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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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July 1, 2019


Ransomware: Hopefully Not Coming Soon to a Computer Near You

In March 2018, the city of Atlanta fell victim to a ransomware attack. Criminals gained access to the city's computer network and loaded SamSam Ransomware, a malicious software. The criminals demanded a payment of approximately $51,000 in virtual currency to provide the decryption keys necessary to regain access to the infected and locked systems. The attack laid siege to the city by rendering police, utility billing, traffic court, and other systems unusable. The city refused to pay the ransom, and has since spent at least $6 million in forensic and remediation work with as much as an additional $11 million earmarked for system upgrades and other resources to combat future attacks.

Ransomware attacks have been a growing threat. While studies such as the Symantec Internet Threat Security Report  show that the overall incident rate has decreased slightly, they also indicate that the range of targets has shifted. From 2013 until last year, consumers were the most frequent targets, with ransom requests in the hundreds of dollars. In the early years of these attacks, individuals would get a message that their computers had been infected and they had to pay a fee to download a fix. In many cases, the infection claim was false. Beginning in 2018, businesses—including municipalities, hospitals, and health care networks—have become primary targets, with ransom demands in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Typically, the criminals demand that the ransom be paid in cryptocurrency (nearly always bitcoin). As in the Atlanta case, these attacks often prevent customers from making payments, whether for traffic violations, business permits, or even marriage licenses.

Should ransomware targets pay the ransom? Law enforcement communities officially say "no." In some cases, when victims pay the ransom, they never receive the decryption keys to regain access to their data, or the keys don't work. There is concern that payments only encourage the criminals to commit further attacks, sometimes against the same business and demanding additional money. It is not illegal for a business to make ransomware payments, and many, including Newark, New Jersey ($30,000), have done so.

Is your computer or network prepared to defend against such an attack? Ransomware attacks typically exploit weak passwords or known security vulnerabilities in applications and operating systems. But a common entry point is through phishing of an employee to compromise legitimate system access credentials. As in business email compromise, the criminal conducts surveillance to learn about the different systems in operation and plans the initial attack to have the greatest possible impact. As we have stressed so often, prevention starts with employee education and the adoption of security best practices. In a future post, I will write about more prevention and mitigation best practices.

As for the Atlanta ransomware attack, last December, a federal grand jury returned indictments against two foreign nationals for the attack. The grand jury indicated these two people were also behind the April 2017 attack on Newark, New Jersey. There was hope in the law enforcement and cybersecurity communities that the arrest of these individuals would dampen enthusiasm for this threat vector, but attacks this year against Akron, Ohio (January), Albany, New York (March), and Baltimore, Maryland (May) suggest otherwise. None of these cities made any ransom payments.

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 1, 2019 in cybersecurity | Permalink

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