Person's hands typing on laptop.
Ransomware attacks are on the rise, and data shows that small businesses were the victims of 70% of all ransomware attacks in 2021. — Getty Images/Pheelings Media

Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report uncovered a concerning trend: Ransomware is still on the rise. Ransomware attacks increased by 13% over the last year, an increase as big as the last five years combined, according to Verizon’s research. Some experts are predicting that global ransomware damages will exceed $30 billion by 2023.

Ransomware attacks have targeted big businesses, Main Street merchants, and even governments. In April 2022, a criminal group launched a ransomware attack on the Costa Rican Ministry of Finance, crippling the country’s import/export operations and leading to a national emergency.

Small businesses are frequently the target of these types of cyber attacks. The Ransomware Taskforce, made up of U.S. government officials, academics, and private sector members, estimated that small businesses were the victims of 70% percent of ransomware attacks in 2021. As a result, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the threat to your business and make sure your data is kept as safe as possible.

[Read more: What Small Businesses Need to Know About Ransomware]

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is the most common cybersecurity attack in which hackers use a form of malware to gain access to and encrypt a company’s system, holding its information for ransom.

“Hackers have become extraordinarily skilled at deceiving their victims into downloading malware using links or attachments that appear innocuous,” said David Tam, vice president of marketing at Nightfall. “Once they’ve infiltrated a network, hackers will encrypt a company’s data and demand payment for its release, often to the tune of millions of dollars.”

When your company is hit with a ransomware attack, there’s unfortunately not much that you can do to recover your information. The federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) does not recommend paying ransom to recover your data. There’s no way to ensure that ceding to the hacker’s demands will lead to decrypting your data, and it’s likely your systems will still be compromised. Recently, hackers have begun following their ransom demands with a second extortion demand to keep the stolen data private.

The best way to keep your business safe is to avoid ransomware altogether. So, with ransomware on the rise, how can you protect data at your small business?

Get a full picture of what’s on your network

To help small businesses take precautions against the risk of ransomware, the Ransomware Task Force and Institute for Security + Technology created an action plan for small businesses. One of the first recommended steps in this action plan is to take stock of all the software, hardware, and cloud programs that connect to your company’s network.

Creating a register of every tool and system that your company uses in the course of doing business can be more complicated than one would imagine. The rise of remote work has led to an explosion in the number of devices and programs that employees use on a day-to-day basis. For instance, most employees use two or more devices, according to global surveys by Forrester. At a company with just 50 employees, that’s more than 100 devices on which valuable information can be shared and stored.

When you add in servers, shared networks, databases, and cloud programs, the list of locations where sensitive information could exist grows exponentially. Today, it’s estimated that the average company has 254 SaaS apps and, on average, only 45% of company apps are being used on a regular basis.

According to Valecia Stocchetti, a senior cybersecurity engineer and co-author of the action plan, it’s important to get this step right. "Sometimes the criminals are more familiar with what is going on in your network than you are," Stocchetti told NPR.

[Read more: 3 Security Threats Your Business Should Be Preparing for Now]

Hackers have become extraordinarily skilled at deceiving their victims into downloading malware using links or attachments that appear innocuous. Once they’ve infiltrated a network, hackers will encrypt a company’s data and demand payment for its release, often to the tune of millions of dollars.

David Tam, vice president of marketing, Nightfall

Keep your system up to date

Once you have a full picture of the IT that your company uses, make sure your software, browsers, devices and operating systems are kept up to date. As threats evolve, your technology partners will release updates that keep your system secure.

“Regularly updating programs and operating systems helps to protect you from malware. When performing updates, make sure you benefit from the latest security patches. This makes it harder for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities in your programs,” wrote the experts at Kaspersky.

The Biden administration has announced comprehensive federal efforts to tackle the perpetrators of ransomware attacks, but it’s also encouraging small business owners to be proactive in their defense against ransomware. You can view more resources on CISA’s dedicated site, Stop Ransomware.

Back up everything

Regularly backing up your files can lessen the impact of an attack, should it happen. Storing a copy of your data can enable your business to continue functioning while you perform triage. Some experts recommend backing up your data to a cloud program every day. But you should also maintain a separate backup of your system and important files to a separate device that can’t be accessed from the same network, such as an external hard drive. These offline backups can be made less frequently, such as biweekly or monthly.

Educate your team

One of the most common ways in which hackers initiate a ransomware attack is through phishing.

“Phishing happens when a hacker sends a fraudulent message that tricks a user into revealing personal information, such as a username or password,” said Tam. “Phishing attacks are often the delivery mechanism for a piece of ransomware. A victim will click on a link in a phishing message and unwittingly download a piece of ransomware, which could infiltrate the system and encrypt data for ransom.”

Train your employees to recognize the potential for ransomware attacks and respond appropriately. For instance:

  • Don’t click on spam messages, strange attachments, or enter unknown websites.
  • Don’t disclose personal information via phone call (when you don’t know the person), text message, or email.
  • Don’t plug in USB sticks or external storage if you don’t know where the device came from.
  • Don’t download a file or an app from anything other than a trusted source.

Unfortunately, many ransomware attacks are successful because employees aren’t equipped to recognize where malware might be lurking. It can also help to install security software to keep your files safe in the event of human error.

Get security software

There are a couple of essential software tools that can help you stop ransomware from taking over your entire operation.

First, implement multi-factor authentication (MFA). Multi-factor authentication requires users to provide more than one type of verification to log in to a system. If one of your employee’s credentials is compromised, you can lower the risk that your data will be compromised with MFA.

Consider also adding anti-malware software to your computer. “Ransomware is malware. [Anti-malware] software can stop the majority of variants before they hit,” said CSO Online.

Anti-malware isn’t a silver bullet, however. “We often recommend that companies take a layered approach to their cybersecurity,” said Tam. “In addition to anti-malware, consider implementing a cloud data loss prevention approach, VPN, spam filter, and identity management solution. That way, if hackers get past one of your defenses, your data may still be kept safe.”

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