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Protecting Your Financial Firm from Targeted Ransomware Attacks

For cybercriminals, ransomware is an effective way to exploit companies for a significant amount of money quickly, and ransomware attacks are only expected to increase in frequency. According to a report by Wired, the total amount paid by companies due to ransomware for 2023 could hit $898.6 million. This would make 2023 the second-biggest year for ransomware revenue after 2021.

Furthermore, ransomware is a particularly high risk for financial services firms, as they are primary targets of cybercriminals. According to a report by Cybersecurity Dive, a recent study found that financial institutions — particularly in the U.S. — are highly vulnerable to malicious cyber activity.

Half of all financial services companies reporting a breach in the study were in the U.S., followed by India at only 9%.

In this article, we’ll explore some steps you can take to secure your firm against ransomware attacks.

How Ransomware Attacks Work

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts the victim’s data. The attacker then demands a ransom from the victim to restore access to data upon payment.

The financial firm’s data is held hostage until the ransom is paid, typically in cryptocurrency to maintain the attacker’s anonymity.

This process often starts when an unsuspecting user clicks on a seemingly harmless link or downloads a file. The ransomware then begins encrypting files on the local system.

In more advanced attacks, the ransomware may also move laterally through the network, infecting servers or other computers, and encrypting data as it goes. Once the encryption process is complete, a ransom note appears on the user’s screen with instructions for payment.

Financial Data is a Valuable Target

Ransomware attacks are particularly effective and dangerous for financial services firms due to the nature of the data they hold. These organizations possess sensitive and valuable information such as customer financial data, investment strategies, and proprietary trading algorithms.

If this data is compromised, it can lead to significant financial losses, reputational damage, and regulatory penalties.

Moreover, the urgency to restore services and retrieve data often forces these firms to pay the ransom, consequently fueling the profitability of this form of cybercrime. Given the significant risk and potential damage, it’s imperative for financial services firms to understand ransomware attacks and to take proactive measures to protect their digital assets.

Identifying Vulnerabilities

The first step in safeguarding your firm against ransomware attacks is identifying potential vulnerabilities within your network and staff. Here are some key areas of potential weakness:

  • Outdated Systems and Software: Cybercriminals often exploit weaknesses in outdated software, operating systems, and applications. Regularly updating and patching these systems can mitigate this vulnerability.
  • Lack of Advanced Email Security Measures: Email security solutions like Mimecast and Proofpoint create a secure gateway for your email client and protect against all forms of email compromise, including ransomware. Email is one of the top attack vectors for ransomware, malware, and other threats.
  • Poorly Configured Networks: A network that is poorly configured can provide easy access points for cybercriminals. Proper network configuration and management are crucial in the defense against ransomware attacks.
  • Lack of Employee Awareness: Employees can unintentionally become the weak link in your cybersecurity strategy. Phishing attacks, which are often the entry point for ransomware, rely on tricking employees into clicking malicious links or downloading infected files. Regular education and training can help employees spot and avoid these threats.
  • Inadequate Access Controls: Allowing broad and unnecessary access to systems and data can leave your firm more exposed in the event of a ransomware attack. Implementing a principle of least privilege (PoLP), where users only have access to the data and systems they need, can minimize this risk.
  • Unsecured Contractors: Contractors or vendors with network access can also pose a risk if their cybersecurity measures are not up to par. Always ensure that any third parties with access to your network have robust cybersecurity measures in place.

It’s not enough to simply acknowledge that your firm is a potential target for ransomware attacks. Proactive assessment and management of your vulnerabilities are key to your firm’s defense.

Implementing Robust Cybersecurity Measures

While identifying vulnerabilities is a critical first step, it is equally important to act on those findings and deploy robust cybersecurity measures. Here are some critical actions your firm should take to protect against ransomware attacks:

  • Install and Update Security Software: The presence of robust, up-to-date antivirus software and firewalls is a basic, but essential, defense against ransomware attacks. Automated updates ensure your protection adapts to the evolving threat landscape.
  • Create Regular Backups: Regularly back up all essential data in a secure, offsite location. This practice can ensure that you have access to your data if an attack occurs, reducing the potential impact of a ransomware attack. Ensure that backups are not connected to your network as some ransomware can infect connected storage devices.
  • Incorporate Network Segmentation: By segregating your network into separate segments, you can prevent ransomware from spreading throughout your entire network, which limits potential damage.
  • Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more forms of identification to access your systems. This can reduce the risk of successful attacks, even if an attacker gets hold of a user’s credentials.
  • Apply the Principle of Least Privilege: Limit system access to only what each user needs to perform their job. This measure can reduce the number of potential targets for ransomware attackers and limit the extent of an attack.

No cybersecurity measure offers 100% protection. The goal is to create a layered defense that reduces your firm’s attractiveness to cyber criminals and minimizes the impact should an attack occur.

Therefore, it’s important to regularly review and update your cybersecurity strategy in response to evolving threats and business needs.

Employee Training: A Key Preventative Strategy

Employee training is a fundamental aspect of a holistic cybersecurity strategy. It serves as a proactive and preventative measure against ransomware attacks by empowering staff members with the knowledge and skills they need to recognize and respond to potential threats.

Importance of Regular Training

Cyber threats are continuously evolving; what was a cutting-edge defense technique today might be obsolete tomorrow. Hence, regular training sessions are crucial to ensure that your employees are up to date with the latest cybersecurity trends, threats, and best practices. These sessions should cover a wide range of topics including identifying phishing emails, safe internet usage, the importance of regular software updates, and how to securely manage sensitive data.

Interactive Training Methods

The most effective training methods are often interactive. Consider conducting simulated phishing attacks to test your employees’ awareness and to offer real-world experience in a safe environment. This hands-on approach helps employees better understand the nature of cyber threats and equips them with the skills they need to identify and respond effectively to a real attack.

Building a Security-Conscious Culture

Training sessions should aim to build a security-conscious culture within your organization. This involves encouraging employees to adopt secure practices in their daily tasks and to stay vigilant for potential risks. A security-conscious culture can greatly enhance your organization’s overall cyber defense by ensuring that all employees view cybersecurity as a shared responsibility.

While employee training cannot guarantee absolute protection from ransomware attacks, it significantly reduces the risk by eliminating one of the easiest routes of entry for cybercriminals – human error.

Regular training sessions, combined with strong cybersecurity measures, can provide a robust defense against ransomware attacks.

Safeguard Your Firm Against Ransomware

Protecting your financial services firm against ransomware attacks is a multi-faceted process that must involve the entire organization. It’s important to incorporate your compliance team in the process, but you shouldn’t rely on them entirely for your cybersecurity needs.

Most financial services firms would benefit by partnering with cybersecurity experts in this process. This will ensure you have the technical expertise on hand to protect your networks, educate your team members, and identify potential vulnerabilities, both in your technology and among your staff.

To learn more about how you can protect your firm against ransomware attacks, contact us at Option One Technologies today.