The FBI recently issued a Flash alert warning higher education institutions, k-12 schools, and seminaries about increasing numbers of ransomware attacks affecting the education industry.  According to the warning, “[s]ince March 2020, the FBI has become aware of PYSA ransomware attacks against U.S. and foreign government entities, educational institutions, private companies, and the healthcare sector by unidentified cyber actors.”

The ransomware attacks are initiated by gaining unauthorized access to networks either by exploiting Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) credentials or phishing.  Then the PYSA ransomware extracts sensitive information and encrypts files with the .pysa extension.  In some circumstances, the attackers sell the extracted information on the dark web.  The FBI reports that some criminals will also remove the malicious files after deployment, thus making it even more difficult for the victims to discover what has happened.

The FBI does not recommend paying any ransom as it emboldens and encourages more criminal conduct.  Acknowledging that many educational institutions might choose to pay after determining few other options exist, the FBI points out that there is no guarantee that paying any ransom will result in the return of the data.

The FBI also suggests schools implement mitigation steps as follows:

  • Regularly back up data, air gap, and password protect backup copies offline. Ensure copies of critical data are not accessible for modification or deletion from the system where the data resides.
  • Implement network segmentation.
  • Implement a recovery plan to maintain and retain multiple copies of sensitive or proprietary data and servers in a physically separate, segmented, secure location (i.e., hard drive, storage device, the cloud).
  • Install updates/patch operating systems, software, and firmware as soon as they are released.
  • Use multifactor authentication where possible.
  • Regularly, change passwords to network systems and accounts, and avoid reusing passwords for different accounts. Implement the shortest acceptable timeframe for password changes.
  • Disable unused remote access/RDP ports and monitor remote access/RDP logs.
  • Audit user accounts with administrative privileges and configure access controls with least privilege in mind.
  • Install and regularly update anti-virus and anti-malware software on all hosts.
  • Only use secure networks and avoid using public Wi-Fi networks. Consider installing and using a VPN.
  • Consider adding an email banner to messages coming from outside your organizations.
  • Disable hyperlinks in received emails.
  • Focus on awareness and training. Provide users with training on information security principles and techniques as well as overall emerging cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities (i.e., ransomware and phishing scams).
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We spend a lot of time reporting on ransomware because we are seeing more incidents than ever before, and our readers comment that keeping them up to date on ransomware tactics is helpful. The ransomware gangs, strains and vectors are constantly changing, so it is very challenging for companies to keep up with their latest tactics.

The Coveware Quarterly Report is one resource that is very helpful in understanding the newest methods and successes of ransomware attackers, and Coveware’s Third Quarter Report was recently released.

The Report confirms what we are seeing in the field, and confirms how the landscape is changing. The big news is that the Maze group has allegedly dispersed, with some members joining others. Maze wreaked havoc last year, when it started exfiltrating data from victims before it dropped the ransomware and then threatened to publish the data if the company didn’t pay.

The Report is a must read, but here are some highlights (depressing as they are):

  • There is no guarantee that if you pay the ransom to delete data that they will actually delete it or that they will not come after you again. (They are criminals, after all). In Q3, exfiltration of data before the introduction of ransomware doubled, and half of all ransomware attacks included exfiltration of data. These are not promising statistics.
  • Although Maze is allegedly out of business, others have copied its tactics forexfiltrating data, including AKO, Ranzy, Netwalker, Mespinoza, Conti, Sekhmet, and Egregor. Egregor is believed to have inherited Maze. Sodinokibi has re-extorted victims after they have paid the ransom.
  • Some gangs provide fake proof that they have your data to get you to pay.
  • There is no guarantee that the exfiltrated data will not be sold to other groups.
  • Ransom demands are increasing.
  • The biggest ransomware threats in Q3 were Sodinokibi, Maze, Netwalker, Phobos, and DoppelPaymer.
  • Wasted, Nephilim and Avvadon made it into the top 10 list of market share of ransomware variants.
  • More than 50 percent of all attacks are successful through attacks on Remote Desktop Protocols (RDP). Coveware sees this method of attack as the most cost-effective way to compromise organizations and stresses the importance of properly securing RDP connections.
  • Almost 30 percent of attacks see the ransomware distributed via phishing emails, which have steadily increased since late 2019.
  • The average ransom payment in Q3 was $233,817, up 31 percent from Q2 2020.
  • The median ransom payment in Q3 was $110,532 up 2 percent from Q2 2020.
  • Ransomware is a disproportionate problem for small and medium-sized businesses—those with a median of 168 employees—which is up 68 percent from Q2 2020.
  • Most victims of ransomware have less than $50 million dollars in annual revenue.
  • Professional service firms, especially small ones such as law firms and accounting firms, are especially vulnerable.
  • The average number of downtime days of victimized businesses is 19 days.

These statistics are ones to pay close attention to and use when determining risk management priorities. It is clear from the Report that addressing RDP and employee education as top priorities makes sense. According to the Report, one possible reason for the increase in the use of RDP is “that the influx of remote and work-from-home setups using RDP and other remote technologies allowed threat actors to leverage attack vectors that previously didn’t exist.”

As coronavirus cases increase again throughout the U.S., remote working appears to be the norm, so ransomware attackers are using, and will continue to use, the shift from the office to the home to attack victims.