The top 10 ransomware attack vectors

Ransomware is infecting the computers of unsuspecting victims at an astronomical rate. The various methods that cybercriminals use to take over a machine and encrypt its digital files are called the attack vectors, and there are quite a few.

In this article, we’ll explore the top 10 ransomware attack vectors. The first five exploit human weaknesses through social engineering attacks. In other words, they use carefully crafted messages to entice victims into clicking a link, downloading software, opening a file or entering credentials. The second five spread ransomware computer to computer. Humans may be somewhat involved in the process by navigating to a site or using a machine, but they are primarily automated processes. Let’s take a closer look at each attack vector:

1. Phishing
Phishing is a social engineering technique where phony emails are sent to individuals or a large group of recipients. The fake messages—which may appear to come from a company or person the victim knows—are designed to trick people into clicking a malicious link or opening a dangerous attachment, such as the resume ransomware that appeared to be a job candidate’s CV.

2. SMSishing
SMSishing is a technique where text messages are sent to recipients to get them to navigate to a site or enter personal information. Some examples include secondary authentication messages or messages purporting to be from your bank or phone service provider. Ransomware that targets Android and IOS-based mobile devices often use this method to infect users. For example, after infecting your device, Koler ransomware sends a SMSishing message to those in your contacts list in an effort to infect them as well.

3. Vishing
Vishing is a technique where ransomware distributors leave automated voicemails that instruct users to call a number. The phone numbers they call from are often spoofed so that messages appear to come from a legitimate source. When victims call in, they are told that a person is there to help them through a problem they didn’t know they had. Victims follow instructions to install the ransomware on their own machine. Cybercriminals can be very professional and often use a call center or have sound effects in the background to make it seem like they are legitimate. Some forms of vishing are very targeted to an individual or company and in such cases, criminals usually know quite a bit of information about the victim.

4. Social media
Social media posts can be used to entice victims to click a link. Social media can also host images or active content that has ransomware downloaders embedded into it. When friends and followers view the content, vulnerabilities in their browser are exploited and the ransomware downloader is placed on their machine. Some exploits require users to open a downloaded image from the social media site.

5. Instant message
Instant message clients are frequently hacked by cybercriminals and used to send links to people in a user’s contact list. This was one technique used by the distributors of Locky ransomware.

6. Drive-by
The ‘drive-by’ technique places malicious code into images or active content. This content, when processed by a web browser, downloads ransomware onto the victim’s machine.

7. System vulnerabilities
Certain types of ransomware scan blocks of IP addresses for specific system vulnerabilities and then exploit those vulnerabilities to break in and install ransomware onto the machine.

8. Malvertising
Malvertising is a form of drive-by attack that uses ads to deliver the malware. Ads are often purchased on search engines or social media sites to reach a large audience. Adult-only sites are also frequently used to host malvertising scams.

9. Network propagation
Ransomware can spread from computer to computer over a network when ransomware scans for file shares or computers on which it has access privileges. The ransomware then copies itself from computer to computer in order to infect more machines. Ransomware may infect a user’s machine and then propagate to the company file server and infect it as well. From here, it can infect any machines connected to the file server.

10. Propagation through shared services
Online services can also be used to propagate ransomware. Infections on a home machine can be transferred to an office or to other connected machines if the ransomware places itself inside a shared folder.

Be cautious and skeptical of the messages you receive, whether they come from email, instant message, text, voicemail or social media. Ransomware distributors are crafty and one click could be all it takes. Technical controls are also necessary to screen out unwanted content, block ads, and prevent ransomware from spreading. The most important thing is to have adequate backups of your data so that, if you ever are attacked, you can remove the virus and download clean versions of your files from the backup system.

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Safeguarding against the insider threat

The insider is still one of the most vulnerable elements of cybersecurity and it was the discussion of the recent Modern Workplace webcast on cyber intelligence and the human element.  Insiders are those who are authorized to work on company systems or in company facilities and they include trusted employees and contractors.  Whether it is through human error, social engineering, or intentional action, insiders are the cause of a significant portion of malware infections, data breaches, information theft, and privacy violations.

There are some key strategies you can use to safeguard against the insider threat.  First, technical controls can reduce the burden placed on insiders or minimize the potential damage done by insiders.  However, the insider threat cannot be solved entirely by implementing more technical controls.  No, human behavior is far different from a computer system and cannot be changed with by flipping a switch or changing a bit.  Companies need effective security leadership, security awareness training, and assessments and metrics.

Technical controls

Technical controls need to be implemented in such a way that they make it easy for users to do their job, while still remaining secure.  Systems that become too difficult to use when security controls are applied are the systems that will see less use as employees find workarounds.  For example, a company may implement more stringent password policies and change intervals only to find that users are storing the passwords unencrypted in phones, memo pads, or on the calendar at their desk.

Not implementing technical controls can have the same effect.  A company without adequate spam filtering could see users utilizing personal cloud email accounts for company email to avoid having to sift through mass amounts of spam.

Security leadership

Leaders should set an example for other employees and their subordinates by following secure computing practices.  They can also set an example by choosing where to spend money.  Information security needs to have an adequate budget and spending should be consistent and proactive rather than spike immediately following a security incident.  In the Modern Workplace webcast on cyber intelligence and the human element, Phil Ferraro, Nielsen CISO, said that it is essential for business leaders to understand that cyber risk is business risk.  This is more than an IT problem.

Awareness training

Awareness training is essential for teaching employees how to do their jobs safely.  Almost everyone uses a computer on the job and this means that they are interacting with organizational apps and data.  End users need to understand how to recognize phishing messages, including targeted spear phishing messages, as well as other social engineering schemes such as fake social media accounts, unsafe instant messages and text messages, or deceptive phone calls and voice mails.

People need regular reminders in order for information to stay top of mind.  It is not enough to conduct training once a year.  Training should be augmented with emails that inform users of new techniques and attacks or remind them of what they learned in training.  Posters and signs can also help employees remember their training.

Assessment and metrics

Follow up security awareness training with assessments such as online quizzes or questionnaires.  You may also consider conducting social engineering penetration testing by phishing your own users.  These assessments can help identify those that still make mistakes or do not fully understand the material so that you can focus additional training on those users.

It is also helpful to establish meaningful metrics on security performance.  Report on these metrics in company meetings so that employees know that it is important to the organization.  Use security metrics in employee reviews and reward employees and groups when security goals are met.

Special thanks to Microsoft Office, the sponsor of this article.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

How ransomware extortionists hide their tracks

Cybercriminals extorted about one billion dollars from ransomware victims last year, according to the FBI. And nearly all of those perpetrators went unprosecuted because of the innovative methods they use to protect their identities and hide their funds. They go to great lengths to keep authorities from seizing or freezing their money. By and large, their efforts have paid off. Here’s how they do it:

Hidden identities, disposable email
Extortionists protect their identities whenever interacting with victims. This generally occurs when they distribute ransomware, and when they collect ransom payments from victims in exchange for decryption keys.

Extortionists use disposable email accounts and when sending out phishing emails that target victims. These accounts have fake names associated with them and no useful contact information. In some cases, the accounts are owned by another individual—a person whose account was compromised, taken over and used to send malicious emails.

Layered like an onion
Extortionists often protect themselves during the collection phase by using so-called “onion routing” tools like Tor, which use multiple layers of encryption to ensure anonymous networking and communications. Tor is a network of computers that exchange encrypted data among themselves to obscure the source of the data. This prevents researchers and law enforcement from identifying where the decryption keys are stored.

Cryptocurrency enables anonymity
The cybercriminals responsible for disseminating ransomware typically demand payment in some form of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency with Litecoin and Dogecoin coming in second and third place, respectively. Bitcoin currency is stored in a digital wallet and bought and sold over bitcoin exchanges, through peer-to-peer marketplaces, and via person-to-person trades using an intermediary. Bitcoin transactions are logged publically but transactions only reference the wallet IDs of each partner in the transaction, not the names of the individuals themselves. Wallet IDs have no identifying information associated with them other than their number.

Cybercriminals typically keep a wallet ID for a short period of time and may only use it for a few transactions before switching to a new wallet ID. This ensures that specific wallet IDs are not identified as major bitcoin traders. They also use bitcoin laundering services or anonymizers like bitmixer.

Gift cards and money mules
Some forms of ransomware accept vouchers for payment. These include gift cards and CashU, MoneyPak, MoneXy, Paysafecard and UKash vouchers. These may be used to purchase goods that “money mules” then sell over the internet for cash. Money mules are also used to liquidate cards by selling them to individuals at less than face value. Cybercriminals prefer cryptocurrency because it allows them to keep a greater percentage of the profits.

For more news and information on the battle against ransomware, visit the FightRansomware.com homepage today.

PopcornTime offers victims a choice: Pay the ransom or infect your friends

PopcornTime is a newly-discovered form or ransomware that is still in the development stages but operates off a disturbing principle: Victims who have their files encrypted by PopcornTime can agree to pay the ransom, or they can choose to send the ransomware to friends. If two or more of those friends become infected and pay the ransom, the original victim gets their files decrypted for free.

The process is reminiscent of the movie, “The Ring,” where victims who had watched a film had seven days to make a copy of a killer movie, or they would die.

Researchers on the MalwareHunterTeam discovered PopcornTime, which shouldn’t be confused with another application with the same name that is used for streaming and downloading movie torrents.

PopcornTime is also similar to the chain emails or chain letters of days past, where the recipient is told to forward the communication or bad things will happen. The key difference between PopcornTime and chain emails is that with the latter, there’s usually no teeth behind the threats. Most chain emails and letters are proven to be hoaxes. With PopcornTime, the looming threat to your data is real.

PopcornTime is still in development so the final version could differ from what MalwareHunterTeam discovered.

A third choice that makes better sense
It’s worth mentioning that if your files are properly backed up, PopcornTime can’t make you do anything. You can simply delete all infected files, remove the virus from your computer, and download clean versions of your files from backup. Don’t let the criminals coerce you.

For more news and information on the battle against ransomware, visit the FightRansomware.com homepage today.

Cloud 2.0 – Built on security refinements from cloud technologies

In the world of technology, paradigms shift quickly.  Not long ago, we focused organizational security efforts on the perimeter of the network.  We assumed that systems would be secure if we could just keep the bad guys outside of the trusted network.  Phishing and malware, however, among other things, proved this to be a false assumption – perimeter defense alone would not be enough. 

Responses to this often included efforts to seize control of information assets.  Control implied security.   When the cloud stepped onto the stage, lack of organizational control stood out as a primary barrier to adoption. 

I am by no means diminishing the role control has in securing information, but control wasn’t really the issue with reluctance to cloud adoption.  The cloud has actually gone a long way in securing systems on-premise and in the cloud.  When key systems were decoupled from the perceived safety of the corporate network, secure methods of transmitting data between them had to be developed. Such methods also had to be easy for enterprises to adopt. 

We realized that we might not want our cloud vendors to have access to back-end data so we encrypted the data and distributed keys such that cloud providers could not access the data they hosted.  Robust APIs were created to integrate systems while providing only the minimum required service access.  Likewise, communications between system components such as databases and web services were also encrypted. 

The cloud offered a perception of insecurity that prompted a positive change in organizational security architectures, but a key fact here is that many of the organizational systems that moved to the cloud were not secure to being with.  They only became secure as they adopted secure practices.   The risks that were present in moving applications as they were to the cloud were already present in the application architectures.  Shortcuts like advertising services and ports, allowing back-end components to communicate unrestricted, and giving IT the keys to the kingdom, may have been overlooked in the organization but they were clearly a bad practice in the cloud. 

The cloud gave us the chance to re-architect the monolithic technology systems that had evolved over decades of growth and in response to the immediate threats of the era. These were replaced with scalable, virtual servers that were flexible enough yet specialized and hardened.  Cloud systems also offered effective ways to plug-in best of breed security technologies such as application whitelisting, monitoring and control, identity and access management (IAM), Data loss prevention (DLP), and robust anti-exploit anomaly detection to combat the latest Advanced Persistent Threat (APT).  

Some are still adopting these practices while others are taking it to the next level.  The cloud made us realize how big the gap was and now it is time to serve the attackers an eviction notice.  We can’t assume in our virtualized cloud environments that administrators or vendors will implement adequate malware protection on virtual machines, nor should we compromise with solutions that can only see a piece of the puzzle when technologies like hypervisor introspection analyze virtual machines at the hypervisor level. 

It is time to tell the bots and the ransomware that it’s not welcome here anymore.  The attackers have improved their tactics, but so have security partners.  We can now collectively say, “We confronted our fear in the cloud and emerged stronger.” 

As always, thoughts and ideas are my own. This insight wouldn’t be possible without the help of my associates at Bitdefender.

Breaking Free: A list of ransomware decryption tools and keys

Security software companies and research organizations are collaborating to break the encryption codes of ransomware variants and free those who have fallen victim to cybercriminals. Unfortunately for many, these efforts take time, and that’s why decryption methods often do not exist for the newest ransomware variants. The good news for those who have been infected by older ransomware is that there may be a decryption method available to recover their data.

If backups are available, the easiest course of action is to simply remove the virus, delete the infected files and restore data that has been encrypted. But that’s not always an option. In some cases, users become infected with older ransomware that is no longer being monitored for ransom payments—so paying the ransom won’t help. If your computer is infected with ransomware, the chart below may help.

Search for the ransomware in the table below and then download the decryption tool from the URL provided.  Some tools will scan for ransomware and prompt you to decrypt the files while others require you to point the decryption tool directly at the encrypted files. You may also have the option to remove the encrypted file after a decrypted version has been created. Please note: The decryption of files could take hours and a large number of encrypted files could take weeks to decrypt. In other words, be prepared to wait.

The list below was compiled in October 2016 and it contains links to decryption tools and or scripts that can potentially set your computer free.

Ransomware Vendor URL
777 Emsisoft Download decryptor
Agent iih Kaspersky Download decryptor
Al-Namrood Emsisoft Download decryptor
Apocalypse Emsisoft Download decryptor
ApocalypseVM Emsisoft Download decryptor
Aura Kaspersky Download decryptor
AutoIt Kaspersky Download decryptor
Autolocky Emsisoft Download decryptor
BadBlock AVG Download decryptor
Bart AVG Download decryptor
Bitman Kaspersky Download decryptor
Chimera Kaspersky Download decryptor
CoinVault Nomoransom Download decryptor
Cryakl Kaspersky Download decryptor
Crybola Kaspersky Download decryptor
CrypBoss Emsisoft Download decryptor
Crypt888 AVG Download decryptor
CryptInfinite Emsisoft Download decryptor
CryptoDefense Emsisoft Download decryptor
Cryptokluchen Kaspersky Download decryptor
CryptXXX Kaspersky Download decryptor
CryptXXX v2 Kaspersky Download decryptor
DeCrypt Emsisoft Download decryptor
DecryptorMax Emsisoft Download decryptor
Democry Kaspersky Download decryptor
DMALocker2 Emsisoft Download decryptor
Fabiansomware Emsisoft Download decryptor
FenixLocker Emsisoft Download decryptor
Fury Kaspersky Download decryptor
Globe Emsisoft Download decryptor
Globe2 TechForum Download decryptor
Gomasom Emsisoft Download decryptor
Harasom Emsisoft Download decryptor
HydraCrypt Emsisoft Download decryptor
Jigsaw MalwareHunterTeam Download decryptor
KeyBTC Emsisoft Download decryptor
Lamer Kaspersky Download decryptor
LeChiffre Emsisoft Download decryptor
LECHIFFRE TrendMicro Download decryptor
Legion AVG Download decryptor
Linux Encoder 1 BitDefender Download decryptor
Lortok Kaspersky Download decryptor
MirCop TrendMicro Download decryptor
Nemucod Emsisoft Download decryptor
Operation Global III Nathan Scott Download decryptor
PCLock Emsisoft Download decryptor
Peyta Leostone Download decryptor
Philadelphia Emsisoft Download decryptor
Pletor Kaspersky Download decryptor
Radamant Emsisoft Download decryptor
Rakhni Kaspersky Download decryptor
Rannoh Kaspersky Download decryptor
Rotor Kaspersky Download decryptor
Shade Intel Download decryptor
SNSLocker TrendMicro Download decryptor
Stampado TrendMicro Download decryptor
SZFlocker AVG Download decryptor
TeslaCrypt Cisco Download decryptor
TorLocker Kaspersky Download decryptor
UmbreCrypt Emsisoft Download decryptor
WildFire Intel Download decryptor
XORBAT TrendMicro Download decryptor
Xorist Emsisoft Download decryptor
Alpha PhishLabs Download decryptor

This list contains keys that can be directly used to decrypt files encrypted by Crypt38, Locker, and NoobCrypt.  

Ransomware Vendor URL
Crypt38 Fortinet Look in your %Appdata%\Microsoft\Windows\request.bin directory
Locker Poka BrightMinds http://pastebin.com/1WZGqrUH
NoobCrypt Jakub Kroustek ZdZ8EcvP95ki6NWR2j or lsakhBVLIKAHg


For more news and information on the battle against ransomware,
visit the FightRansomware.com homepage today.

Pokemon Go ransomware virus is out to catch’em all

A Pokemon Go-themed ransomware virus has appeared on Windows computers, tablets, and phones. The ransomware is the latest in a series of malicious applications that have popped up in the wake of the global Pokemon Go obsession.

This particular piece of malware is known as POGO Tear and it’s based on open source ransomware code called Hidden Tear. POGO Tear encrypts the files on victims’ computers, changes the extension to “.locked” and then demands a ransom on a screen emblazoned with famed character Pikachu’s picture.

POGO Tear is currently coded to display its ransom message in Arabic only as shown below. The text informs users that their data has been encrypted and instructs them to contact blackhat20152015@gmail.com to decrypt their files. It also thanks them for their generosity.

POGOTear

What’s interesting about this malware is that it incorporates several features not usually found in other ransomware viruses. POGO Tear creates an administrative user account called Hack3r on the victim’s machine and then hides it from the logon screen so the user can’t tell it’s there.

It also creates a network share on the victim’s computer and copies itself to all available network drives. The ransomware automatically executes when Windows starts.

How to recover from POGO Tear
When your computer is attacked with POGO Tear, it’s not enough to simply remove the infected files and restore from backup. Victims must also remove the backdoor administrator account and ensure that it has been cleaned from all removable drives and connected computers before performing restore operations. Otherwise, the administrative account could allow an attacker to install additional ransomware, or even steal data using more traditional attack methods.

It appears that POGO Tear is still in a beta or development stage. It uses a static decryption key which will most likely be replaced with a random key when it’s fully deployed. Currently, files encrypted by POGO Tear can be decrypted with the following AES encryption key: 123vivalalgerie

POGO Tear has a private IP address of 10.25.0.169 coded into it for command and control, indicating that the developer of it is still testing out command and control functionality since a private IP address cannot be directly referenced by other computers over the internet. This will most likely be replaced with a set of internet-accessible dynamic DNS names once the full version is released. POGO Tear does not exist in any other languages besides Arabic and it currently does not specify a value for the ransom.

If you are infected with POGO Tear, you can decrypt your files with the key mentioned above. But be sure to have adequate backups, endpoint protection, and network security controls in place to guard against the future release of the full version.  And if you’re interested in playing Pokemon Go, be sure to download the official version from Niantic when visiting your favorite online app store.

For more news and information on the battle against ransomware, visit the FightRansomware.com homepage today.