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Extortion payments break records as ransomware players are emboldened

The average ransomware payment climbed 82% since 2020 to a record $570,000 in the first half of 2021, as cybercriminals employed increasingly aggressive tactics to coerce organizations into paying larger ransoms

The rise of “quadruple extortion” is one disturbing trend identified by Unit 42 consultants In the first half of 2021, the average ransom demand was $5.3 million, as per Unit 42 records While ransoms will continue their upward trajectory, some gangs will focus on the low end of the market

By Ramarcus Baylor, Jeremy Brown and John Martineau 

Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report, H1 2021 Update

The average ransomware payment climbed 82% since 2020 to a record $570,000 in the first half of 2021, as cybercriminals employed increasingly aggressive tactics to coerce organizations into paying larger ransoms. The increase comes after the average payment last year surged 171% to more than $312,000. These figures, compiled by the Unit 42 security consulting group, quantify what many of us already know: The ransomware crisis continues to intensify as criminal enterprises boost investment in highly profitable ransomware operations.

Ransomware attacks have prevented us from accessing work computers, pushed up meat prices, led to gasoline shortages, shut down schools, delayed legal cases, prevented some of us from getting our cars inspected, and caused some hospitals to turn away patients.

The rise of quadruple extortion

The rise of “quadruple extortion” is one disturbing trend identified by Unit 42 consultants as they handled dozens of ransomware cases in the first half of 2021. Ransomware operators now commonly use as many as four techniques for pressuring victims into paying:

  1. Encryption: Victims pay to regain access to scrambled data and compromised computer systems that stop working because key files are encrypted.
  2. Data Theft: Hackers release sensitive information if a ransom is not paid. (This trend really took off in 2020.)
  3. Denial of Service (DoS): Ransomware gangs launch denial of service attacks that shut down a victim’s public websites.
  4. Harassment: Cybercriminals contact customers, business partners, employees, and media to tell them the organization was hacked.

While it’s rare for one organization to be the victim of all four techniques, this year ransomware gangs are increasingly engaging in additional approaches when victims don’t pay up after encryption and data theft.

The 2021 Unit 42 Ransomware Threat Report, which covered 2020 trends, flagged double extortion as an emerging practice – and the latest observations show attackers again doubling the number of extortion techniques they use. As they’ve adopted these new extortion approaches, ransomware gangs have gotten greedier. Among the dozens of cases that Unit 42 consultants reviewed in the first half of 2021, the average ransom demand was $5.3 million. That’s up 518% from the 2020 average of $847,000.

The highest ransom demand of a single victim seen by our consultants rose to $50 million in the first half of 2021 from $30 million last year. Additionally, REvil recently tested out a new approach by offering to provide a universal decryption key to all organizations impacted by the Kaseya VSA attack for $70 million, though it quickly dropped the asking price to $50 million. Kaseya eventually obtained a universal decryption key, but it’s unclear what payment was made if any.

The largest confirmed payment, so far this year, was the $11 million that JBS SA disclosed after a massive attack in June. Last year, the largest payment we observed was $10 million.

The ransomware trajectory

The ransomware crisis will continue to gain momentum over the coming months, as cybercrime groups further hone tactics for coercing victims into paying and also develop new approaches for making attacks more disruptive. For example, we’ve started to see ransomware gangs encrypt a type of software known as a hypervisor, which can corrupt multiple virtual instances running on a single server. We expect to see increased targeting of hypervisors and other managed infrastructure software in the coming months. We also expect to see more targeting of managed service providers and their customers in the wake of the attack that leveraged Kaseya remote management software, which was used to distribute ransomware to clients of managed service providers (MSPs).

While ransoms will continue their upward trajectory, some gangs will continue to focus on the low end of the market, regularly targeting small businesses that lack resources to invest heavily in cybersecurity. So far this year, we have observed groups, including NetWalker, SunCrypt, and Lockbit, demanding and taking in payments ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. While they may seem small compared to the largest ransoms markets observed, payments that size can have a debilitating impact on a small organization.