Keepnet Labs Logo
Keepnet Labs > blog > what-is-ransomware

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is harmful software that locks a computer until you pay a ransom. This can hurt a business's reputation, cause major data loss, and interrupt regular work. Knowing how ransomware works and to set up protections is significant. This helps people and businesses fight back and recover from these serious cyber attacks.

What is Ransomware?

What is Ransomware and How Does It Work?

Understanding ransomware and its workings is essential in the evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats. This guide thoroughly explains ransomware, how it attacks, and how to prevent and recover from it.

Picture 1: How Ransomware Works

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts the victim's files, making them inaccessible and demanding a ransom for release. The ransomware definition extends to various forms, including prominent attacks like UKG ransomware, Royal ransomware, WannaCry ransomware, Kaseya ransomware attack, and Hive ransomware. These attacks have showcased the damaging potential of ransomware.

Basics of Ransomware

Ransomware attacks mainly involve illegally encrypting data and asking for money to unlock it. Ransomware protection is important because these attacks can hit any weak system. Examples of ransomware show different ways attackers work. E.g., using security weaknesses or tricking people with fake links in emails.

Picture 2: The basic anatomy of Ransomware

Ransomware vs. Other Malware Types

It is crucial to understand how ransomware differs from other types of malware. Each malware type has unique characteristics and methods of impacting users and systems. Here, we compare ransomware with other prevalent malware types to highlight the risks and behaviors associated with each.

  • Ransomware: As previously discussed, ransomware encrypts the victim's data and demands payment for the decryption key. The primary goal of a ransomware attack is financial gain through coercion, making it one of the most direct and disruptive forms of malware. High-profile ransomware examples include WannaCry ransomware and Hive ransomware.
  • Viruses: Unlike ransomware, viruses replicate themselves and spread to other programs and files on the user's computer. They can corrupt or modify files and often require user interaction, like opening a file, to activate.
  • Worms: Worms are similar to viruses in their self-replicating nature but differ because they can spread across networks without user intervention. Worms often cause harm by consuming bandwidth and overloading web servers.
  • Trojans: Trojan malware disguises itself as legitimate software. Unlike ransomware, which reveals its presence through a ransom demand, Trojans remain hidden, performing malicious activities like stealing data or creating backdoors for future access.
  • Spyware: Spyware covertly collects user information and activities without consent. While ransomware attacks are overt and immediate, spyware operates in the background, gathering data over time.
  • Adware: Adware automatically delivers advertisements, often through pop-ups or browser redirects. Unlike ransomware's disruptive encryption, adware's primary annoyance is the interference with user experience and potential privacy concerns.
Picture 3: Ransomware vs. Other Malware Types

Ransomware, when compared to other malware types, clearly stands out as a significant threat. Its distinguishing feature is the rapid and clear demand for payment it makes. This ransom demand has a direct impact on both individuals and organizations.

Recognizing these distinct aspects of ransomware is vital for effective cybersecurity planning. It helps in formulating specific strategies for ransomware prevention and recovery.

How Does Ransomware Work?

Ransomware infiltrates computers, often using deceptive emails or exploiting security weaknesses. Once it gets in, it encrypts and locks files. The attacker asks for a payment, typically in digital currency like Bitcoin, to unlock the files.

This encryption prevents users from accessing crucial data, including personal or business information. Understanding how ransomware works is essential for recognizing, preventing, and effectively responding to these attacks.

How Does Ransomware Spread?

Ransomware can spread through various means, often relying on user interaction or security weakness:

Spread MethodDescriptionExample Scenario
Phishing EmailsAttackers send seemingly legitimate emails with malicious links or attachments.A user receives an email posing as a bank request and clicks on a fraudulent link.
Exploiting WeaknessUtilizes unpatched or outdated software weaknesses to gain access.An attacker targets a system running outdated software, installing ransomware remotely.
Malicious WebsitesVisiting compromised websites that automatically download ransomware onto the user’s system.A user visits a compromised website, triggering a background download of ransomware.
Network PropagationAdvanced ransomware spreads across networks by exploiting weaknesses in connected systems.Ransomware like WannaCry exploits network weaknesses to spread to connected systems.

Table 1: How Does Ransomware Spread?

This table highlights the diversity in ransomware spread methods, illustrating attackers' various tactics. Staying alert when handling emails, and keeping software up-to-date to prevent ransomware attacks. Equally crucial is safe internet browsing and maintaining strong network security.

Infection Mechanisms

Once the ransomware enters a system, it employs various mechanisms to execute its attack:

Infection MethodDescriptionExample Scenario
Locking the SystemRansomware disables access to the operating system, preventing user interaction.A user finds their computer screen locked with a ransom demand message.
Encrypting FilesThe ransomware encrypts files on the victim's device, making them unreachable.Important documents and photos on a user's device become encrypted and unusable.

Table 2: Ransomware Infection Mechanisms

The table outlines the primary mechanisms through which ransomware compromises a system. These methods demonstrate the ransomware's direct impact on users by locking them out entirely or making critical data unreachable.

Encryption and Ransom Demand

The final stage of a ransomware attack involves the ransom demand:

StageDescriptionExample Scenario
Ransom Note PresentationA message or note on the user’s device details ransom payment instructions.After file encryption, a pop-up appears demanding payment in crypto-currency for a decryption key.
Payment for DecryptionAttackers demand payment, usually in crypto-currency, in exchange for a decryption key.The ransomware instructs the user to pay a ransom in Bitcoin to regain access to their encrypted files.

Table 3: Encryption and Ransom Demand

This table captures the final stages of a ransomware attack. Highlighting the attacker’s direct communication with the victim through ransom demands. It showcases the financial motive behind such attacks and the pressing decisions victims face regarding payment.

Stages of a Ransomware Attack

Understanding the stages of a ransomware attack is crucial for effective prevention and response. Each stage represents a step in the attacker's strategy. From gaining initial access to deploying the ransomware and demanding payment. This section breaks down these stages to better understand how ransomware attacks unfold.

Picture 4: Stages of a Ransomware Attack

Stage 1: Initial access

The first stage in a ransomware attack is gaining access to the victim's system. This can be achieved through various methods. Such as phishing emails, exploiting software weakness, or using stolen credentials. The goal at this stage is to infiltrate the network without detection.

Picture 5: Stages of a Ransomware Attack - Initial Access

Stage 2: Post-exploitation

Once inside the system, attackers move to the post-exploitation stage. Here, they establish persistence in the network to ensure continued access. They might create backdoors, disable security software, or use other tactics to maintain control over the system.

Stage 3: Understand and expand

At this stage, attackers explore the network to understand its structure and identify valuable data and assets. They look for additional systems to compromise and expand their foothold within the network. This stage is critical for setting up a more widespread and damaging attack.

Stage 4: Data collection and exfiltration

Before deploying the ransomware, attackers often collect and exfiltrate sensitive data. This stage involves stealing important files, personal information, or sensitive data. This can be used for additional leverage in the ransom demand or for separate attacks.

Picture 6: Stages of a Ransomware Attack - Data collection and exfiltration

Stage 5: Deployment and sending the note

In the final stage, the ransomware deploys and encrypts the victim's files. After the encryption, it sends a ransom note that outlines the payment demands and instructions.

This is when the ransomware attack overtures and the victim becomes aware of the compromise.

Picture 6: Stages of a Ransomware Attack - Deployment and sending the note

Why is Ransomware So Effective? Why Are They Emerging?

This section explores the underlying reasons behind the effectiveness of ransomware attacks and why they continue to proliferate. See the table below for a quick understanding of aspects that underscore why ransomware is so effective:

AspectDescriptionImpactAdditional Insights
Financial Motivation for AttackersRansomware provides direct financial gain through ransom payments, often in cryptocurrency.Attracts more criminals due to the lucrative nature of these attacks.The anonymity of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin makes it easier for attackers to receive untraceable payments.
Psychological Impact on VictimsVictims experience urgency and panic due to data loss, leading to hasty decision-making.Increases the likelihood of victims paying the ransom, thereby increasing the success of such attacks.The fear of brand damage and legal consequences further pressures victims into paying the ransom.

Table 4: Why is Ransomware So Effective? Infection Mechanisms

Financial Motivation for Attackers

Attackers primarily motivate ransomware with financial goals. They force victims to pay large sums to access their encrypted data. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin make it easier for attackers to receive hidden payments. This financial incentive is a key reason ransomware attacks continue and become more advanced.

Psychological Impact on Victims

Ransomware attacks have a substantial psychological impact on victims, enhancing their effectiveness. The abrupt loss of access to critical data generates a sense of urgency and panic.

This emotional pressure often compels victims to make impulsive decisions, like paying the ransom without considering alternative options.

The fear of data loss, damage to reputation, and potential legal consequences can overwhelm rational decision-making processes. This emotional response is what attackers rely on. Also, it is a key reason ransomware remains a prevalent and effective cyberattack.

What Are the Types of Ransomware?

Ransomware comes in various forms, each with its unique method of operation and impact. Understanding these types can help better prepare for and respond to different ransomware attacks. Here, we explore the common types of ransomware.


Leakware, or Doxware, threatens to publish the victim's sensitive data online unless victims pay ransom. Unlike traditional ransomware, which denies access to data, Leakware exploits the fear of data exposure and privacy breaches.

Wipers/Destructive Ransomware

Wipers or Destructive Ransomware aim to damage files and systems permanently. Instead of encrypting data, this ransomware actively destroys it, making recovery almost impossible, even if victims pay the ransom.

Picture 7: A sample Wiper Ransomware

Encrypting Ransomware

This is the most common type. Encrypting Ransomware locks the victim's files using sophisticated encryption and demands payment for the decryption key. Notable examples include WannaCry and CryptoLocker.

Locker Ransomware

Locker Ransomware locks the victim out of their operating system. Making it impossible to access any files or applications on the computer. The attacker then demands a ransom to unlock the device.


Scareware masquerades as legitimate security software or tech support. Falsely claiming that there are issues on the victim's computer. It then demands payment to "fix" these non-existent problems.

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS)

RaaS involves a business model where ransomware creators sell or lease their malware to others for attack use. This model has lowered the barrier to entry for criminals, increasing the prevalence of ransomware attacks.

Mobile Ransomware

Targets mobile devices. Mobile Ransomware often locks the device or encrypts the stored data. This type of ransomware is becoming more common with the increasing use of smartphones.

Each ransomware type poses a unique threat and requires a specific approach for prevention and mitigation. Awareness of these types is essential for individuals and organizations to enhance their cybersecurity measures effectively.

Notable Ransomware Attacks

Over the years, several high-profile ransomware attacks have caused significant disruptions worldwide. These attacks highlight the evolving nature of ransomware and its impact on various sectors. Below is an overview of some of the most notable ransomware attacks.

WannaCry Attack

WannaCry, one of the most infamous ransomware attacks, affected hundreds of thousands of computers across 150 countries in 2017. It exploited a weakness in Windows OS and demanded Bitcoin payments for data recovery.

Picture 8: WannaCry Attack ransom note

Petya and NotPetya Attack

Petya, and its more destructive variant, NotPetya, initially surfaced in 2016 and 2017, respectively. These attacks targeted Windows-based systems, encrypting hard drives and demanding ransom. NotPetya was particularly damaging, causing billions in damages globally.

Picture 9: Petya and NotPetya Attack ransom note


CryptoLocker, emerging in 2013, was a pioneering encrypting ransomware that targeted Windows users. It encrypted files and demanded a ransom for decryption, and is known for popularizing Bitcoin payments in ransomware schemes.

Picture 10: CryptoLocker ransom note

Ryuk Ransomware

Ryuk, first identified in 2018, targets large organizations for high-ransom demands. It disables Windows System Restore to prevent file recovery and has caused significant losses to affected organizations.

Picture 11: CryptoLocker ransom note

GandCrab Ransomware

Active from 2018 to 2019, GandCrab was a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) operation. It rapidly evolved over five versions and primarily spread via malicious advertisements and exploit kits.

Picture 11: GandCrab Ransomware ransom note

Maze Ransomware

Maze encrypts data and exfiltrates it, threatening to leak it if the victim does not pay the ransom. First reported in 2019, it marked an evolution in ransomware tactics by combining data encryption with data theft.

Picture 12: Maze Ransomware ransom note

REvil (Sodinokibi)

REvil, also known as Sodinokibi, emerged in 2019 and quickly gained fame.

It’s a RaaS model known for attacking high-profile targets and demanding substantial ransoms.

Picture 13: REvil Ransomware ransom note


Lockbit, active since 2019, automates identifying and encrypting valuable data. It has fast encryption speed skills and has targeted various organizations worldwide.

Picture 15: Lockbit Ransomware ransom note


DearCry, first seen in 2021, exploited weaknesses in Microsoft Exchange servers. It’s a “double extortion” ransomware, combining encryption with the threat of data leakage.

Picture 16: DearCry Ransomware ransom note


DarkSide, surfacing in 2020, is a RaaS operation known for its “corporate-like” structure. It gained fame with the attack on Colonial Pipeline, leading to major fuel supply disruptions in the US.

Picture 17: DarkSide Ransomware ransom note


First appearing in 2016, Locky spread primarily through email attachments. It was notable for its aggressive encryption tactics, often demanding large ransoms.

Picture 18: Locky Ransomware ransom note


Lapsus$, active in 2021, targeted high-profile tech companies. It was known for its combination of ransomware and data theft, often leaking stolen data to pressure victims.

Picture 19: Lapsus$ ransom note


The Kaseya attack in 2021 affected numerous companies worldwide. It exploited weaknesses in Kaseya's VSA software, causing widespread disruption and showcasing the risks of supply chain attacks.

Picture 20: Kaseya ransom note

These notable attacks demonstrate ransomware's diverse tactics and significant impact. This underscores the importance of robust cybersecurity measures and the need for continuous vigilance in the digital landscape.

Ransom Payments for Ransomware Attacks

When facing a ransomware attack, deciding whether to pay the ransom is critical and complex. Paying the ransom may seem like a straightforward solution to regain access to encrypted data. However, it comes with significant risks and implications.

Payment does not guarantee data recovery and can further fund and lead criminals to continue their malicious activities. Victims need to consider these factors and consult with cybersecurity professionals before deciding.

How to Detect Ransomware Threats?

Detecting ransomware threats before they inflict damage is key to effective cybersecurity. Looking at the signs of a ransomware attack or using advanced tools is crucial in identifying Ransomware.

Signs of a Ransomware Attack

  • Suspicious Email Activity: Unexpected emails with attachments or links, especially from unknown senders, can be a precursor to ransomware.
  • Slow System Performance: Unusual slowdowns in system performance can indicate ransomware trying to encrypt files in the background.
  • File Access Issues: Inability to access files, with files appearing renamed or extensions changed, often signifies a ransomware infection.
  • Ransom Messages: The most obvious sign is a ransom message or note on your screen. Indicating that your Ransomware has encrypted your data.

Tools and Software for Detection

  • Antivirus and Anti-Malware Software: Robust antivirus programs can detect and quarantine ransomware before it causes harm.
  • Network Monitoring Tools: These tools monitor network traffic for unusual activities, helping to identify potential ransomware communication.
  • Email Filtering Solutions: Filtering software scans incoming emails for known ransomware indicators, such as suspicious attachments or phishing links.
  • Behavioral Analysis Tools: These tools analyze the behavior of programs and files. Flagging those that perform actions typical of ransomware.

Early detection of ransomware is critical in preventing its spread and minimizing damage. Regular updates and maintenance of these tools ( including employee training and awareness), are a strong defense against ransomware threats.

How to Prevent Ransomware Attacks?

Preventing ransomware attacks is essential for safeguarding your data and systems. By implementing a combination of technical strategies and educating users, organizations can significantly reduce their weaknesses to these attacks. Here are key measures to prevent ransomware attacks:

Regular Backups

Maintain regular backups of all critical data. Store these backups separately from your network to ensure they are inaccessible to ransomware.

Educate users to recognize and avoid clicking on suspicious emails and links, which are common entry points for ransomware.

Keeping Systems and Software Updated

Regularly update all systems and software to patch weaknesses that ransomware could exploit.

Using Reputable Antivirus and Malware Solutions

Install and maintain reputable antivirus and anti-malware solutions to detect and prevent ransomware infections.

Implementing Network Segmentation

Use network segmentation to limit the spread of ransomware if an infection occurs. This confines the attack to a smaller segment of the network.

Cyber Awareness Training and Education for Employees and Users

Conduct regular training sessions for employees and users to recognize and respond to potential ransomware threats.

Use of Decoys or Deception Technology

Implement deception technology, like honeypots or decoys, to detect ransomware early and study its behavior.


Consistently apply security patches to all software and operating systems to close any weaknesses that attackers could exploit.

Restricting User Privileges

Limit user privileges to the minimum necessary for their role. This can prevent ransomware from gaining administrative access to systems.

User Authentication

Use strong user verification methods, including multi-factor verification, to secure access to sensitive systems and data.

Implement a Security Awareness Program

Create a comprehensive security awareness program to keep cybersecurity at the forefront of organizational culture and practice.

By integrating these preventive measures, organizations can create a multi-layered defense against ransomware attacks. Significantly reducing the likelihood of a successful infection and minimizing potential damages.

Also, look at the YouTube video below and learn how to prevent ransomware.

Responding to a Ransomware Attack

A ransomware attack can be a daunting experience, but knowing how to respond effectively can mitigate its impact. Here’s a guide on the steps to take if ransomware compromised your system:

How to Remove Ransomware?

Removing ransomware involves several steps:

  • Isolate the Infected Device: Immediately disconnect the affected device from the network to prevent the spread of ransomware.
  • Identify the Ransomware Variant: Use online tools or consult a cybersecurity expert to identify the specific ransomware variant.
  • Use Removal Tools: Employ reputable ransomware removal tools designed for the identified variant, if available.

Immediate Actions

Upon discovering a ransomware attack:

  • Report the Incident: Notify your IT department or cybersecurity team immediately.
  • Preserve Evidence: Record all communications and the ransom note for investigation.
  • Assess the Impact: Determine the extent of the Ransomware infection and which systems or files it affected.

Deciding on Paying the Ransom

Deciding whether to pay the ransom is complex:

  • Evaluate Risks: Understand that payment does not guarantee data recovery and could encourage further attacks.
  • Consult Professionals: Seek advice from cybersecurity professionals and law enforcement before deciding.

Restoring from Backups

If possible, restore affected systems from backups.

  • Verify Backup Integrity: Ensure backups are free from ransomware.
  • Restore Systems: Use clean backups to restore your systems and data.

Seeking Professional Help

In many cases, professional assistance is crucial:

  • Engage Cybersecurity Experts: Professionals can assist in removing ransomware and securing your systems.
  • Legal and Compliance Advice: Consult legal experts for guidance on compliance and reporting obligations.

Also, look at the YouTube video below and learn how to respond to ransomware attacks.

Keepnet Lab's Solution for Ransomware

Keepnet Labs provides a comprehensive approach to addressing and mitigating ransomware threats, combining advanced tools and strategic insights. Here’s how their solutions can fortify your response to ransomware attacks:

  • Threat Intelligence and Account Breach Analysis: Keepnet Labs' threat intelligence goes beyond identifying ransomware variants. It includes an analysis of breached accounts within your organization. Keepnet detects compromised employee credentials and helps prevent Ransomware attacks from exploiting these weaknesses.
  • Incident Response Tool: Keepnet offers an incident response tool to swiftly manage and mitigate a Ransomware impact. Ensuring a timely response and investigation process. Visit the Incident Responder product page to see details on this tool.
  • Post-Incident Analysis: Utilizing Keepnet's resources for post-incident analysis enables organizations to examine the attack and identify weaknesses in their defenses thoroughly. This analysis is crucial for strengthening strategies against future threats.
  • Threat Sharing: This platform enables organizations to share and access intelligence on emerging threats, including new ransomware variants and attack methodologies. This collaboration facilitates a proactive approach to cybersecurity, allowing organizations to learn from each other’s experiences and insights.
  • Email Threat Simulator: This tool simulates ransomware attacks on your email infrastructure to test its resilience, including the effectiveness of anti-spam, anti-filtering, and other secure gateway defenses against ransomware. After the simulation, it provides a detailed report with insights and recommendations to improve your email security and prevent ransomware attacks.

Responding to ransomware requires quick, informed actions, and Keepnet Labs' solutions provide the necessary resources for effective response. Thereby minimizing potential damage.

Additional Sections for Ransomware Protection:

  • Security Awareness Training: Implementing regular security awareness training is vital. Keepnet Labs offers programs to educate employees about ransomware threats and the best practices to avoid them.
  • Phishing Simulation: Utilizing Keepnet's phishing simulation tools, organizations can test their employees' ability to recognize and respond to phishing attempts. A common entry point for ransomware.
  • Vishing Simulation: Keepnet also offers vishing simulation to prepare employees against voice phishing attempts, enhancing their ability to identify and avoid such threats.
  • Smishing Simulation: With the rise of mobile device usage, Keepnet's smishing simulation helps employees recognize and respond to SMS-based phishing attempts.
  • MFA Phishing Simulation: Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) phishing is becoming more common. Keepnet’s MFA phishing simulations train employees to be vigilant against sophisticated attacks.
  • Quishing Simulation: Keepnet’s quishing (QR code phishing) simulation trains employees to identify and avoid malicious QR codes, an emerging vector for ransomware attacks.
  • Callback Phishing Simulator: Keepnet also offers a Callback Phishing Simulator. Training employees to handle deceptive calls asking them to perform actions or reveal sensitive information is crucial. A technique often used in sophisticated ransomware schemes.

Integrating these elements into a comprehensive ransomware protection strategy is essential. Keepnet Labs' wide range of simulations and training modules prepares organizations to proactively respond to ransomware attacks and prevent them.

Please look at the full product video and see how you can protect your business from Ransomware attacks.



Schedule your 30-minute demo now!

You'll learn how to:
tickUse comprehensive phishing simulations, including Email, Voice, MFA, QR Code, Callback, and SMS, tailored to train your employees. These will help them adopt secure behaviours and stop ransomware.
tickLeverage AI-powered Ransomware templates and real-world ransomware scenarios, ensuring maximum engagement and effectiveness.
tickTest your email security against Ransomware attacks and fix the weaknesses you identified.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Pay the Ransom?

arrow down

It's generally advised not to pay the ransom. Payment doesn't guarantee file recovery and may encourage further attacks. Consult with cybersecurity experts for the best course of action.

Are Certain Industries or Organizations More Vulnerable to Ransomware Attacks?

arrow down

Yes, industries handling sensitive data, like healthcare, government, and finance, are often targeted due to the high value of their data.

How Do Attackers Typically Demand Ransom Payments?

arrow down

Attackers usually demand ransom through a note on the infected device, often asking for payment in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin for anonymity.

Are Mobile Devices at Risk of Ransomware Attacks?

arrow down

Yes, mobile devices can be targeted by ransomware, especially when downloading apps from unverified sources or clicking on malicious links in messages.

Can Ransomware Spread on a Network?

arrow down

Ransomware can spread across networks, especially if network security is weak, affecting multiple devices connected to the same network.

How Do I Know if an Email or Attachment is Safe?

arrow down

Inspect emails for unusual sender addresses, poor grammar, and unsolicited attachments. Use email security tools to scan for threats.

Are Cloud Services Safe from Ransomware Attacks?

arrow down

While cloud services have robust security, they're not immune to ransomware. Ensure cloud data is backed up and use cloud-specific security measures.

What Should I Do Immediately After Detecting a Ransomware Attack?

arrow down

Immediately disconnect the infected device from the network, preserve evidence, and consult IT professionals or cybersecurity experts.

How Can I Retrieve My Files Without Paying the Ransom?

arrow down

File recovery might be possible through backups, decryption tools, or by seeking help from cybersecurity experts.

Can Ransomware Spread Through WiFi?

arrow down

Ransomware typically doesn't spread through WiFi but can infect all devices on a compromised network.

How Long Do Ransomware Attacks Last?

arrow down

The duration varies, but the impact can be immediate. The resolution depends on the complexity of the attack and the response strategy.

Why Is It So Hard to Find Ransomware Perpetrators?

arrow down

Ransomware attackers often use sophisticated methods to hide their identity and location, making tracking and prosecution challenging.

What is Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS)?

arrow down

RaaS is a business model where ransomware developers sell or rent their malware to others. Facilitating widespread use by less skilled attackers.

iso 27017 certificate
iso 27018 certificate
iso 27001 certificate
ukas 20382 certificate
Cylon certificate
Crown certificate
Gartner certificate
Tech Nation certificate