Home Definition Understanding What is Ransomware Attack

Understanding What is Ransomware Attack

by Marcin Wieclaw
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what is ransomware attack

Ransomware attacks have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, with cybercriminals using this form of malware to hold data, devices, and systems hostage until a ransom is paid. The modern ransomware phenomenon gained traction with the WannaCry outbreak in 2017, and since then, numerous variants have emerged. The COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled the rise of ransomware attacks as organisations hastily transitioned to remote work, creating vulnerabilities that cybercriminals exploit.

Ransomware attacks have seen a significant surge, with a 50% increase in attacks in Q3 2020 compared to the first half of that year. Some popular ransomware variants include Ryuk, Maze, REvil (Sodinokibi), LockBit, DearCry, and Lapsus$. These variants have different characteristics and methods of operation, such as targeted delivery through spear phishing emails or exploiting vulnerabilities in remote desktop protocols (RDP). Ransomware attacks can have severe financial consequences for organisations, with average ransom demands exceeding £1 million for some variants.

It is crucial for organisations to understand how ransomware works and take proactive steps to protect themselves against it. In the following sections, we will explore the lifecycle of ransomware attacks, provide strategies for protection, and discuss the effects ransomware can have on businesses.

How Ransomware Works

Ransomware attacks follow a common lifecycle, consisting of several stages. Understanding these stages is crucial in developing effective defense strategies against ransomware.

Infection and Distribution Phase

The first stage of a ransomware attack is the infection and distribution phase. In this phase, cybercriminals gain access to a system through various vectors, including:

  • Phishing emails
  • Compromised credentials
  • Exploiting software vulnerabilities

Once the malware successfully infects a system, it proceeds to the next stage of the attack.

Data Encryption

In this stage, the ransomware encrypts specific files on the infected device. The encryption process is designed to render the files inaccessible to the victim. Typically, ransomware targets important documents, images, databases, and other valuable data. However, critical system files are often excluded from the encryption process to maintain system stability.

Ransom Demand

After completing the encryption process, the attacker sends a ransom demand to the victim. The demand typically involves a monetary payment, often in the form of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. Along with the ransom demand, the attacker provides instructions on how to make the payment and regain access to the encrypted data.

Additional Steps

While the core stages of infection, data encryption, and ransom demand are present in all ransomware attacks, some variants may include additional steps. These steps can include:

  • Scanning and theft of data before encryption
  • Scanning for other vulnerable devices to infect and encrypt

These additional steps increase the complexity and potential impact of the ransomware attack.

Understanding the lifecycle of ransomware attacks helps organizations develop effective mitigation and response strategies. By implementing robust security measures, conducting regular backups, and educating employees about the risks, organizations can strengthen their defenses against ransomware.

How to Protect Against Ransomware

Protecting against ransomware requires implementing best practices to minimize the risk of an attack and mitigate its impact. By incorporating these strategies into your cybersecurity framework, you can enhance your defenses against this pervasive threat.

Cyber Awareness Training

Cyber awareness training and education are essential components of ransomware protection. By educating employees about the risks associated with phishing emails and other social engineering tactics, you can empower them to identify and avoid potential ransomware attacks. Regular training sessions and simulated phishing exercises can help employees develop the necessary skills to protect themselves and the organization.

Continuous Data Backups

Regularly backing up your data is crucial in recovering from a ransomware attack without paying the ransom. By storing backups offline or in a separate and secure location, you can ensure that your data remains safe and accessible even if your systems are compromised. It’s important to regularly test and validate your backups to ensure their integrity and reliability.


Keeping your systems up to date with the latest patches and security updates is essential in mitigating the risk of ransomware attacks. Cybercriminals often exploit known vulnerabilities in software to gain unauthorized access to systems. By promptly applying patches, you can address these vulnerabilities and reduce the potential attack surface.

User Authentication

Implementing strong user authentication measures can make it more challenging for attackers to gain unauthorized access to your systems. Enforcing the use of complex passwords, multi-factor authentication, and regularly resetting passwords can significantly enhance your security posture and protect against credential-based attacks.

Reducing Attack Surface

Reducing your organization’s attack surface involves minimizing potential points of vulnerability that cybercriminals can exploit. This can be achieved by implementing security best practices such as restricting unnecessary access privileges, disabling or removing unused services and applications, and segmenting your network to limit lateral movement.

Deploying Anti-Ransomware Solutions

Deploying anti-ransomware solutions can provide an additional layer of defense against ransomware attacks. These solutions utilize advanced threat detection algorithms and behavioral analysis to identify and block ransomware activity. By detecting the unique fingerprints and behaviors of ransomware, these solutions can help prevent infections and mitigate the impact of an attack.

Incorporating these best practices into your cybersecurity strategy can significantly enhance your organization’s resilience against ransomware attacks. By prioritizing cyber awareness training, continuous data backups, patching, user authentication, reducing the attack surface, and deploying anti-ransomware solutions, you can strengthen your defenses and safeguard your critical data and systems.

Effects of Ransomware on Businesses

Ransomware attacks can have severe consequences for businesses, both financially and in terms of reputation. The cost of ransomware attacks extends far beyond the ransom payment, with an average data breach cost of £5.13 million.

One major impact of ransomware attacks is the exposure or loss of sensitive data, which can lead to legal and regulatory compliance fines and damage the business’s reputation. Additionally, these attacks can result in significant system downtime and lost productivity, affecting the organization’s operations and revenue.

Furthermore, ransomware attacks can have long-lasting effects on employee morale and customer trust and loyalty. Employees may feel demoralised and concerned about the security of their personal information, while customers may lose faith in the business’s ability to protect their data. There is also the risk of becoming a target for future attacks, highlighting the need for organizations to address vulnerabilities and strengthen their cybersecurity defenses.

To mitigate the financial burden of a ransomware attack, some businesses turn to cyber insurance. However, finding coverage can be challenging due to the increasing number of attacks. Reporting an attack to law enforcement and engaging in public disclosure can also impact the overall cost of a ransomware incident. It is crucial for businesses to prioritize cybersecurity and take proactive measures to prevent and mitigate the impact of ransomware attacks to safeguard their finances, reputation, and customer trust.


What is a ransomware attack?

A ransomware attack is a form of cyberattack where malware is used to hold data, devices, and systems hostage until a ransom is paid.

How does ransomware work?

Ransomware follows a lifecycle that consists of infection and distribution, data encryption, and a ransom demand sent to the victim. Variants may include additional steps such as data theft or scanning for vulnerable devices.

How can organizations protect against ransomware?

Organizations can protect against ransomware by implementing best practices such as cyber awareness training, regular data backups, system patching, strong user authentication, and deploying anti-ransomware solutions.

What are the effects of ransomware on businesses?

Ransomware attacks can have severe financial and reputational consequences for businesses, including data exposure or loss, system downtime, lost productivity, revenue loss, legal and regulatory fines, and damage to the business reputation.


  • Marcin Wieclaw

    Marcin Wieclaw, the founder and administrator of PC Site since 2019, is a dedicated technology writer and enthusiast. With a passion for the latest developments in the tech world, Marcin has crafted PC Site into a trusted resource for technology insights. His expertise and commitment to demystifying complex technology topics have made the website a favored destination for both tech aficionados and professionals seeking to stay informed.

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