In this comprehensive guide to ransomware attacks, we’ll delve into the nature of modern ransomware and its potentially devastating impact on websites and businesses.
Today, businesses rely heavily on their online presence to connect with their customers and boost revenue. Losing access to your website can have disastrous consequences, potentially causing significant financial losses and irreparable damage to your business reputation.
Unfortunately, this scenario is becoming increasingly common as ransomware attacks continue to target poorly secured WordPress websites, demanding payment for the restoration of critical business assets. Moreover, modern ransomware has evolved beyond the use of encryption to render your website inaccessible.
Regardless of the techniques employed, this type of cybercrime can leave you with very limited options to restore the functionality of your website and regain control over your online presence. This is why it’s critical to know how ransomware works and how to prevent it from infecting your website.
In this comprehensive guide to ransomware attacks, we’ll delve into the nature of modern ransomware and its potentially devastating impact on WordPress websites. You will learn about a new type of ransomware often used by hackers and how to protect your website from it.
What is Ransomware?
So what is ransomware exactly? Ransomware is a type of malicious software aimed at rendering the infected system fully inaccessible by altering its integral parts with the use of encryption or other methods. As a highly versatile class of malware, ransomware can infect various systems, from personal and network devices to servers and individual websites.
The main purpose of this class of malware is to destroy the integrity of the targeted system, render it inoperable, and effectively lock out critical data. After a system is infected with ransomware, cybercriminals will demand the payment of a ransom in exchange for restoring the system’s functionality and access to it. The ransom typically needs to be paid in cryptocurrency, which makes it difficult to trace the attacker and establish their identity.
It was the nature of the malware centered around the ransom demanded from the victim that the term ransomware originated from. The term ransomware and the first prominent versions of this malware emerged in the early two thousand, although the first ransomware attacks are believed to be tracing their beginnings back to much earlier times.
How Does Ransomware Work?
Ransomware typically works by infecting a system and encrypting its components. This results in preventing its normal functioning and making it inaccessible to its owner. The ransomware then triggers a message to be displayed to the users, demanding the ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key required to restore the integrity of the infected system.
The ransom message usually includes the attacker’s digital wallet address along with a deadline for the payment, threatening to permanently delete the encrypted data if the mentioned amount of money in cryptocurrency is not paid in a timely manner. Typically, the ransom page also serves as an interface for performing decryption operations once the user obtains the decryption key. In reality, however, there is a small chance it will work as intended.
Most of the time, the attacker ensures the user can not go past the ransom message, which effectively replaces the standard system’s interface. In case ransomware infects a website, cybercriminals place a permanent redirect to the malicious web page, which often remains the content the browser can render. All other areas of the infected website would otherwise throw an error if the encrypted or otherwise locked content is not restored to its original state.
It is important to note, however, that individual websites are rarely targeted by ransomware. Ransomware attacks on websites are generally less profitable than attacks on personal computers, employee workstations, and servers. These types of devices often store critical data or are integral to business operations. The cost of restoring normal operations can be much higher, making it more likely that victims will pay the ransom to regain access to their data.
Furthermore, most website owners maintain backups of their data stored remotely, making it easier to restore their sites to their original state without paying the ransom. This is often different for personal devices and servers. Even maintaining their own server infrastructure, some business owners need to save full-server backups regularly.
How is Ransomware Distributed?
As with any other type of malware, ransomware is distributed using a number of methods that vary depending on the targeted system. Similarly to botnet malware, drawing devices into a network of bots, ransomware is often distributed as a trojan horse – a seemingly harmless software application or a malicious email attachment disguised as a legitimate document.
Furthermore, ransomware distribution can occur in the form of malvertising or clickjacking used to facilitate cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, resulting in malware being downloaded to users’ devices without their knowledge. Once a device is infected with ransomware, the malware can lie dormant in the system until a certain event triggers the execution of a malicious payload, effectively locking the user out.
Cybercriminals typically use other attack vectors to infect servers and individual websites. Identifying and exploiting a vulnerability, hackers gain unauthorized system or website-level access to the target and use the newly obtained level of privileges to upload and run ransomware. Often, the infected server or website also becomes a part of a botnet, leaving a backdoor allowing the attacker to control it remotely.
Encryption as the Cornerstone of Ransomware
Since the first versions of ransomware made their way into the Internet, encryption has been the cornerstone of this malicious software. Ransomware uses asymmetric encryption. A pair of cryptographic keys, public and private, is uniquely generated to encrypt the victim’s data.
After ransomware infects a system, it typically begins scanning the disk to identify the valuable data to be encrypted. This will typically be the critical system files enabling the system’s core functionality and sensitive user data – everything that may instigate fear in the victim and make them pay the ransom in an attempt to restore access to it.
Once the data has been identified, ransomware typically uses a strong encryption algorithm to scramble the contents of the files, making them fully unreadable. The use of encryption has been a key component of most ransomware as it provides a way for cybercriminals to hold victims’ data hostage.
How to Decrypt Data Affected by Ransomware
Most of the time, the decryption of data affected by ransomware does not appear possible. The encryption algorithm ransomware uses is typically strong enough to prevent anyone from decrypting the files without the corresponding private key, which will likely be securely stored on the attacker’s server to avoid discovery.
Yet, some strains of ransomware have publicly available decryption methods. Or sometimes, a ransomware attack is identified and acted upon quickly to find the encryption key used by the attacker. In this case, the encryption process can be stopped, effectively mitigating the ransomware attack.
However, those situations are rare. This leaves the victim with limited options to restore the system’s integrity and recover their data, thereby increasing the likelihood of them paying the ransom.
Regardless of what the attacker claims, actually paying the ransom rarely helps restore the encrypted files and mitigate the attack. Most of the time, even if the ransom is paid, you will not receive the decryption key and won’t be able to get your files back.
Restoring from a clean backup saved before the ransomware attack took place is often the only way to remove the ransomware and mitigate the consequences of the attack. The backup must be stored outside of the compromised system since it can also be encrypted by ransomware or meddled with by an attacker in the most unpredictable ways.
More Than Just Encryption: The Evolution of Modern Ransomware
Although encryption has historically been a hallmark of ransomware, the concept of ransomware attacks has since evolved dramatically. Modern ransomware attacks targeting websites may not rely on encryption at all but can still render the site inaccessible through various means.
As ransomware has gained notoriety as one of the most devastating types of malware, attackers have realized that they do not necessarily have to rely on encryption to achieve their objectives. In many cases, the mere presence of a ransom page on the infected website can be enough to force the website owner to comply with the attacker’s demands and pay the ransom, regardless of whether encryption was actually involved in the attack.
Most ransomware targeting WordPress does not encrypt website files. Instead, cybercriminals use other malicious techniques to make it difficult for website owners to regain control of their websites. Instead of encrypting files, attackers may simply lock posts in the database or place a malicious redirect to the ransom page, which can be difficult to detect.
“Fake” WordPress Ransomware
Discovered by Sucuri back in 2021, the so-called fake WordPress ransomware has prompted the creation of new versions of malware rendering WordPress websites inaccessible to their owners. This type of WordPress ransomware locked all posts and pages by modifying the post status of all published posts to “null” in the wp_posts table of the WordPress database to 0 and redirected the website to the ransom page.
Recovering from a ransomware attack that does not involve encryption is much easier and faster. Finding and removing the malicious redirect, as well as restoring all content, is the central part of the malware remediation process. Most of the time, attackers would create a bogus plugin in their effort to disguise this type of malware as legitimate content in the plugins folder of your WordPress installation. This newly uploaded content often becomes the source of ransomware infections.
How to Defend Against Ransomware?
Defending against ransomware requires a multi-layered approach that includes preventative measures and a response plan in case an attack occurs, so you can quickly identify the ways to minimize its impact and ensure a successful recovery.
To defend against ransomware attacks and mitigate their consequences, it is crucial to back up your data and take steps to minimize the probability of a malware infection. The same approach applies to your personal and website data, as ransomware can target various devices and network endpoints.
Back up Your Data Regularly
Regardless of whether encryption was actually used during a ransomware attack to render your website, restoring from a backup may be the easiest and fastest way to reinstate your online presence. Full website backups, stored off the server at a secure remote location, allow you to recover your WordPress website during a successful ransomware attack.
The backups stored locally may be affected by ransomware, making them unusable. By maintaining multiple copies of your website in different locations, you can minimize the impact of any attack or failure, ensuring you always have access to critical data. This approach can also provide an added layer of protection against data loss due to hardware failures or human error, making it a key component of any comprehensive data protection and recovery strategy.
BackupBuddy will help you build a strong backup strategy to have a clean copy of your WordPress website stored safely at multiple remote locations of your choice whenever you need it. With fully customizable backups, flexible backup schedules, and one-click restores, BackupBuddy is the perfect solution for WordPress users who value their website’s security and want peace of mind knowing that their data is easily recoverable in case of a security breach.
If you run multiple WordPress websites, iThemes Sync Pro provides a way to integrate BackupBuddy to manage your backups and all software updates from a single dashboard, all while keeping all your websites in check.
Perform Timely Software Updates
Attackers often target unpatched vulnerabilities in software your server, website, or personal devices are running in order to gain unauthorized access and open the door to ransomware attacks. Performing regular updates and applying security patches are paramount in defending against ransomware.
Running outdated software can leave you open to attack. It is critical to configure automatic software updates to ensure the security of your WordPress website. With iThemes Security Pro, you can easily keep track of all core, plugin, and theme updates and have new versions of software installed automatically once it becomes available to the WordPress community.
iThemes Security Pro will perform regular vulnerability scanning to help identify any unprotected areas of your website and automatically patch the identified vulnerabilities. This ensures your website is always up-to-date with the latest security fixes, reducing the risk of successful ransomware attacks targeting WordPress.
Configure Multi-Factor Authentication and Implement a Web Application Firewall
Configuring multi-factor authentication and installing a web application firewall (WAF) are two of the most effective security measures at your disposal to protect your website against ransomware attacks.
By implementing multi-factor authentication and a web application firewall, you can significantly decrease the likelihood of a successful break-in attempt, thereby reducing the risk of a cybercriminal installing ransomware on your website.
Both cloud-based and host-based web application firewalls (WAFs) are an effective first line of defense against a wide range of cyber attacks that target WordPress websites. Firewalls work by identifying and filtering out malicious web requests that match known patterns, allowing them to prevent common types of attacks, including data injection attacks like SQL injections and file inclusion attacks.
Passwords are broken. With password authentication, an attacker is just one step away from impersonating you, putting your WordPress admin account at risk of being compromised through brute force attacks. Multi-factor, or passwordless, authentication adds an extra layer of security to the login process, making it much more difficult for attackers to gain privileged access to your website, even if they have successfully cracked your admin account password.
By implementing multi-factor authentication, such as passkeys with biometric authentication provided by iThemes Security Pro, you can greatly reduce the risk of unauthorized access to your admin account. This way, attackers have one less method to use to infect your WordPress website with ransomware.
Prevention is Key. Protect your Website with iThemes Security Pro
In recent years, ransomware has become one of the most devastating types of malware. Through the years, ransomware attacks have targeted governments, businesses, and individuals worldwide, causing billions of dollars in financial losses and disrupting critical systems.
Designed to render the targeted system inaccessible through the use of encryption or other sophisticated techniques, ransomware is used by cybercriminals to demand the payment of a ransom in exchange for a way to restore the system’s integrity. Once activated, ransomware can be extremely difficult to recover from, and restoring from a backup becomes the only way to mitigate the attack.
Defending against ransomware requires a comprehensive approach, including preventative and reactive measures. Building a strong backup strategy and implementing robust security practices, such as vulnerability scanning and file integrity monitoring, multi-factor authentication, and regular software updates, is critical to protect your website from the devastating effects of a ransomware attack.
As the industry-leading data recovery and website security solutions for WordPress, iThemes Security Pro, and BackupBuddy can help you protect your website from the catastrophic effects of ransomware attacks. Working together, the two WordPress plugins form a comprehensive security suite, providing multiple layers of protection against malware and intrusion attempts.
Kiki has a bachelor’s degree in information systems management and more than two years of experience in Linux and WordPress. She currently works as a security specialist for Liquid Web and Nexcess. Before that, Kiki was part of the Liquid Web Managed Hosting support team where she helped hundreds of WordPress website owners and learned what technical issues they often encounter. Her passion for writing allows her to share her knowledge and experience to help people. Apart from tech, Kiki enjoys learning about space and listening to true crime podcasts.