware has caught the FBI’s eye; its Internet Crime Complaint Center has issued an alert that warns businesses about it.

The threat is growing, but interestingly, most businesses stay mum about their attacks. Many fear that going public could actually encourage cybercriminals. The thought is, perhaps the fruits of ransomware’s success are just what some aspiring hackers don’t need to see.

Some organizations are further at risk because of how mobile modern employees are. That’s a problem, because ransomware is no stranger to Android phones; increasingly malevolent strains are resetting users’ PINs and forcing factory resets.

The capper to all this? There is no easy solution, no magical potion or panacea. Even careful employees at secure companies can’t entirely avoid the cause of these corruptions. We can’t all prevent en masse what we’re all programmed to do — make mistakes.

What are some prevention steps to minimize the threat of ransomware?

To prevent malware attacks, your business needs a multi-layered security infrastructure with:

  • User training: According to IBM, 95 percent of all cybersecurity incidents involve human error.
  • Constant monitoring: Even with training, human error is inevitable, so continuous updating of malware protection, firewalls, etc., will minimize the impact.
  • BYOD policy: Bring-your-own-device and mobile-friendly workplaces are particularly vulnerable to ransomware, so a thorough and proactive protection plan can help safeguard data.

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