3 Ransomware Trends You Need to Know in 2022: RaaS, Multiple Extortion, IABs

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Ransomware has become an important tool with a working business model for cyber threat actors in recent years. Nowadays, it is a widespread and well-known threat to organizations. The impact of these attacks on organizations may be highly disruptive to daily operations and sometimes have dangerous outcomes for their employees and customers. Therefore, we decided to write a blog series on ransomware. This is the first blog of the series where we explained recent ransomware trends.

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Trend 1 - Ransomware as a Service (RaaS)

The first trend is Ransomware as a Service (RaaS). Before explaining it, let’s define Cybercrime as a Service (CaaS). Cybercrime as a Service (CaaS) is selling or renting hacking tools and illegal services to people on the dark web. Cybercrime as a Service is a significant trend because it empowers a broader range of threat actors - including the nontechnical ones - by enabling anyone to become a cybercriminal with minimal investment.

Ransomware was initially targeting home users however, social engineering capabilities of the threat actors have evolved to compromise enterprise networks as well. As a consequence, ransomware has expanded to be a service that can be rented or sold on Dark Web forums. This trend set up the stage for Ransomware as a Service model. Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) is a business model used by ransomware threat actors that enables anyone with even basic technical knowledge  to launch ransomware attacks simply by signing up for a service. Nowadays, RaaS is the most common type of CaaS.

RaaS has become a profitable business model for ransomware developers and enabled them to get more use out of their effort. Ransomware is advertised on the dark web in the same way that any legitimate software would. Threat actors can launch their own ransomware campaign with basic technical knowledge.

DarkSide is an excellent example of the Ransomware as a Service model. DarkSide ransomware group interviews their potential customers and grants access to qualified customers by a management panel. Using this management panel, Darkside gang enables their customers to become cyber threat actors.

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Figure 1: Advertisement of DarkSide [1]

These threat actors can perform various operations, including creating a ransomware build, creating content in the DarkSide blog on the TOR, managing victims, and contacting support. For example, the management panel in Figure 2 lets threat actors choose encryption methods and which resources to be encrypted. Additionally, ransomware has a self-destruct option which enables ransomware to remove its traces.

Figure 2: DarkSide Management Panel [2] 

Trend 2 - Multiple Extortion

As we all know, the ransomware business is based on extortion. However, the threat actors have improved their methods recently to extort more money from their victims. Let’s explain these extortion methods. 

1.  File Encryption - Single extortion

Demanding ransom in exchange for access to encrypted data and compromised systems

Initially, ransomware prevented you from accessing your data or compromised systems by encrypting files in the infected systems and holding the decryption key for ransom in order to extort money from you. In this single extortion method, victims pay to recover access to encrypted data and compromised systems that fail to operate due to encrypted files.

2. Data Exfiltration - Double extortion

Threatening to leak or disclose data

As ransomware attacks become popular, organizations adapted to file encryption attacks by improving their data backup procedures. Data backups eliminated the need  to pay ransom and enabled organizations to recover data from their backups. Backup measures led to the emergence of a new extortion method in addition to encryption. The ransomware gangs responded by exfiltrating victim’s data prior to encrypting it and then threatening to leak or disclose it if the ransom is not paid. 

According to the Coveware report, over 80% of ransomware attacks involve data exfiltration in addition to file encryption [3]. Threatening with the combination of encryption and data exfiltration is double extortion.

3. Denial of Service - Triple extortion

Threatening to disrupt operations

Some organizations would restore from backups and take the risk of data exfiltration. As a response, ransomware threat actors turned to threatening the organizations with denial of service attacks. These attacks have the potential to overload a server or a network with traffic, halting and further disrupting operations. This triple extortion method combines denial of service attacks with encryption and data disclosure threats.

4. Contacting victim’s clients and stakeholders - Quadruple extortion

Threatening to contact with clients

In addition to previous extortion methods, ransomware operators contact the victim organization's consumers and stakeholders directly, increasing the victim's pressure. This is called quadruple extortion. For example, DarkSide operators use the quadruple extortion strategy in a number of their campaigns, including DDoS attacks and direct contact with clients via designated call centers.

5. Contacting victim’s competitors - Quintuple extortion

Threatening to sell sensitive data to competitors

In quintuple extortion, ransomware threat actors put more pressure on the victim by threatening to sell stolen data to competitors or investors who may be interested in the victim organization’s trade secrets or use the stolen information for insider trading.

Different ransomware families apply different levels of extortion; some focus exclusively on the first phase, while others attempt fourth-phase tactics. Additionally, these stages are not always followed sequentially, as was the case with the Clop ransomware, which went straight from double to quadruple extortion [4].

Trend 3 - Initial Access Brokers (IABs)

Initial Access Brokers are financially motivated threat actors who profit from the sale of remote access to enterprise networks in underground forums. Initial Access Brokers (IABs) find vulnerable systems massively scanning networks for known vulnerabilities on remote systems.

The access methods available are primarily Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), Virtual Private Network (VPN), web shells, and remote access software provided by Citrix, Pulse Secure, Zoho, or VMware. 

IABs also sell knowledge and tools used to conduct breaches into the company network using SQL injections, remote code execution (RCE) exploits, and other exploited vulnerabilities.

Initial Access Brokers have accelerated and simplified the initial access phase of the attack chain for adversaries by demanding payment only for verified access to a given target. 

  • Using IABs is also very affordable for ransomware actors. The average price for remote access to a network was $5,400 and the average ransom paid by a victim was $170,000, according to the reports. As a result, ransomware gangs constantly use Initial Access Brokers as a starting point to perform intrusion. 
  • For example, Darkside Group announced on underground forums that they are looking for partners who can provide access to US companies with at least $400 million in annual revenue.

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[1] “A Closer Look at the DarkSide Ransomware Gang.” https://krebsonsecurity.com/2021/05/a-closer-look-at-the-darkside-ransomware-gang/

[2] “Shining a Light on DARKSIDE Ransomware Operations.” https://www.mandiant.com/resources/shining-a-light-on-darkside-ransomware-operations

[3] B. Siegel, “Ransomware attackers down shift to ‘Mid-Game’ hunting in Q3,” Coveware: Ransomware Recovery First Responders, 21-Oct-2021. https://www.coveware.com/blog/2021/10/20/ransomware-attacks-continue-as-pressure-mounts.

[4] D. Santos, “Threat Assessment: Clop Ransomware,” Unit42, 13-Apr-2021. https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/clop-ransomware/.