Nigerian princes are no longer the only menaces lurking in an employee’s inbox. For healthcare organizations, schools, government agencies and many businesses, ransomware attacks—an especially sinister type of malware delivered through spear phishing emails that locks up valuable data assets and demands a ransom to release them—are a rapidly-growing security threat.
“We’re currently seeing a massive explosion in innovation in the types of ransomware and the ways it’s getting into organizations,” says Rick McElroy, security strategist for cyber security company Carbon Black Enterprise Response. “It’s a big business, and the return on investment to attackers is there—it’s going to get worse.”
While ransomware has existed for years, 2015 saw a spike in activity. The FBI received 2,453 complaints, with losses of over $1.6 million, up from 1,402 complaints the year before, according to annual reports from the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. And the numbers are only growing in 2016, the FBI reports.
“The Dark Web and Bitcoin allow almost anyone to sell stolen data without identification—cyber criminals understand they can make easy cash without the risk of being jailed,” says Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of web security company High-Tech Bridge. And hackers—most of which are located in developing countries—are growing more sophisticated, even developing downloadable ransomware toolkits for less-experienced hackers to deploy, according to the 2016 Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology Ransomware Report.
“The days of grammatically incorrect, mass spam phishing attacks are pretty much over,” says James Scott, senior fellow and co-founder of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, and co-author of the report. Hackers can now check a victim’s social media accounts, and create a fake email address pretending to be a friend or contact in order to get them to click on an infected link or attachment. “It’s much more targeted, and will exploit a particular vulnerability in a device, application, server or software,” Scott adds.
A typical ransom demand is $300, according to a report from security firm Symantec.
The healthcare sector is highly targeted by hacker attacks, due to antiquated or misconfigured computer security systems and the amount of sensitive data they hold, says David DeSanto, director of projects and threat researcher at Spirent Communications.
The large number of employees at most hospitals also makes cyber security safety training difficult, DeSanto says. Experts commonly see attacks occur through spear phishing—targeted emails with attachments with names such as “updated patient list,” “billing codes” or other typical hospital communications that employees may click on if not warned.
In 2015, over 230 healthcare breaches impacted the records of 500-plus individuals, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.
A February ransomware attack launched against Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in southern California locked access to certain computer systems and left staff unable to communicate electronically for 10 days. The hospital paid a $17,000 ransom in bitcoin to the cybercriminals, says CEO Alan Stefanek.
Following security best practices can help healthcare organizations protect themselves. “The best way is to make regular backups of all systems and critical data so that you can restore back to a known good state prior to the ransomware being on the system,” DeSanto says.
Without security best practices, healthcare organizations may be left with few options to retrieve information. In these cases, healthcare organizations may choose to pay the ransomware fee. Some make enough money that paying the ransom for a few infected computers is low compared to the cost of maintaining the infrastructure to protect these attacks, DeSanto adds.
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