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What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is arguably the number one cyber threat to organizations today. The threat itself is evolving constantly, so it’s critical to understand ransomware, its latest forms, and how best to protect yourself. Here we’ll present everything you need to know about ransomware.

Understanding the Surge in Ransomware Attacks

Recently, there has been a tremendous increase in ransomware attacks. What has caused this proliferation? There are numerous reasons for this, including:

Profitability: ransomware attacks have proven to be lucrative for cybercriminals, with billions paid to attackers as ransoms. 

Sophistication of Attacks: ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated over time. Cybercriminals are continually evolving their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to bypass security measures and target valuable data and systems.

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS): RaaS enables malicious actors to rent or purchase ransomware and related infrastructure, lowering the entry barrier for potential attackers.

Remote Work Vulnerabilities: with an increase in remote work and a distributed workforce becoming more common, new vulnerabilities are being exposed in networks and systems, making it easier for attackers to exploit weaknesses.

Increased Digitalization: as businesses and institutions rely more heavily on digital technologies and interconnected systems, the attack surface for ransomware has expanded, providing attackers with more potential targets.

Monetary and Political Motives: in some cases, state-sponsored or politically motivated groups may engage in ransomware attacks to disrupt critical infrastructure, conduct espionage, or achieve political goals.

Weak Regulations and Law Enforcement: in regions where there are weak regulations and insufficient law enforcement capabilities to combat cybercrime, ransomware attacks can proliferate.

How Does Ransomware Work?

In understanding what is ransomware, it’s instructive to investigate how ransomware works. Ransomware attacks consist of four key phases:

1. Delivery and Initial Compromise

Ransomware attacks often begin with the delivery of the malicious payload. This can happen through various vectors, such as phishing emails with infected attachments or links, malicious downloads from compromised websites, or exploiting vulnerabilities in software and systems. Once the victim interacts with the infected content or system, the ransomware gains a foothold in their device or network.

2. Establishing Persistence and Lateral Movement

After gaining access to the victim’s system, the ransomware seeks to establish persistence, ensuring it remains active even after the system reboots. It may create backdoors or modify system settings to achieve this. The ransomware then tries to move laterally across the network, searching for other devices or systems to infect. This lateral movement allows it to maximize the impact by encrypting data on multiple connected devices.

3. Data Encryption 

Once the ransomware has spread to its desired targets, it initiates the encryption process. It uses strong encryption algorithms to scramble the victim’s files, making them unreadable without the decryption key. 

4. Ransom Payment and Data Recovery

The attackers demand payment, often in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which offers a degree of anonymity for both parties. They may threaten to permanently delete the decryption key or increase the ransom amount if payment is not made within a specified timeframe. 

What is Ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS)?

Ransomware-as-a-Service operates much like a legitimate software service, with a twist of malevolence. Seasoned cybercriminals develop and offer ransomware “kits” on the dark web, which aspiring hackers can buy or rent. These kits come equipped with all the necessary tools, including the ransomware code, a user-friendly control panel, and sometimes even customer support to assist budding attackers. This democratization of ransomware has lowered the entry barrier, attracting more nefarious actors into the fold.

RaaS has contributed to the exponential surge in ransomware attacks worldwide. Now, a wider range of criminals, regardless of their technical prowess, can launch campaigns with devastating consequences. The model’s profitability entices more criminals to join the fray, compounding the threat landscape. 

The rise of RaaS has presented significant challenges for cybersecurity experts and law enforcement agencies. The decentralization of ransomware operations makes it difficult to trace and hold perpetrators accountable. Moreover, as new variants of ransomware emerge through these service platforms, traditional security measures often struggle to keep pace with the rapidly evolving threats.

To defend against the rising tide of RaaS attacks, maintaining secure backups of essential data is critical, and can serve as a lifeline in the event of a ransomware attack.

Download the CTERA Ransomware Solution Sheet For Everything You Need To Stay Protected

How to Defend Against Ransomware?

Given the significant increase in ransomware, it’s critically important to know how to prevent ransomware attacks. It must also be noted that true ransomware mitigation is more comprehensive than just preventing ransomware attacks – it also includes mitigation efforts, specifically having effective backups. 

But first, let’s look at detecting and preventing the initial attack. 

Know How to Prevent and Detect Ransomware Attacks

The following are key ways to prevent a successful ransomware attack, and should form part of a ransomware prevention checklist:

  • Cyber Training, Including Awareness and Education: keeping your organization secure from cyber risks starts with having a well-educated and aware workforce. The entry point for ransomware attacks often involves compromising or fooling an employee, making ongoing cyber training critical. Employees should be educated about the types of cyber risks the company may face and understand how ransomware works. Cyber training can be made active and engaging through simulated training campaigns, ensuring that employees stay vigilant and informed.
  • Continuous Data Backups: organizations that maintain regular and reliable backups of their encrypted information increase their chances of recovering quickly and effectively. Traditional backup services may take a considerable amount of time to fully restore data, but modern solutions leveraging global file systems and caching technology offer near-immediate disaster recovery. Prioritizing data backups is a crucial defense strategy against ransomware’s data encryption tactics.
  • Patching: ransomware attackers often exploit vulnerabilities and uncovered exploits to gain access to targeted systems. One effective way to reduce the attack surface and enhance protection is to keep all software and systems up-to-date with regular patching. By promptly applying software updates and security patches, organizations can mitigate the risks associated with known vulnerabilities and strengthen their overall cybersecurity posture.
  • User Authentication: strengthening user authentication is vital in preventing credential theft or compromised employees. Technologies such as MFA require users to provide multiple forms of identification before granting access, adding an extra layer of security to sensitive accounts and data. Biometric authentication, using unique physical traits like fingerprints or facial recognition, offers an even more robust and personalized method of user verification.
  • Proactive Threat Detection: being proactive in detecting and preventing attackers from gaining access to systems is key to ransomware prevention. Additionally, identifying successful attacks early allows organizations to halt ransomware’s full execution. Various technical tools and service providers are available to help with proactive threat detection. They analyze network traffic for anomalies and swiftly isolate any malicious actors who may have breached the system. By implementing these proactive measures, organizations can bolster their defenses against ransomware and significantly reduce potential damages.

How to Remove Ransomware

Dealing with ransomware can be a formidable challenge since numerous ransomware variants are designed to persistently target and infect devices. Simply deleting the malicious executable often falls short of completely eradicating the ransomware and cannot be considered a comprehensive solution. 

As ransomware evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the conventional approach proves inadequate. Instead, the recommended course of action involves thoroughly wiping the affected computers or systems and then restoring data from a secure backup. By adopting this proactive approach, you can enhance your chances of effectively removing ransomware and recovering your valuable data.

How Companies Can Protect Themselves?

Now armed with a deeper understanding of what is ransomware and how it works, along with effective ransomware mitigation tactics, we can look at effective ransomware protection strategies and tools that companies can use to protect themselves. 

Following best practices, companies should look to implement ransomware protection and mitigation with a global file system that offers AI-powered ransomware mitigation. 

CTERA’s solution provides all of this and more, including:

Ransom Protect: advanced machine learning algorithms can quickly identify and block suspicious file activity, while an incident management dashboard enables administrators to monitor and stop attacks in real-time.

Continuous backup: continuous real-time protection is provided by synchronizing data to air-gapped, immutable object storage – this superior ransomware protection offers an RPO (recovery point objective) measured in minutes or seconds, not days and weeks like traditional backup solutions.

Instant disaster recovery: advanced caching technology not only replicates the data continuously to the cloud, but it offers near-immediate disaster recovery and ransomware mitigation following an attack – even when tens of terabytes need to be rolled back.

Immutable snapshots: snapshots are securely stored in immutable, air-gapped object storage, and cannot be deleted or modified during the retention period – effectively creating a safe haven for your data. 

Zero-trust architecture: CTERA is the only global filesystem to have zero-trust architecture in place: edge filers never store or receive credentials for the object storage.

As CTERA client Rob Svendsen from S.J. Louis Construction puts it, “If it weren’t for CTERA, ransomware would have been a devastating and potentially business-closing catastrophe.”

Variants of Ransomware

There are multiple variants of ransomware, with new types being spawned continually. The major ransomware variants include:

  • WannaCry: Infamous global ransomware that caused widespread disruptions in 2017, exploiting a Windows vulnerability to propagate rapidly.
  • BadRabbit: A targeted ransomware that affected Eastern European countries in 2017, using fake Adobe Flash updates for distribution.
  • Ryuk: A sophisticated ransomware often deployed in targeted attacks against organizations, known for its hefty ransom demands.
  • Cryptolocker: One of the earliest ransomware variants that emerged in 2013, popularizing the use of encryption to hold data hostage.
  • Locky: A prolific ransomware known for its extensive use of phishing emails to deliver malicious payloads.
  • Maze: Infamous for its “double extortion” technique, Maze not only encrypts data but threatens to leak it if the ransom is not paid.
  • NotPetya: Initially mistaken for Petya, this 2017 ransomware attack targeted Ukraine and quickly spread globally, causing massive disruptions.
  • Petya: An earlier version of NotPetya, which also utilized the EternalBlue exploit to propagate and encrypt systems.
  • REvil: Also known as Sodinokibi, a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) that gained notoriety for attacking large organizations.
  • DearCry: A ransomware strain that emerged in 2021, exploiting Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities to infect systems.
  • Lapsus$: A relatively new ransomware known for targeting businesses and encrypting files with the “.lps” extension.
  • Lockbit: A ransomware strain that not only encrypts data but also steals sensitive information to use as leverage for ransom demands.
  • Clop: Another ransomware family known for its “double extortion” tactics, targeting both Windows and Linux systems.

Lockbit and Clop particularly have been in the news lately, with Clop hitting companies such as Aon, British Airways, The Boston Globe, and Estée Lauder.

Should You Pay Ransom?

Whether to pay a ransom or not is a very subjective question and depends on a number of circumstances.

CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, notes that “Since ransomware payments do not ensure data will be decrypted or systems or data will no longer be compromised, federal law enforcement do not recommend paying ransom. In addition, the Treasury Department warns these payments run the risk of violating Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions.” 

CTERA Ransomware Solution

To summarize and conclude, we’ve taken an in-depth look into ransomware, covering everything including: 

  • What is ransomware
  • The lifecycle of an attack
  • The causes of the recent explosion in ransomware attacks
  • Ransomware mitigation strategies
  • The different ransomware variants
  • Whether a ransom should be paid

To stay protected and safeguard your data, implement CTERA’s ransomware protection and mitigation, providing best-practice protection in an all-in-one solution. 

Learn more by speaking to a CTERA product expert today.

Related Resources 


Who is at risk from a ransomware attack?
Anyone with a digital presence is at risk of a ransomware attack, including individuals, businesses, healthcare institutions, government agencies, and educational organizations.

What is ransomware as a service?
Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) is a model where cybercriminals develop and offer ransomware kits or affiliate programs on the dark web, enabling almost anyone to launch ransomware attacks.

How long does it take to recover from ransomware?
The recovery time from a ransomware attack varies widely depending on factors like the extent of the infection, the organization’s ransomware backup strategy, and the efficacy of their response plan. Recovery can range from seconds to weeks, or even longer in complex cases.


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