Expert Advice on Ransomware Defense for Small Businesses

Small business office space

There’s no way around it; ransomware is one of the most formidable threats to small businesses. Ransomware is a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system or data until a sum of money is paid. This cyberattack can be devastating, leading to significant financial loss, operational downtime, and reputational damage. 

Small businesses, often perceived as less prepared and more vulnerable than larger enterprises, are increasingly becoming prime targets for ransomware attacks. Across the globe, 48% of small and mid-size businesses have experienced a cybersecurity incident in the past year. 73% of U.S. small business owners reported a cyberattack last year. Perhaps even more startling, 25% say they have experienced more than one incident in the past year.   

The same research claims that an estimated 90% of cybersecurity breaches worldwide occur in small businesses. A single successful ransomware incident can disrupt business operations for days, if not weeks, and recovery costs can be crippling. The potential loss of sensitive data, combined with the ransom payments demanded by attackers, can place an immense financial burden on a small business. According to the Verizon 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report, the median cost per ransomware attack is $26,000. Sadly, this sometimes leads to permanent closure. 

The importance of robust ransomware defense cannot be overstated. Implementing effective cybersecurity measures is critical for small businesses to safeguard their digital assets, maintain customer trust, and ensure long-term sustainability.  

Diving into ransomware protection for small businesses, read tips to enhance ransomware defenses, protect critical data, and mitigate the risks associated with these malicious attacks. 

Understanding Ransomware  

To effectively defend against ransomware, it’s crucial to understand its various forms and how these attacks typically unfold. Here are a few of the most common types of ransomware attacks. 

Types of Ransomware 

Crypto Ransomware: These attacks encrypt files on a victim’s system, rendering them inaccessible. Victims must pay a ransom to receive a decryption key. 

Locker Ransomware: These lock users out of their devices entirely. On the lock screen, victims often see a ransom demand. 

Scareware: This type of ransomware mimics legitimate software and claims to have detected issues on the victim’s system. Threat actors demand payment to resolve non-existent problems, relying on fear tactics for success. 

Doxware (or Leakware): These attacks threaten to publish stolen data unless a ransom is paid. Victims face not only data loss, but also potential public exposure of sensitive information. 

Double or Secondary Extortion: Double or secondary extortion in the realm of ransomware refers to a tactic where cybercriminals not only encrypt the victim’s data to demand a ransom for its decryption but also threaten to leak or publicly release the stolen data if the ransom is not paid. Before or during the encryption process, the attackers exfiltrate (steal) a copy of the victim’s sensitive data. This approach increases the pressure on the victim to pay the ransom, as the consequences of not paying are not limited to data loss but also include potential reputational damage, legal consequences, and financial losses from the exposure of sensitive information. Unfortunately, this type of double extortion has become both a prevalent and effective strategy for ransomware groups because it significantly increases the leverage they have over their victims, leading to higher chances of ransom payment.

How Ransomware Attacks Work 

Step #1 Infection: Ransomware typically infiltrates a system through phishing emails, malicious attachments, infected websites, or vulnerabilities in software. Attackers often use social engineering to trick users into downloading and executing malware. 

Step #2 Execution: Once inside the system, the ransomware executes its payload, encrypting files or locking the device. Some ransomware variants can spread across networks, infecting multiple systems and shared drives. 

Step #3 Notification: The victim receives a ransom note, usually displayed on the screen or as a text file, demanding payment in cryptocurrency. The note often includes a deadline for payment, with threats of data destruction or increased ransom if not paid in time. 

Step #4 Payment Demands: Instructions are provided on how to pay the ransom, typically in Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency to ensure anonymity. Upon payment, attackers may or may not provide the decryption key. However, it is important to realize that paying the ransom does not guarantee data recovery. 

Step #5 Recovery: If a decryption key is provided, victims can decrypt and recover their files. If no key is provided or the ransom is not paid, victims must rely on backups, if available, to restore their data. 

If you think this cannot happen to your small business, think again. There are numerous statistics that say otherwise. Verizon research states that 82% of all ransomware attacks target small businesses. An average small business employee with less than 100 employees will receive 350% more social engineering attacks than an employee of a large enterprise. Between 2020 and 2022, the volume of cyberattacks against small businesses increased by 150%, reaching 31,000 attacks per day globally.  

Best Defense Against Small Business Ransomware  

Regular Data Backups  

One of the most effective defenses against ransomware for small businesses is maintaining frequent and comprehensive backups. Regular backups ensure that in the event of a ransomware attack, critical data can be restored without succumbing to ransom demands. This proactive measure minimizes operational downtime and mitigates the financial impact associated with data loss. Comprehensive backups that cover all essential data and systems enable businesses to quickly recover and resume normal operations, significantly reducing the disruption caused by an attack. 

Different types of backups play a crucial role in a robust data protection strategy. Local backups involve storing copies of data on physical devices such as external hard drives or network-attached storage (NAS) devices. These backups are easily accessible and can provide quick recovery, but they are vulnerable to physical damage and ransomware that spreads across networks.  

Cloud backups store data on remote servers managed by third-party providers. They offer enhanced security through encryption and offsite storage, protecting data from local disasters and ransomware. Hybrid backups combine both local and cloud solutions, offering the best of both worlds. They provide the immediate accessibility of local backups and the security and redundancy of cloud storage, ensuring data can be recovered efficiently in various scenarios.  

Employee Training and Awareness  

Educating employees about phishing and social engineering attacks is crucial for small businesses in defending against ransomware. AP News tells us that the human element is the cause of 74% of breaches. Effective employee cybersecurity training can significantly reduce the risk of successful ransomware attacks.  

Phishing and social engineering are common methods used by cybercriminals to gain access to systems and deploy ransomware. By manipulating employees into revealing sensitive information or clicking on malicious links, attackers can easily bypass technical defenses. Therefore, ensuring that employees are aware of these tactics and understand how to recognize and respond to them is essential for maintaining robust cybersecurity. 

Here are a few best practices for training: 

Regular Training Sessions: Conduct cybersecurity training sessions regularly to ensure that employees stay up to date with the latest threats and prevention techniques. Include real-world examples of phishing emails and social engineering scenarios to help employees recognize suspicious activities. 

Password Management: For ransomware breaches involving small businesses last year, user credentials were the most commonly compromised category of data (used in 54% of breaches). To combat this, teach employees the importance of using strong, unique passwords for different accounts and the dangers of password reuse. Promote the use of password managers to securely store and generate complex passwords. 

Phishing Simulations: Use phishing simulation tools to send mock phishing emails to employees, testing their ability to identify and report them. Provide immediate feedback and additional training to those who fall for the simulations, reinforcing learning. 

Clear Reporting Procedures: Establish clear procedures for reporting suspicious emails or activities, encouraging employees to act quickly without fear of retribution. Ensure that there is a dedicated team or individual to handle these reports and take appropriate action. 

For more tips on creating a security-first culture in your organization, read The Security First Guidebook.

Robust Security Software 

For small businesses, investing in robust software is a critical component of defense against ransomware and a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. Tools such as security information and event management systems can help detect, prevent, and mitigate malware threats, including ransomware.  

Using security software — like LogRhythm Axon, an easy-to-use SIEM platform — security teams can easily collect log data from disparate systems into one place. With powerful log parsing and correlation capabilities, SIEM software normalizes and contextualizes meta data into meaningful insights to make it easier for humans to interpret. With so much data to sift through, it can be challenging for small security teams to manage the threat landscape. SIEMs provide powerful security analytics and case management workflows to make it easier to identify potential cyberthreats, track investigations, and perform incident response.

Figure 1: LogRhythm Axon Case Management for investigating a ransomware incident. 
Figure 1: LogRhythm Axon Case Management for investigating a ransomware incident.

Many SIEM vendors also provide out-of-the-box content to help automatically detect ransomware activity by mapping to frameworks such as MITRE ATT&CK techniques. This approach lightens the load on small security teams to more easily ingest data and monitor critical data, as well as quickly identify or defend against ransomware attacks — reducing the risk of damaging breaches. For tips on using frameworks such as MITRE ATT&CK to defend against ransomware, read this technical white paper from LogRhythm Labs.

Small Business Ransomware Best Practices 

By following the best practices for defense against ransomware, small businesses can ensure the safety and integrity of their digital assets. 

Implementing Access Controls  

Remember, many ransomware attacks begin through simple human mistakes. Implementing access controls is crucial for small businesses as a best practice against ransomware because it limits the exposure and potential impact of an attack.  

By restricting access to sensitive data and critical systems to only those employees who need it, businesses can reduce the risk of unauthorized access and malware spread. Access controls ensure that even if a ransomware attack occurs, its reach is minimized, thereby protecting vital business assets and enhancing overall security posture. 

Regular Software Updates and Patch Management 

Regular software updates and patch management are crucial for small businesses as a ransomware defense because they address vulnerabilities in software and systems that cybercriminals exploit.  

By consistently applying updates and patches, businesses close security gaps, reducing the risk of ransomware infections. This proactive approach ensures that all software, including operating systems and applications, remains secure against the latest threats, enhancing the overall resilience of the business against cyberattacks. 

Incident Response Plan  

An incident response plan is crucial for small businesses as a ransomware best practice because it provides a structured approach for quickly and effectively addressing a ransomware attack. By having a clear, pre-defined plan, businesses can minimize downtime, limit damage, and ensure a coordinated response to restore operations swiftly. This preparedness helps mitigate the impact of an attack, protects sensitive data, and enhances the organization’s ability to recover and continue business activities with minimal disruption. Leverage this free incident response template to get started. 

Third-Party Vendor Management  

No list of the best defenses against ransomware would be complete without mentioning third-party vendors, like cloud providers for data storage and payment processors. Third-party vendor management is crucial for small businesses as a ransomware best practice because vendors often have access to sensitive data and systems, making them potential entry points for ransomware attacks.  

By carefully assessing and monitoring the security practices of third-party vendors, businesses can ensure these partners meet stringent cybersecurity standards, reducing the risk of ransomware infiltrating through external connections. Effective vendor management helps safeguard the entire supply chain, enhancing the overall security posture and resilience against ransomware threats. 

Regular Security Audits and Assessments 

Regular security audits and assessments are crucial for small businesses as a ransomware best practice because they provide a comprehensive evaluation of the organization’s cybersecurity posture. These audits help identify vulnerabilities, outdated protocols, and non-compliance with security policies, allowing businesses to address potential weaknesses before they can be exploited by ransomware attackers.  

By consistently assessing their security measures, small businesses can ensure that their defenses remain robust and up-to-date in the face of evolving threats. Additionally, security audits foster a proactive security culture, ensuring continuous improvement and heightened awareness across the organization. 

Adopting a Zero Trust Architecture 

Adopting a Zero Trust Architecture is crucial for small businesses as a ransomware best practice because it fundamentally changes the security approach from assuming trust within the network to verifying every access request as though it originates from an open, unsecured environment. This model minimizes the risk of ransomware by enforcing strict identity verification, granular access controls, and continuous monitoring of all network traffic, regardless of its origin.  

By treating every user and device as potentially compromised, Zero Trust reduces the likelihood of unauthorized access and lateral movement of ransomware within the network, thereby protecting sensitive data and critical systems from sophisticated attacks. This proactive and rigorous security framework significantly enhances the overall resilience of small businesses against ransomware threats. 

Trust LogRhythm Axon for the Best Defense Against Ransomware  

Taking a proactive approach to ransomware defense is essential for small businesses to protect their valuable data and ensure operational continuity. By implementing robust security measures such as frequent backups, employee education, access controls, regular updates, and adopting a Zero Trust Architecture, businesses can significantly reduce their vulnerability to ransomware attacks. Proactivity helps in mitigating risks and enhances the overall security posture. In turn, this allows businesses to operate with confidence in an increasingly digital landscape. 

Small businesses should not wait until an attack occurs to bolster their defenses. Ransomware defense begins today! Immediate action is crucial, and implementing these best practices can start right now.  

Reach out to LogRhythm to learn more about LogRhythm Axon, an advanced security solution designed to provide comprehensive protection against ransomware and other cyberthreats. 

By leveraging LogRhythm’s SIEM technology and expertise, small businesses can fortify their defenses and ensure long-term security and resilience.