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The Realities of Ransomware: Five Signs you’re about to be Attacked

Whenever we work with ransomware victims, we spend some time looking back through our telemetry records that span the previous week or two. These records sometimes include behavioral anomalies that (on their own) may not be inherently malicious, but in the context of an attack that has already taken place, could be taken as an early indicator of a threat actor conducting operations on the victim’s network.

If we see any of these five indicators, in particular, we jump on them straight away. Any of these found during an investigation is almost certainly an indication that attackers have poked around: to get an idea of what the network looks like, and to learn how they can get the accounts and access they need to launch a ransomware attack.

Attackers use legitimate admin tools to set the stage for ransomware attacks. Without knowing what tools administrators normally use on their machines, one could easily overlook this data. In hindsight, these five indicators represent investigative red flags.

A network scanner, especially on a server.

Attackers typically start by gaining access to one machine where they search for information: is this a Mac or Windows, what’s the domain and company name, what kind of admin rights does the computer have, and more. Next, attackers will want to know what else is on the network and what can they access. The easiest way to determine this is to scan the network. If a network scanner, such as AngryIP or Advanced Port Scanner, is detected, question admin staff. If no one cops to using the scanner, it is time to investigate.

Whenever we work with ransomware victims, we spend some time looking back through our telemetry records that span the previous week or two. These records sometimes include behavioral anomalies that (on their own) may not be inherently malicious, but in the context of an attack that has already taken place, could be taken as an early indicator of a threat actor conducting operations on the victim’s network.

If we see any of these five indicators, in particular, we jump on them straight away. Any of these found during an investigation is almost certainly an indication that attackers have poked around: to get an idea of what the network looks like, and to learn how they can get the accounts and access they need to launch a ransomware attack.

Attackers use legitimate admin tools to set the stage for ransomware attacks. Without knowing what tools administrators normally use on their machines, one could easily overlook this data. In hindsight, these five indicators represent investigative red flags.

A network scanner, especially on a server.

Attackers typically start by gaining access to one machine where they search for information: is this a Mac or Windows, what’s the domain and company name, what kind of admin rights does the computer have, and more. Next, attackers will want to know what else is on the network and what can they access. The easiest way to determine this is to scan the network. If a network scanner, such as AngryIP or Advanced Port Scanner, is detected, question admin staff. If no one cops to using the scanner, it is time to investigate.

Mimikatz and related PowerShell scripts used to launch it, found among a repository of tools used by the Netwalker ransomware threat actors

Patterns of suspicious behavior

Any detection happening at the same time every day, or in a repeating pattern is often an indication that something else is going on, even if malicious files have been detected and removed. Security teams should ask “why is it coming back?” Incident responders know it normally means that something else malicious has been occurring that hasn’t (as of yet) been identified.

Test attacks

Occasionally, attackers deploy small test attacks on a few computers in order to see if the deployment method and ransomware executes successfully, or if security software stops it. If the security tools stop the attack, they change their tactics and try again. This will show their hand, and attackers will know their time is now limited. It is often a matter of hours before a much larger attack is launched.

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