How to Detect Ransomware Using 5 Techniques

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While there’s no guaranteed method to detect ransomware on your network, you can use tools such as signature-based analysis, file integrity monitoring, traffic analysis, and honeypots to improve your chances of success.

There’s good reason to try. Whether you’re a CIO or an entry-level employee, you could be targeted by ransomware, and it could be devastating to your organization. 

Ransomware is one of the most damaging and fastest-growing cybersecurity threats today. Amid this growth, it’s unsafe to assume your network defenses will stop every attack attempt before it infiltrates your system. You must also be able to detect ransomware to stop it before the damage spreads.

While IT will undoubtedly be monitoring your network carefully for cyberattacks, the burden is on all employees to keep an eye out for anything “phishy.” Here are some strategies that can be used to help detect ransomware.

5 ransomware detection techniques

Some of the leading ransomware detection techniques include signature-based analysis, file integrity monitoring, traffic analysis, honeypots, and entropy scanning.

Nevertheless, ransomware attacks are inevitable to some extent, with 90% of organizations in 2022 experiencing at least one. That’s an alarming number, but fast responses can minimize these attacks’ impacts.

1. Signature-based analysis

Signature-based ransomware detection is a type of static file analysis that looks for hacks using known signatures. These tools scan for suspicious code, frequently targeted file extensions and other common calling signs of ransomware to determine if any are infected. Because these scans can inspect files without opening them, they provide safe, quick analysis.

This detection method often comes as part of broader anti-malware programs, which 77% of users today already use. It also has a low false positive rate and can work before ransomware encrypts any files, but it’s only effective against known attack methods. 

Check your anti-malware provider’s website or ask your IT department to confirm whether they are employing signature-based analysis.

2. File integrity monitoring

File integrity monitoring (FIM) is another popular ransomware detection technique. FIM isn’t strictly an anti-ransomware tool but rather a way of ensuring general data availability and security, but it can be useful for detecting intrusions early.

FIM tools scan for alterations like renames, rewriting, deletions, and unusual updates. These changes happening en masse could signify a ransomware attack, so updates can help you find and respond to these threats as they initiate.

3. Traffic analysis

Similarly, you can monitor your network traffic for unusual behavior to identify ransomware. Spikes in data transfer volumes, transfers to suspicious sites and new network connections are all likely part of a ransomware attack. Automated network monitoring tools can alert you when behavior like this dramatically differs from the baseline, informing a timely response.

While useful, these tools are less common than other solutions, with just 35% of enterprise network activities using automation. Using them as a ransomware detection method also introduces a higher risk of false positives, as network activity spikes can come from many factors.

4. Honeypots

You can also detect ransomware through deception-based techniques, the most common of which is a honeypot. Honeypots are bait files that seem like tempting, easy targets for attackers but don’t contain any sensitive information. When a program or user accesses these files, they alert you so you can respond to the attack.

Honeynets are more elaborate but effective deception-based protections, consisting of an entire network of honeypots. Honeynets and honeypots are useful detection tools, but attackers may not target them or may not attack them first, so they’re not a comprehensive solution.

Honeypots and honeynets are both highly technical solutions and should not be used by beginners, lest they invite attackers in without sufficiently guarding against them.

5. Entropy scanning

Another way to detect ransomware is to check your files’ entropy. Entropy measures the randomness of a file’s data on a scale of zero to eight, with higher numbers representing more randomness. Because an encrypted file will be more random, spikes in file entropy can suggest a ransomware attack.

Many tools today offer features that track file entropy, alerting you of suspicious changes. These scans provide few false positives and can catch attacks that other methods miss, but they can use a considerable amount of computing resources.

Top 3 challenges with detecting ransomware

Despite the abundance of ransomware detection methods, this process can still be challenging due to the emergence of new threats, the risk of employee errors and noncompliance, and lack of clarity around the effectiveness of your defenses. 

Making the most of your ransomware protection methods requires understanding each of these obstacles you might face along the way.

1. Detecting new threats

One of the most common shortcomings of ransomware detection methods is that newer threats are harder to detect. Ransomware is continually evolving, with 78 new ransomware families emerging in 2021. These updated methods and strategies may avoid the protections most businesses have in place.

Signature-based analysis is particularly sensitive to new threats. Because this method searches for known indicators, attackers using novel techniques can slip past it undetected. Similarly, honeypots or FIM methods capitalizing on common targets and vulnerabilities may become less effective as attackers alter their approach. You need to stay on top of developing ransomware trends to be able to detect these attacks effectively.

2. User error and noncompliance

Ransomware detection techniques are prone to false positives or other issues from misuse or other errors. Many methods establish baselines of normal behavior to detect anomalies, but insiders can easily make mistakes or behave irrationally, setting off false alarms. It’s far too easy to forget to run or misconfigure processes relying on manual controls, limiting their efficacy.

Attackers are likely to capitalize on these errors. Phishing attempts occur on an hourly basis in many cases, turning these mistakes into considerable vulnerabilities.

3. Determining defense effectiveness

Another challenge in ransomware detection is that it can be difficult to determine your methods’ effectiveness. You may assume your system works well because you don’t experience any attacks—this is known as normalcy bias—but you’ll only know it falls short when an attacker gets through, at which point it’s too late to stop all the damage.

Ransomware’s rapid evolution exacerbates this threat. Just because you’ve stopped attacks in the past doesn’t mean your system is effective against newer threats, and you’ll only know it’s not once you’re attacked

5 ransomware detection best practices

Once you understand the challenges in detecting ransomware, you can take appropriate steps to address them, including improving network visibility, keeping up-to-date on security training, performing regular penetration testing, having a recovery plan, and above all, having multiple techniques in place to combat attacks.

1. Use multiple techniques

Each ransomware detection method has unique strengths and weaknesses, so it’s best to use a combination rather than opting for a single technique. Companies that can respond to breaches faster save millions of dollars, so you should use every tool at your disposal to recognize suspicious activity early. Employing multiple strategies will ensure the strengths of one technique catch attacks that another misses.

2. Improve network visibility

Your detection techniques will be more effective in an organized environment. Abnormalities and breaches are hard to spot if you lack transparency, but if you organize your network to understand normal movement more thoroughly, you can spot potential attacks earlier. Take the time to segment networks to restrict lateral movement, as this will minimize ransomware’s potential damage.

3. Keep everyone trained

You can address challenges related to employee errors by training users more thoroughly. This should include everyone at every level of the organization. Several phishing simulation tools can be used to ensure everyone understands how to spot and avoid attacks that lead to ransomware. Teaching users the importance of sticking to company protocols to make it easier to spot abnormalities is similarly crucial.

4. Penetration test regularly

Ransomware evolves quickly, so you must stay on top of shifting trends. Penetration testing can reveal where your detection techniques and other defenses fall short, and performing these regularly will help account for emerging attack vectors. Conduct these tests at least once annually to keep track of ransomware trends.

5. Have a recovery plan

No defense is 100% effective. It’s essential to have a backup and recovery plan to minimize the damage in the event of a successful attack. According to one survey, 71% of businesses have response plans, but that number has declined over time. Avoid falling into a false sense of security by trusting even the most advanced anti-malware technologies and create a thorough recovery strategy.

Ransomware detection: The bottom line

You can detect ransomware through many different means, but no one solution is perfect. Given these trends, it’s important to recognize where each method succeeds and falls short and what challenges organizations face to develop the most effective defense strategy.

Combining detection methods, accounting for human error and taking organizational steps to improve these tools’ efficacy will help keep you safe. As ransomware becomes a larger threat, these steps will only become increasingly critical.

It’s critical to ensure you have a thorough incident response plan in case of a ransomware attack. And when all else fails, you can trust a ransomware recovery service.

Devin Partida
Devin Partida
Devin Partida is a contributing writer for Enterprise Networking Planet who writes about business technology, cybersecurity, and innovation. Her work has been featured on Yahoo! Finance, Entrepreneur, Startups Magazine, and many other industry publications. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of ReHack.

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