The 7 stages of a ransomware attack: A handy roadmap for business owners

The 7 stages of a ransomware attack: A handy roadmap for business owners

In a ransomware attack, cybercriminals encrypt the victim's critical data and ask for a ransom in exchange for giving back data access. But contrary to what many may believe, ransomware attacks don't just happen overnight. The reason these attacks are so successful is that they're meticulously planned, often over the course of many months.

The most effective way to thwart a ransomware attack is to be several steps ahead of cybercriminals. By learning about the seven key stages of a ransomware attack, you can implement the right measures to protect your Ontario-based business and stop attackers in their tracks.

Stage 1: Initial access

The initial access stage happens when cybercriminals set their sights on infiltrating a victim's network and make first contact.

Phishing and other social engineering attacks are some of the most common methods cybercriminals use to infiltrate systems. Often disguised as legitimate correspondence, phishing messages are designed to drive targets into clicking on malware-laden links or downloading infected attachments. Cybercriminals can also exploit software vulnerabilities to inject malicious code or gain unauthorized access to the victim's systems, laying the groundwork for a ransomware attack.

Stage 2: Reconnaissance

Attackers don't immediately launch their ransomware payload after gaining access. Instead, they proceed to the second stage, reconnaissance, in which they carefully and methodically gather information about the target network.

During this stage, attackers scour the system for known software flaws, outdated security patches, or misconfigurations that they can exploit to their advantage. This allows them to determine the most efficient way to make their attack more effective. Cybercriminals also focus on identifying valuable assets, such as critical infrastructure components or sensitive data. By understanding what is valuable to the victim, attackers can tailor their ransom demands for maximum impact.

Stage 3: Weaponization

Armed with insights gathered during reconnaissance, attackers proceed to weaponize their ransomware payload. They customize the ransomware specifically for the target’s environment, such as by adapting it to bypass security measures or blend in with legitimate processes, making it harder to identify. They may also employ evasion tactics, such as the use of obfuscation techniques, to hide the ransomware's true nature and reduce the chances of early detection.

Related reading: How to identify early ransomware signs and take swift action

Stage 4: Delivery

In the delivery stage, cybercriminals deploy the ransomware into the target environment, marking the official launch of the attack. They utilize various delivery methods, such as phishing emails and distributing malicious links on messaging apps, to lure victims and trick them into downloading the malware or visiting websites hosting the ransomware. Attackers may also compromise legitimate websites, injecting malicious code that infects the system of anyone who visits them.

Stage 5: Exploitation

Once the ransomware is deployed, attackers work on exploiting vulnerabilities through three critical actions:

  • Escalation of privileges – By gaining administrative or high-level access rights, cybercriminals can freely take control over any systems and data.
  • Lateral movement – Attackers traverse through the network, hopping from one system to another, allowing them to explore and compromise additional assets and effectively expanding the reach of their attack.
  • Critical system control – Perpetrators tighten their grip on the victim's network by taking over critical systems, such as servers hosting essential applications, databases storing sensitive data, or infrastructure components necessary for network operation.

Stage 6: Encryption and ransom note

The penultimate — and arguably most devastating — stage of a ransomware attack involves cybercriminals employing strong encryption algorithms to lock the victim's files and data, rendering them inaccessible without the decryption key. This step is aimed at causing maximum disruption and compelling the victim to pay the ransom.

Attackers then leave a note on the victim's computer screen, typically notifying them of the breach and detailing the instructions on how to pay the ransom. The note also often includes threats of deleting files or releasing files to the public if the ransom isn't paid.

Stage 7: Remediation

It's important to remediate ransomware attacks and fix affected systems as quickly as possible to minimize damage and disruption. Paying a ransom doesn't always guarantee that infected files will be decrypted, so it's best to follow tried-and-tested remediation steps.

Start by identifying the compromised systems. Look for signs of infection, such as encrypted files, unusual system activity, or ransom notes. Then, isolate infected systems from the rest of the network to prevent the ransomware from spreading.

Next, remove the ransomware. Some infections can be eliminated by using antivirus software or running a ransomware removal script, but most ransomware require an advanced tool set, which many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) typically lack.

Partnering with a managed IT services provider (MSP) like XBASE Technologies is a cost-effective way for SMBs to significantly improve their ability to respond to ransomware attacks. MSPs can help implement network segmentation, effective vulnerability management, reliable backup strategies, and incident response plans, all of which are essential for detecting and removing ransomware.

Finally, if your IT team or provider verifies that all malicious code has been eliminated, you can restore your systems data from clean backups. Don’t forget to test the restored systems to make sure that the ransomware has been completely removed and that all of the data is accessible.

Ransomware attacks pose a severe threat to businesses across industries. Don't leave your organization vulnerable — fortify your defenses with XBASE Technologies' tailored cybersecurity strategy. Get in touch with us now!