What is Ransomware? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is Ransomware? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

What is Ransomware?

Imagine waking up one day to find your computer locked and all your files encrypted. You’re presented with a message demanding payment in exchange for the key to unlock your data. This nightmare scenario is a reality for many individuals and organizations, as ransomware attacks become increasingly common.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of ransomware, its history, and how it has evolved over time. We’ll also delve into the different types of ransomware, how attacks are carried out, and most importantly, how you can protect yourself and your organization from falling victim to these nefarious cybercriminals.


  • Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts users’ data, rendering it inaccessible until a ransom is paid. Famous examples are CryptoLocker, WannaCry, and Ryuk.

  • Attacks can target individuals or organizations, causing significant disruptions, financial loss, and potential privacy breaches.

  • Prevention involves strong cybersecurity measures, including regular data backups, updated antivirus software, and careful handling of suspicious emails and links.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts your data, rendering it inaccessible until a ransom is paid. It has become a significant threat in recent years, with attackers targeting individuals, businesses, and even critical infrastructures. The ultimate goal of a ransomware attack is to encrypt data and hold it hostage until the victim pays a ransom.

But how do these cybercriminals manage to infiltrate our systems and wreak havoc? The methods of ransomware infection are varied and constantly evolving. Attackers use techniques like phishing emails, malicious websites, and exploit kits to deliver ransomware payloads to unsuspecting victims. Once inside a computer system, the ransomware encrypts files and demands a ransom, often in the form of cryptocurrency, to release the decryption key.

Ransomware attacks can have serious consequences for businesses, with losses in productivity, data, and reputation all at stake.

Ransomware Origins

The first recorded ransomware infection dates back to between 2005 and 2006 in Russia. The concept of ransomware dates back to 1989. The infamous “AIDS virus” was used to forcefully extract money from victims. Fast forward to 1996, and Moti Yung and Adam Young from Columbia University introduced the concept of “cryptoviral extortion”. This innovation laid the foundation for modern ransomware attacks, which rely on strong encryption algorithms to lock victims’ files and demand payment for the decryption key.

Over the years, ransomware attacks have become more sophisticated, targeting not just individuals but also organizations with valuable data. High-profile attacks, like the one on Presbyterian Memorial Hospital, showcased the devastating impact ransomware could have on critical infrastructures. The advent of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin has further fueled the growth of ransomware attacks, as they provide a convenient and anonymous means for attackers to demand ransoms.

As ransomware attacks continue to evolve, the need for effective prevention and response measures becomes increasingly important.

Encryption Methods

Ransomware attacks employ a variety of encryption techniques to lock up files and systems, making them inaccessible without the attacker’s private key. Common encryption algorithms used by ransomware include RSA, AES, and Blowfish. Asymmetric encryption, which uses two keys to encrypt and decrypt a file, is often utilized in these attacks to make decryption virtually impossible without the attacker’s private key.

Ransomware typically targets valuable files, such as Word documents, images, and databases. Once these files are encrypted, victims are presented with a ransom demand, often with a tight deadline to pay or risk losing their data forever. This underscores the importance of robust security measures and regular backups to protect against the ever-present threat of ransomware attacks.

Types and Examples of Ransomware

Ransomware can be broadly categorized into two main types: encryption-based ransomware and locker ransomware. Encryption-based ransomware focuses on encrypting files and demanding a ransom for their decryption, while locker ransomware locks the victim out of their computer entirely, rendering the system unusable until the ransom is paid. Some of the most notorious examples of ransomware attacks include CryptoLocker, WannaCry, and Ryuk.

These high-profile attacks have had significant consequences, causing widespread disruption and resulting in billions of dollars in damages. For instance, the WannaCry attack in 2017 is estimated to have cost up to USD 4 billion.

As ransomware continues to evolve, it’s crucial to stay informed about the latest threats and take steps to protect our digital assets.


CryptoLocker burst onto the scene in 2013, infecting Windows computers and encrypting files with strong encryption algorithms. The attackers then demanded a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key, effectively holding the victim’s data hostage. CryptoLocker is considered a pioneer in the modern ransomware landscape, giving rise to numerous similar programs, such as WannaCry, Ryuk, and Petya.

The impact of CryptoLocker was significant, with victims often losing critical data, facing financial losses, and being at risk of further attacks. The attack highlighted the importance of robust security measures, including regular backups and up-to-date software, to protect against the ever-evolving threat of ransomware.


WannaCry, a notorious cryptoworm ransomware, made headlines in 2017 when it infected hundreds of thousands of computers across the globe. The attack spread rapidly, exploiting a vulnerability in the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol of unpatched Microsoft Windows systems. Once inside a computer, WannaCry encrypted files and demanded a ransom payment in Bitcoin for the decryption key.

The WannaCry attack remains one of the largest ransomware attacks in history, with an estimated cost of up to USD 4 billion. The attack underscored the importance of timely software updates and robust security measures to guard against ransomware threats.


Ryuk is a particularly insidious form of ransomware that specifically targets high-value victims. Launched in 2018, Ryuk is known for its substantial ransom demands, often exceeding one million dollars. Unlike other ransomware, Ryuk focuses on carefully chosen targets, such as large organizations with valuable data and the means to pay the exorbitant ransoms.

Ryuk’s targeted approach has made it a significant threat to businesses and organizations worldwide, with many high-profile victims falling prey to the ransomware. The emergence of Ryuk highlights the need for strong security measures and a comprehensive incident response plan to protect against the ever-evolving landscape of ransomware attacks.

The Ransomware Attack Process

Understanding the ransomware attack process is crucial in order to effectively defend against and mitigate the damage caused by these threats. The process typically begins with an infection method, such as a phishing email, malicious website, or exploit kit, which delivers the ransomware payload to the victim’s computer. Once the ransomware has infiltrated the system, it encrypts files and displays a ransom demand, often with a ticking clock to pressure the victim into paying up.

In the event of a ransomware attack, swift and decisive action is crucial to minimize the damage and prevent the spread of the infection. It’s essential to isolate affected systems, shut down network access, and restore from backups to recover lost data. Understanding the attack process and having a solid incident response plan in place can make all the difference when faced with a ransomware threat.

Infection Methods

There are several common infection methods used by ransomware attackers to spread their malicious payloads. Phishing emails, often disguised as legitimate communications from trusted sources, are one such method, with victims unwittingly downloading malware through malicious attachments or links. Malicious websites, designed to spread ransomware, can trick users into downloading infected files or redirect them to other harmful sites.

Exploit kits, collections of malicious code that take advantage of software vulnerabilities, are another popular means of spreading ransomware. By exploiting known vulnerabilities in commonly used software, attackers can gain unauthorized access to systems and deliver their ransomware payloads.

Understanding these infection methods is key to employing effective security measures and reducing the risk of ransomware attacks.

Ransom Demands and Payments

Once a ransomware attack has successfully encrypted the victim’s files, the attackers will typically present a ransom demand, often with a tight deadline to pay up or risk losing the data forever. Ransom demands can vary greatly depending on the type of ransomware and the attacker’s goals, with amounts ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. Payment options can also differ, but common methods include cryptocurrency, prepaid cards, and wire transfers.

Paying the ransom, however, is not without its risks. There’s no guarantee that the attackers will provide the decryption key once payment is made, and victims who pay may be targeted for future attacks. Moreover, paying the ransom may inadvertently fund further cybercriminal activities. To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to maintain robust security measures and regular backups, and to engage law enforcement and cybersecurity professionals in the event of an attack.

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS)

The rise of Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) has played a significant role in the proliferation of ransomware attacks. RaaS is a business model wherein cybercriminals offer ransomware tools for sale through online marketplaces, allowing non-technical criminals to purchase the malware and launch their own attacks. The developers of the ransomware then receive a cut of the profits from successful attacks.

This model has made ransomware more accessible to those with less technical know-how, resulting in a surge in ransomware attacks worldwide. RaaS has also made it easier for criminals to monetize their malware, leading to more advanced and targeted attacks.

As RaaS continues to evolve, staying informed about the latest threats and implementing robust security measures are crucial to protect against this growing menace.

How RaaS Works

RaaS operates through online marketplaces, where cybercriminals can purchase ransomware tools and launch their own campaigns. Affiliates, who may have little technical expertise, can easily buy and deploy the malware, while the developers receive a share of the profits from successful attacks. RaaS operators typically recruit affiliates through online forums, Telegram channels, or leveraging personal connections.

The revenue models for RaaS payouts can vary, with options such as subscription fees, one-time payments, profit sharing, or even affiliate marketing. This flexibility has made RaaS an attractive option for cybercriminals looking to capitalize on the lucrative ransomware market, and has contributed to the rapid growth and accessibility of ransomware attacks.

Impact on Cybercrime Landscape

RaaS has had a profound impact on the cybercrime landscape, making it easier for criminals to obtain and use ransomware and fueling a significant increase in ransomware attacks. The ease of access to ransomware tools, combined with the potential for substantial financial gain, has led to a surge in the number and sophistication of attacks.

Malware-as-a-service has also played a role in the popularity of exploit kits, which are collections of malicious code designed to exploit software vulnerabilities and deliver ransomware payloads.

As ransomware attacks continue to evolve and RaaS remains a popular model for cybercriminals, staying informed about the latest threats and implementing robust security measures is essential to protect against this growing menace.

Protecting Against Ransomware Attacks

Guarding against ransomware attacks is crucial, as these threats can cause significant harm to organizations, including data loss, disruption of operations, and financial losses. Comprehensive security measures, such as firewalls, antivirus software, and email protection, can help protect against ransomware attacks. Regular backups and secure storage of data are also essential in case of an attack, as they can enable recovery without having to pay the ransom.

In addition to technical safeguards, organizations should also develop plans and policies to tackle ransomware threats, such as incident response plans and security policies. Educating employees about the risks of ransomware and providing training on how to recognize and avoid potential threats can further reduce the likelihood of a successful attack.

Prevention Measures

Preventing ransomware infections requires a multi-layered approach, with regular backups and secure storage of data being a critical component. In addition to backups, organizations should invest in strong firewalls, antivirus software, and email protection to guard against ransomware attacks.

Other prevention measures include keeping software up to date, patching vulnerabilities, and implementing strong access controls to limit the potential spread of ransomware within an organization. Employee training and awareness programs can also be highly effective in preventing ransomware infections by teaching staff how to recognize and avoid phishing emails, malicious websites, and other potential threats.

Incident Response

In the event of a ransomware attack, a swift and effective incident response is crucial to minimize the damage and recover lost data. The first step in responding to an attack is to validate the incident by examining system logs, network traffic, and any other evidence of the attack. Once the attack has been confirmed, it’s important to isolate the affected systems and turn off their network access to prevent further spread of the ransomware.

Restoring from backups or using other recovery methods can help to recover lost data and get systems back online as quickly as possible. Communication with employees and stakeholders is also essential to ensure everyone is aware of the situation and can take appropriate action. Involving law enforcement and cybersecurity professionals in the response effort can provide additional expertise and support in dealing with the attack and its aftermath.

The Future of Ransomware

As ransomware becomes more advanced and prevalent, we can expect to see new threats and tactics emerge in the future. Ransomware is likely to focus on data extortion, monetizing stolen data through blackmail or sale on the dark web, and targeting endpoints in the cloud. Attacks may also shift to target less common platforms, such as mobile devices and industrial control systems.

Employing double extortion tactics, where the attacker threatens to release sensitive data if the ransom is not paid, is another way ransomware is evolving. Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that global ransomware trends for damage will grow by around 30% each year for the next 10 years.

As the threat landscape evolves, staying informed about the latest developments and implementing robust security measures will be essential to protect against these malicious threats.

Emerging Threats

New types of ransomware and tactics are likely to emerge as cybercriminals seek to stay ahead of security measures and maximize their profits. One recent example is Cuba ransomware, a new strain of ransomware that poses a threat to victims worldwide. Other emerging threats may involve novel strategies for infecting systems or evading detection by security software.

As cybercriminals become more adept at exploiting vulnerabilities and targeting high-value victims, it’s crucial to stay informed about the latest threats and adapt security measures accordingly. Organizations must remain vigilant and proactive in their approach to ransomware prevention and response, as the future is likely to bring even more advanced and sophisticated attacks.

Potential Targets

While ransomware can target any organization or individual with valuable data, certain industries and infrastructures may be at increased risk in the future. Industrial robots used in the manufacturing industry, for example, could become a prime target for ransomware attackers looking to disrupt production and demand high ransoms. Similarly, the infrastructures that power smart cities, such as transportation systems and energy grids, could also be vulnerable to ransomware attacks, with potentially devastating consequences for public safety and the economy.

To protect against these emerging threats, organizations in high-risk sectors should prioritize cybersecurity and invest in robust security measures, including regular software updates, employee training, and strong access controls. By staying informed about the latest ransomware trends and potential targets, organizations can better prepare for and defend against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats.


In conclusion, ransomware is a constantly evolving threat that has the potential to cause significant harm to individuals and organizations alike. Understanding the history, types, and tactics of ransomware, as well as the methods for prevention and response, is essential in order to protect against this growing menace. As the future of ransomware unfolds, it’s crucial to stay informed about emerging threats and potential targets, and to implement robust security measures to safeguard our digital assets. By remaining vigilant and proactive in our approach to ransomware prevention and response, we can help mitigate the risks and minimize the impact of these malicious attacks.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is ransomware and how does it work?

Ransomware is a malicious form of software that encrypts your data and blocks access to it until you pay a ransom. Cybercriminals use ransomware to extort payment from victims, making it an increasingly common tool for cybercrime.

Ransomware attacks can have devastating consequences for individuals and businesses alike. Victims may be unable to access their data, leading to lost time, money, and productivity. In some cases, the data may be permanently stored.

What is ransomware in simple words?

Ransomware is a malicious virus that locks or encrypts your files, restricting access unless you pay a ransom to the hacker who created it. In other words, it’s an online extortion scheme.

Can you get rid of ransomware?

Once ransomware has made its way into your system, and encrypted your files, it’s incredibly difficult to remove it without the decryption key (for which you need to pay the ransom). Your best strategy is to prevent ransomware, rather than cure it. This can be done by installing reputable antivirus software like Norton or Bitdefender. Another preventative solution is the creation of frequent data backups on an external hard drive or cloud database.

How does ransomware get on your computer?

Ransomware is usually spread by malicious emails with dangerous attachments or links that contain a hidden virus. It can also be introduced to your system when you visit compromised websites, download contaminated apps, use infected external storage devices, and so on.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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