Small businesses often left hanging by ransomware scourge
Ransomware is hitting small businesses hard. But most of the legislation, regulations, and headlines focus on large businesses. The math is simple -- large businesses impact many end-users, and they have lots of money to pay lobbyists, so they wind up stealing the show when it comes to ransomware. But what about the local print shop, deli, or accounting office? Even though small businesses are suffering from ransomware 70 percent more often than large businesses (according to the Cyber Edge 2022 Cyberthreat Report), government regulations haven’t changed to accommodate them.
The U.S. Justice Department recently released a strategic plan that will investigate 65 percent of all reported ransomware attacks by 2023, but there are a few problems with this. First, the Justice Department -- or anyone else for that matter -- has no accurate accounting of how many attacks are actually occurring. Because so many attacks go unreported, there isn’t a way to certify how many ransomware attacks happen each year. Second, even if we assign credibility to 65 percent of ransomware cases, how can we or the government use this information effectively to reduce attacks? Finally, what about unreported ransomware attacks (which account for most of the attacks) on 44 percent of the U.S.’s economy: small businesses?
From my experience on ransomware negotiations involving small businesses, it is clear they have a unique set of challenges when compared to larger organizations. They have very little security infrastructure, they are unfamiliar with how to report the problem to law enforcement, and this is truly an existential crisis for them: the choice is often to pay up or go out of business.
In many cases, the clock is ticking once organizations are hit with ransomware, and they are often willing to pay the ransom to stay in business. However, this goes against the guidance of the justice department, which says you should never pay ransom. But if your choice is to pay the ransom or go out of business, most business owners feel the answer is pretty obvious. What’s more, most small businesses are unaware that the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) may prosecute or fine those who pay a foreign body that is under sanctions -- so small businesses are often left with an even worse choice: break the law or go out of business. This is not a choice anyone wants (or should want) to have to make.
What to Do and Not Do
It’s not all doom and gloom for small businesses. There are things they should do (and not do!) that will make a ransomware attack a survivable event. Here’s a list of dos and don’ts:
- Report the issue to the law enforcement. The FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) are helpful and can provide you with intelligence on who attacked you, based on other reports they’ve gotten.
- Enact your incident response plan. You may not have one, but you should. This can either be owned by the IT person or a firm that is outsourced.
- Engage professionals. Your law firm, a PR firm and a professional ransomware responder will eliminate a lot of the "groping around in the dark" that is typical with these kinds of attacks.
- Contact your insurance provider. Normal business liability policies don’t cover these kinds of attacks, but if you have cyber insurance, you’ll want to know from your insurer how you should behave so that you can maximize the chances of collecting.
- Monitor for your data. Modern ransomware attacks involve stealing your data in addition to encrypting the data you use. You’ll want to make sure your data isn’t showing up elsewhere, like on the dark web, both during and after an attack.
- Engage on your own. There are professionals that can help you manage the risks associated with engaging with the ransomware actors.
- Panic. It can be pretty devastating to receive a notice from a threat actor that your data is being held hostage. You need to realize there are options -- the key is to make a plan and stick with it.
- Get overconfident. It’s great if you’ve backed up your data and are confident you can restore it and foil the bad guys, but there may be things you didn’t think of. For example, threat actors routinely take a copy of as much of your organization's data as they can access, which can be used for extortion, and the release of that data can cause brand and customer confidence issues, employee attrition, morale issues, and compromise intellectual property.
- Ignore OFAC regulations. The threat actor may be under OFAC sanctions. It is important to understand this as soon as possible to inform your decision about whether you should engage.
- Shut down. Your first instinct usually is to shut machines down until you figure things out. But this can cause file corruption and make it harder to respond to the incident.
Finally, I should note that threat actors are rarely using advanced techniques to execute ransomware. In fact, probably some of the most widely reported ransomware cases have been typical: An employee used a corporate email to sign up for an account on a third-party website. The third-party website then gets hacked and the employee’s credentials are used to gain access to corporate systems.
This is not rocket science, but the techniques are used by threat actors to drive the ransomware plague across both large and small companies. This problem has gotten even worse post-pandemic because people at home or in another remote location tend to be even less attentive to cyber best practices than they are at work.
Whether workers are at home or in the office, if you are a small organization, the government is not going to bail you out. There are, however, some common-sense rules that you and your employees can follow to decrease the likelihood of becoming another ransomware statistic:
- Update software, operating systems, and web browsers.
- Use a password manager and do not reuse passwords.
- Employ a good corporate credential policy.
- Use Multi-Factor Authentication everywhere you can.
- Never click on unsafe links.
- Do not open suspicious email attachments.
- Use VPN services on public Wi-Fi networks, use personal hotspot when possible.
If everyone followed these best practices, it would reduce the impact of cyber-attacks, ransomware and otherwise, significantly.
Kurtis Minder is CEO of GroupSense. GroupSense provides digital risk protection services to organizations worldwide.