What Is Ransomware And How It Works?

In the vast and ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, one particularly nefarious type of malware has become a serious concern for individuals and businesses alike: ransomware.

In this article, we delve deep into the world of ransomware to understand its nature, how it operates, the impact it can have, and what measures can be taken to safeguard against it.

Ransomware is one of many malicious software types installed silently onto your computer and encrypts your files. This stops you from accessing your data until you pay a ransom to get the decryption key. Most often, this means you hand over your credit card details, but sometimes you can pay by check or even PayPal.



What Is Ransomware In Simple Words?

When you connect your computer or device to the Internet, there are chances of being infected by some malware that will encrypt your files and ask for a ransom to be paid in order to unlock those encrypted files. This type of infection is called ransomware.

In other words, ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system or encrypt the data it contains until a ransom is paid to the attacker. It is a form of cyber-extortion that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, posing a significant threat to individuals, businesses, and organizations worldwide.

What Is A Ransomware And Why Is It Bad?

Ransomware is bad because it locks down your computer or phone and takes all of your personal information. Some cases are worse than others, but generally, when you encounter ransomware, it will lock your computer and erase important documents, photos, videos, emails, etc.

Ransomware can infect anything that connects to the Internet, including laptops, desktops, smartphones, PS4’s, and XBox’s. Ransomware is a form of cybercrime and is illegal.

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You can check out this video for more details!

How Does Ransomware Work?

Understanding the modus operandi of ransomware is crucial to comprehend the level of sophistication attackers employ to exploit their victims.


Ransomware is typically delivered through phishing emails, malicious attachments, infected websites, or exploit kits. Once a user unwittingly interacts with the malware’s delivery method, the ransomware is installed on the target system.


After infecting the victim’s system, the ransomware starts encrypting files using strong encryption algorithms. This renders the files inaccessible without the decryption key only the attacker possesses.

Ransom Note

Once the encryption process is complete, the ransomware displays a ransom note on the victim’s screen. The note informs the victim that their files are encrypted and provides instructions on how to pay the ransom to obtain the decryption key.

Ransom Payment

Victims are typically asked to pay the ransom in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, as it provides a degree of anonymity for the attacker. Payment methods and amounts vary, and there is no guarantee that paying the ransom will result in the decryption of files.

Decryption (Optional)

In some cases, if the victim pays the ransom, the attacker may provide a decryption key to unlock the files. However, there have been instances where victims paid the ransom but still did not receive the decryption key.

What Does A Ransomware Do? How Does Ransomware Start?

Ransomware first installs a program that will encrypt all of the data on a computer or on an entire network. Then a screen pops up that tells the users how to pay a ransom to get their data back.

Ransomware is most commonly known as spreading through email attachments. The most common way for this to happen is for an unsuspecting user to open an email that they thought is sent by friends or colleagues. They then click on the link that they believe will take them to their friend’s photos or documents, but instead, it takes them to a website that downloads the ransomware onto their computer.

Why Is Ransomware Dangerous?

Ransomware attacks have severely impacted individuals and organizations, causing financial losses, data breaches, and disruption of critical services. The healthcare, financial, and government sectors have been particularly targeted due to the sensitive and valuable data they hold. Ransomware can lead to operational downtime, loss of customer trust, and potential legal and regulatory consequences.

The prevalence of ransomware attacks has risen significantly over the past decade, with cybercriminals constantly developing new variants and tactics to evade detection. These attacks have become more sophisticated, and even small-scale criminal groups can cause significant damage using ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) platforms, which allow them to lease ransomware tools.

Recent Notable Ransomware Incidents

Here are three typical examples of recent ransomware:

Colonial Pipeline Ransomware Attack (2021)

One of the most significant ransomware incidents, this attack targeted Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel pipeline operator in the United States. The attack caused a temporary shutdown of the pipeline, leading to fuel shortages and highlighting the critical infrastructure’s vulnerability to cyber threats.

JBS Ransomware Attack (2021)

JBS, one of the world’s largest meat processors, fell victim to a ransomware attack that disrupted its operations across several countries. The incident highlighted the potential impact of ransomware on the food supply chain.

Kaseya VSA Ransomware Attack (2021)

The ransomware attack on the Kaseya VSA software provider compromised numerous managed service providers (MSPs) and their clients. This supply chain attack affected thousands of businesses globally.

These examples illustrate ransomware attacks’ widespread and damaging effects, emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity measures to prevent and mitigate such threats. Individuals and organizations must stay vigilant, keep their systems up-to-date, regularly back up their data, and implement robust security protocols to defend against ransomware attacks.

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The Consequences of Ransomware Attacks

We now all know the danger of ransomware. Let me state its impact here: 

  1. Data Encryption and Loss: One of the most immediate and direct consequences of a ransomware attack is the encryption of data. Ransomware encrypts the victim’s files, making them inaccessible without the decryption key held by the attackers. This can lead to data loss and operational disruption for individuals and businesses, affecting critical information, personal files, databases, and intellectual property.
  2. Financial Losses for Individuals and Businesses: Ransomware attacks can result in significant financial losses for both individuals and businesses. For individuals, paying the ransom (if they choose to do so) can be costly, with no guarantee that they will regain access to their data. Businesses may face downtime, reduced productivity, and potential loss of revenue during system restoration and recovery efforts.
  3. Reputational Damage: Ransomware attacks can severely damage an organization’s reputation, especially if customer data is compromised. Customers may lose trust in the affected company’s ability to safeguard their sensitive information, leading to a loss of business and potential long-term damage to the brand’s image.
  4. Legal and Regulatory Consequences: Data breaches resulting from ransomware attacks can trigger legal and regulatory repercussions. Many jurisdictions have data protection laws that require organizations to take reasonable measures to protect sensitive data. If a company fails to adequately secure data and suffers a ransomware attack, it may face fines, lawsuits, and other legal consequences.
  5. Psychological Impact on Victims: Ransomware attacks can profoundly impact individuals and employees who fall victim to them. The feeling of violation and loss of control over personal or critical data can cause stress, anxiety, and emotional distress. Victims may sometimes feel a sense of vulnerability and fear regarding future cyber threats.
  6. Loss of Productivity and Business Continuity: In the case of businesses and organizations, ransomware attacks can disrupt normal operations and lead to a loss of productivity. Systems and data may remain inaccessible until they are fully restored, causing delays in projects and potentially impacting customer service. The time and resources required for remediation and recovery can be substantial, affecting business continuity.
  7. Potential Data Exposure: In addition to data encryption, some ransomware operators resort to data exfiltration, stealing sensitive information before encrypting it. They may threaten to publish or sell this data if the ransom is not paid, exposing victims to further risks, such as identity theft, blackmail, or reputational damage.

Types of Ransomware

Ransomware comes in various forms, each with its unique characteristics and propagation methods.

Encrypting Ransomware

How does encrypting ransomware lock your data? Well, encrypting ransomware, also known as crypto-ransomware, is the most common type of ransomware. When this variant infects a system, it employs strong encryption algorithms to lock the victim’s data. Encryption converts the files into a format that can only be decrypted with a unique cryptographic key. Without this key, the data remains inaccessible and appears as gibberish.

RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) are the most commonly used encryption algorithms in encrypting ransomware. RSA encryption is utilized to encrypt the symmetric encryption keys, while AES is used for the bulk encryption of files due to its efficiency and security.

Locker Ransomware

Locker ransomware differs from encrypting ransomware in that it does not encrypt files. Instead, it locks the victim out of their system or specific functionalities, such as the desktop, task manager, or specific applications. The locker ransomware achieves this by modifying or manipulating the operating system’s settings or user interfaces, preventing the victim from accessing their data or using essential functions.

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So, what is the difference between locker and encrypting ransomware? The primary difference between locker and encrypting ransomware is the method they use to restrict access to a system. Encrypting ransomware encrypts files, making them unreadable, while locker ransomware locks the system or specific components, making them temporarily unusable until the ransom is paid.

Master Boot Record (MBR) Ransomware

Master Boot Record (MBR) ransomware targets the Master Boot Record, a crucial part of a computer’s booting process. When the MBR is infected, the ransomware replaces it with malicious code that displays the ransom note and prevents the operating system from loading. This essentially “bricks” the system, rendering it unable to start up.

MBR ransomware is particularly insidious because it operates at a low level, before the operating system loads. This makes it challenging to detect and remove. Restoring the MBR to its original state is also complex and requires technical expertise, which can pose difficulties for less tech-savvy users.

Mobile Ransomware

Mobile ransomware is designed specifically to infect and target mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. It operates similarly to traditional ransomware but is tailored to exploit vulnerabilities and weaknesses unique to mobile platforms.

As mobile device usage has increased, so has cybercriminals’ targeting of mobile devices. Mobile ransomware often spreads through malicious apps, infected websites, or phishing links. It may lock the device’s screen or encrypt files stored on the device’s storage. Additionally, mobile ransomware may threaten to leak sensitive data or photos if the ransom is not paid.

Ransomware Delivery Methods

Let’s discuss about essential ransomware delivery methods:

Phishing Emails and Attachments

Phishing emails are one of the most common delivery methods for ransomware. Cybercriminals craft deceptive emails that appear legitimate, often impersonating trusted entities or organizations. These emails contain malicious attachments, such as infected Word documents, PDFs, or ZIP files, or include links to malicious websites. When recipients open the attachments or click on the links, the ransomware is downloaded and executed on their systems.

Malicious Downloads and Exploit Kits

Cybercriminals may compromise legitimate websites and insert malicious code into them. When users visit these compromised websites, their systems can unknowingly download ransomware onto their devices. Exploit kits are a type of software that identifies vulnerabilities in a user’s software or browser and then automatically delivers the ransomware payload. These kits take advantage of outdated software or unpatched security flaws to infect the user’s system.

Drive-by Downloads and Malvertising

Drive-by downloads occur when users visit compromised or malicious websites, and the ransomware is automatically downloaded and installed without any interaction or consent from the user. Malvertising, a combination of “malicious” and “advertising,” involves cybercriminals placing malicious ads on legitimate websites. Clicking on these ads can lead to drive-by downloads of ransomware or redirect users to infected websites.

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) Exploits

Ransomware attackers may exploit vulnerable Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connections. RDP is a remote access feature that allows users to connect to another computer over the internet. If cybercriminals identify weak or easily guessable credentials for RDP, they can gain unauthorized access to a system and deliver the ransomware payload.

Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks target websites that the intended victims frequently visit. Cybercriminals compromise these popular websites and inject them with ransomware or malware. When users visit the infected sites, they unknowingly download the ransomware onto their systems. This tactic is particularly effective in targeting specific user groups or organizations.

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Infected USB Drives

Cybercriminals may also use infected USB drives to deliver ransomware. They intentionally leave infected drives in public places or send them directly to targeted individuals or organizations. When a victim plugs the infected USB drive into their computer, the ransomware is executed, and their system becomes infected.

Who Are the Top Targets of Ransomware?

The common thread among these top targets is the value of the data they hold and their potential vulnerabilities. Ransomware attackers seek to exploit weaknesses in an organization’s cybersecurity defenses, whether through phishing emails, unpatched software, or other entry points, to encrypt their data and demand a ransom.

Healthcare Institutions and Hospitals

Healthcare institutions and hospitals are prime targets for ransomware attacks due to the critical nature of their services and the sensitive patient data they hold. Ransomware attacks on healthcare facilities can disrupt patient care, delay medical procedures, and potentially put lives at risk. Additionally, the value of patient records on the black market makes healthcare organizations attractive targets for cybercriminals.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, and universities, are also frequently targeted by ransomware attackers. These institutions often have valuable data, including student records, financial information, and research data. A ransomware attack on an educational institution can disrupt classes, jeopardize students’ academic progress, and lead to financial losses for the institution.

Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs)

SMEs are increasingly targeted by ransomware attacks. Many SMEs lack robust cybersecurity measures, making them vulnerable to such threats. Ransomware attacks can cause significant operational disruption and financial strain on these businesses, as they may not have the resources to quickly recover from the attack.

Government Agencies

Government agencies, at both the local and national levels, are appealing targets for ransomware attackers. A successful attack on government systems can disrupt public services, compromise sensitive government data, and erode public trust in the government’s ability to safeguard information.

Non-Profit Organizations

Non-profit organizations, despite their charitable missions, are not immune to ransomware attacks. These organizations often handle valuable donor information and may store data related to their beneficiaries. A ransomware attack can hinder their ability to carry out their charitable work and may damage their reputation among donors and beneficiaries.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks

What can we do to reduce the risk of falling victim to ransomware attacks? There are several measures that can be used to prevent ransomware attacks:

Employee Training and Awareness

Educate employees about ransomware threats and train them to recognize phishing attempts, suspicious attachments, and links. Encourage them to report any unusual or potentially malicious activities to the IT department.

Implementing Strong Password Policies

Enforce strong password policies across all accounts and systems. Passwords should be complex, unique, and regularly updated. Consider implementing two-factor authentication (2FA) to add an extra layer of security.

Regular Software Updates and Patches

Keep all software, including operating systems and applications, up to date with the latest security patches. Regular updates help address known vulnerabilities that ransomware attackers could exploit.

Email Security Measures

Employ email security solutions to block spam, phishing attempts, and malicious attachments. Advanced email filtering can prevent ransomware from reaching users’ inboxes and reduce the risk of infection.

Secure Backup and Data Recovery Strategies

Regularly back up critical data and files to an external and secure location. Implement a comprehensive data recovery plan to ensure that you can restore your data without paying the ransom in the event of a ransomware attack.

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Network Segmentation

Segment your network into different zones based on user roles and data sensitivity. This practice limits the impact of a ransomware infection, as it prevents the malware from spreading across the entire network.

Endpoint Security Solutions

Install and maintain robust endpoint security solutions on all devices, such as antivirus and anti-malware software. These solutions help detect and block ransomware before it can cause harm.

Access Control and Privilege Management

Limit user privileges to only what is necessary for their roles. Users should have the minimum level of access required to perform their tasks, reducing the potential impact of a ransomware attack if one account is compromised.

Implement Application Whitelisting

Consider using application whitelisting to allow only approved and trusted applications to run on systems. This can help prevent unauthorized or malicious software, including ransomware, from executing.

How to Response to Ransomware Attacks

Responding to a ransomware attack requires a coordinated and well-prepared approach. Here are what you should do if you are the victim of ransomware:

Isolating Infected Systems

As soon as a ransomware attack is detected, isolate the infected systems from the rest of the network. Disconnect them from the internet and other connected devices to prevent the malware from spreading further.

Notifying Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity Authorities

Report the ransomware attack to law enforcement agencies and relevant cybersecurity authorities. This helps in gathering information, tracking the attackers, and potentially apprehending them.

Evaluating the Extortion Demand

Consider the extortion demand carefully. While experts generally advise against paying the ransom, each situation is unique. Evaluate the feasibility of decryption and the potential consequences of paying the ransom, as there is no guarantee that the attackers will provide the decryption key.

Engaging with Cybersecurity Experts and Incident Response Teams

Involve cybersecurity experts and incident response teams with experience in handling ransomware attacks. They can help assess the severity of the attack, guide the response efforts, and coordinate the incident response plan effectively.

Decrypting Data (When Possible)

In some cases, cybersecurity experts may be able to identify weaknesses in the ransomware or obtain decryption keys from law enforcement or other sources. The preferred approach is attempting to decrypt the data without paying the ransom, as it discourages attackers and supports the stance against ransom payments.

Learning from the Attack and Improving Security Measures

Conduct a thorough post-incident analysis to understand how the ransomware infiltrated the system and identify any vulnerabilities that were exploited. Use this knowledge to enhance security measures and strengthen defenses against future attacks.

Restoring Data from Backups

If data backups were regularly performed and maintained in a secure location, restore the encrypted data from these backups. This ensures that the organization can recover without paying the ransom and without losing critical information.

Implementing Additional Security Measures

After the attack, implement additional security measures based on the lessons learned. This may include improving employee training, enhancing network segmentation, deploying advanced threat detection tools, and ensuring all software is up to date with the latest security patches.

What Is The Future of Ransomware?

The future of ransomware is likely to witness continued evolution and sophistication. Cybercriminals constantly adapt their tactics to evade detection and improve their chances of success. As security measures improve, ransomware attacks may incorporate more advanced techniques to bypass traditional defenses and target new vulnerabilities.

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Emerging Techniques and Tactics

Ransomware attackers are likely to explore emerging techniques and tactics to increase the impact of their attacks. This may include the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to automate and optimize their attacks, as well as leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) devices to expand their attack surface.

Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)

RaaS is expected to become even more prevalent in the future. RaaS allows cybercriminals with limited technical expertise to lease ransomware tools and infrastructure from more skilled attackers. This lowers the barrier to entry for potential attackers, leading to a broader range of threats.

The Role of Cryptocurrencies in Ransom Payments

Cryptocurrencies will likely continue to play a significant role in ransom payments. Cybercriminals prefer cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin due to their pseudo-anonymous nature, making it difficult for law enforcement to trace the transactions back to the attackers. As cryptocurrencies become more widely adopted, ransomware attackers may further exploit this feature to conduct ransom transactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

#1 How does ransomware infect a computer or network?

Ransomware can infect a computer or network through various methods, including:

  • Phishing emails with malicious attachments or links that, when clicked, download the ransomware onto the system.
  • Drive-by downloads from compromised or malicious websites that automatically deliver the ransomware without user interaction.
  • Exploit kits that identify and exploit vulnerabilities in software or browsers to deliver the ransomware payload.
  • Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) exploits, where attackers gain unauthorized access to systems with weak RDP credentials.
  • Malvertising, where cybercriminals place malicious ads on legitimate websites, redirecting users to sites that distribute ransomware.

#2 Can you negotiate with ransomware attackers?

Negotiating with ransomware attackers is generally discouraged by law enforcement and cybersecurity experts. Paying the ransom fuels the ransomware ecosystem and encourages further attacks. Additionally, there is no guarantee that attackers will provide the decryption key or not demand additional payments. Organizations should focus on recovery through data backups and assistance from cybersecurity professionals rather than negotiating with attackers.

#3 Should victims pay the ransom?

The decision to pay the ransom is complex and controversial. Law enforcement agencies and cybersecurity experts generally advise against paying the ransom. Paying may encourage more attacks and fund criminal activities. However, some organizations may choose to pay as a last resort if critical data cannot be recovered through other means. Ultimately, each situation is unique, and victims should consider the risks and implications before deciding.

#4 How can individuals and organizations protect themselves against ransomware?

To protect against ransomware, individuals and organizations can take several measures, including:

  • Regularly backing up data to an external, secure location.
  • Keeping software and systems up to date with the latest security patches.
  • Educating employees about ransomware threats and phishing awareness.
  • Using strong passwords and implementing two-factor authentication (2FA).
  • Deploying robust antivirus and anti-malware solutions.
  • Implementing network segmentation and access control measures.
  • Conducting regular security audits and risk assessments.

#5 Is it possible to decrypt files without paying the ransom?

Cybersecurity researchers and law enforcement may sometimes identify weaknesses or exploits in ransomware and release decryption keys. Victims can use these keys to decrypt their files without paying the ransom. However, this is not always possible, and prevention and data backup are the best defenses against ransomware.

#6 Are there any free ransomware decryption tools available?

Cybersecurity companies and law enforcement agencies occasionally release free ransomware decryption tools. These tools are designed to help victims decrypt their files without paying the ransom. However, not all ransomware variants have decryption solutions available.

#7 How do cybercriminals launder ransom payments?

Cybercriminals use various methods to launder ransom payments and conceal their illegal activities. They may convert the ransom payments into cryptocurrencies and use mixing services to obfuscate transaction trails. Additionally, they may utilize online exchanges, underground forums, or shell companies to further distance the funds from the original criminal act.

#8 What is the Dark Web’s role in ransomware?

The Dark Web plays a significant role in the ransomware ecosystem. Cybercriminals often use hidden services on the Dark Web to sell ransomware, advertise their services, and provide customer support to victims. They also use the Dark Web to receive ransom payments anonymously and communicate with victims during negotiations. The anonymity and encryption provided by the Dark Web make it an attractive platform for coordinating ransomware operations.

Ransomware presents a significant threat to individuals and businesses worldwide. Understanding its mechanisms, recognizing signs of infection, and implementing robust preventive measures are crucial steps in safeguarding against this digital menace.