There has been a rapid evolution of ransomware over the past two years. New variants of ransomware are now being released on an almost daily basis, and the past two years have seen a massive explosion in new ransomware families. Between 2015 and 2016, Proofpoint determined there had been a 600% increase in ransomware families and Symantec identified 100 totally new ransomware families in 2016.

The development of new ransomware variants has largely been automated, allowing developers to massively increase the number of threats, making it much harder for the developers of traditional, signature-based security solutions such as antivirus and antimalware software to maintain pace.

The latest ransomware variants use a wide variety of techniques to evade detection, with advanced obfuscation methods making detection even more problematic.

Ransomware is also becoming much more sophisticated, causing even greater problems for victims. Ransomware is now able to delete Windows Shadow Volume copies, hampering recovery. Ransomware can interfere with file activity logging, making an infection difficult to detect until it is too late. Ransomware can encrypt files on removable drives – including backups – and spread laterally on a network, encrypting files on network shares and multiple end points.

Not only have the ransomware variants become more sophisticated, so too have the methods for distributing the malicious code. Highly sophisticated spam campaigns use a variety of social engineering techniques to fool end users into visiting malicious links and opening infected email attachments. Droppers with heavily obfuscated code are used to download the malicious payload and a considerable amount of effort is put into crafting highly convincing emails to maximize the probability of an end user taking the desired action.

Then, there is ransomware-as-a-service – the use of affiliates to spread ransomware in exchange for a cut of the profits. Ransomware kits are now supplied, complete with intuitive web based interfaces and instructions for crafting ransomware campaigns. Today, it is not even necessary to have any technical skill to conduct a ransomware campaign.

The profits from ransomware are also considerable. In 2016, the FBI estimated profits from ransomware would exceed $1 billion. With such high returns, it is no surprise that ransomware has become the number one malware threat for businesses.

The Evolution of Ransomware – Notorious Ransomware Variants from the Past Two Years

  • Locky: Deletes volume shadow copies from the compromised system, thereby preventing the user from restoring files without paying the ransom.
  • Jigsaw: An extremely aggressive ransomware variant that deletes encrypted files every hour until the ransom is paid, with total file deletion in 72 hours.
  • Petya: Rather than encrypting files, Petya changes and encrypts the master boot record, preventing files from being accessed. Petya is also capable of installing other malware payloads.
  • NotPetya: A wiper that appears to be ransomware, although NotPetya permanently changes the master boot record making file recovery impossible.
  • CryptMix: Attackers claim they will donate the ransom payments to a children’s charity, in an effort to get victims to pay up. There is no evidence ransom payments are directed to worthy causes.
  • Cerber: Now used to target users of cloud-based Office 365, who are less likely to have backed up their data. Some Cerber variants speak to their victims and tell them their files have been encrypted.
  • KeRanger: One of the first ransomware strains to target Mac OS X applications.
  • Gryphon: Spread via remote desktop protocol (RDP) using brute force tactics to guess weak passwords.
  • TorrentLocker: A ransomware variant being used to target SMBs, spread via spam email attachments claiming to be job applications
  • HDDCryptor: A ransomware variant that targets network shares, file, printers, serial ports, and external drives. HDDCryptor locks the entire hard disk
  • CryptMIC: A ransomware variant that does not change file extensions, making it harder for victims to identify the threat
  • ZCryptor: Ransomware with worm-like capabilities, able to rapidly spread across a network and infect multiple networked devices and external drives
  • WannaCrypt: A 2017 ransomware variant with worm-like capabilities, able to spread rapidly to infect all vulnerable computers on a network.

Ransomware is most commonly spread via spam email, exploit kits and by remotely exploiting vulnerabilities. To protect against ransomware you need an advanced spam filter, a web filter such as WebTitan to block access to sites containing exploit kits, and you need to ensure software and operating systems are kept 100% up to date.

In the event that you are infected with ransomware, you must be able to recover files from a backup. Use the 321 approach to ensure you can recover files without paying the ransom – Make three backup copies, on two different media, with one copy stored securely off site. Also make sure backups are tested to ensure files can be restored in an emergency.