Ransomware – Explained!

There’s been a lot of coverage in the news of the steady increase in cyber-crime and Ransomware attacks in the UK when the NHS came under attack back in March and more recently again in August in Scotland.

The Wannacry cyber-attack earlier this year was a form of Ransomware which impacted over 200,000 organisations in countries all over the world including 47 NHS Trusts in England and Telefonica, the telecommunications company, in Spain. 

This cyber-attack used out of date Microsoft software as a vulnerability and is reported to have originated from the NSA (National Security Agency) in the states.  How dodgy is that?

Bitpaymer was another variant of Ransomware which recently attacked the Scottish Health Board in August affecting patient appointments and medical records.

In June, Petya malware, yet another form of Ransomware affected larger businesses and organisations across the world mainly in the Ukraine as well as Germany, Italy, France, USA and UK.  Petya malware first appeared in 2016 and is a suite or family or encrypting ransomware programs that targets also Windows based systems. 

The cyber-criminals behind this tend to demand payment through an untraceable digital currency such as Bitcoin which is a digital currency developed back in 2008.  Bitcoin exists completely online with no physical coins or notes, unregulated and untraceable making it popular with cyber-criminals. 

So it has become very apparent that worldwide, cyber-crime is now a real threat and is on the increase.

Ransomware first appeared on the scene in the media in 2012 and has slowly grown internationally in existence as far back as 2005.  Basically, it’s a form of malicious software where the victim’s data or files are hacked with the threat of being deleted or encrypted cutting off access to them or blocked by the anonymous hacker unless a ransom demand is paid with a set deadline. 

A Ransomware attack is usually carried out via a Trojan (see below).  The offending file is disguised as something else such as a link within an email or file and downloaded unsuspectingly by the victim from a fake email source or website.

Security experts advise there is no actual guarantee that paying the ransom will result in recovering the files or unencrypting them as the hackers are likely to just take the payment and not return the stolen data.

Ransomware is one of many forms of cyber-crime and there are plenty of others.

For clarity, here’s a summary to explain some of the terms used in the cyber-security world;

A computer virus is a malicious program spread by human intervention through a file or computer program from one computer to another.  A virus usually cannot infect a computer unless it has been ran or activated by someone (usually unknowingly).

A Worm is similar to a virus but can travel from computer to computer without human intervention, replicating itself and creating wider spread damage. 

A botnet is a type of ‘robot’ computer program that runs automatically and uses Internet Relay Chat (group discussion forums and chat rooms) to infect its victims with Trojans.  A mobile botnet targets mobile devices such as phones to gain access to the device and control its contents.

Trojans or Trojan Horses are also computer programs disguised as familiar software or applications intended to be destructive by introducing a virus or viruses to the victim’s device or network.

Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDOS) is an intentional flooding of a computer network where data is sent to a device or network simultaneously from multiple sources in order to overload and cripple it.   The sources generating the network traffic can be hundreds or thousands in number. 

Similar to DDOS, a Denial of Service (DoS) attack is when a single computer of source used to flood multiple targeted resources often on a global scale.

Staying Safe in the Online World

It’s not all doom and gloom but in a world of growing cyber-crime, it’s important to be aware, apply common sense and stay safe online.

There are some basic do’s and don'ts when it comes to protecting your PC/laptop/mobile devices from some of the nasties out there, with common sense being the most important.

  • Regularly back up important files to a separate source such as an external hard drive in addition to any cloud based storage
  • Regularly keep system updates current and updated
  • Protect your PC/laptop/mobile devices with anti-virus software
  • Don't open suspicious looking links or attachments in unsolicited emails or from social media
  • If a link within an email or social media post looks suspect, hover the mouse pointer over it which should display the source website or URL
  • If a link does not match a trusted website (e.g your bank or a trusted website), open a new browser session and log in independently rather than clicking on a dodgy looking link
  • Don’t open an email file attachment if it looks suspect or out of place 
  • Don’t input payment, PIN or card details requested via unsolicited emails
  • If in doubt, seek expert advice and guidance if something doesn't look right or you believe you have been subject to a cyber-crime attack


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