To Pay or Not to Pay: That is the Question

Ransomware is targeting systems world-wide, big and small.  And every unlucky victim faces the same dilemma:  to pay or not to pay.  Despite the US Conference of Mayors approved resolution last week to not pay cybercriminals, there are still persistent arguments to both sides of the issue. According to the FBI’s “Ransomware Prevention and Response for CISOs” document, “Whether to pay a ransom is a serious decision, requiring the evaluation of all options to protect shareholders, employees and customers. Victims will want to evaluate the technical feasibility, timeliness, and cost of restarting systems from backup.”  Here are just a few factors to consider when faced with a ransomware attack.

Time.   Most organizations cannot afford to be down for very long.  Recovery without the unlock code/key can be extremely time consuming and may be unsuccessful.  If you can afford the ransom, paying has the fastest turn-around time potential.  “Potential” because not all unlock codes/keys work.  A criminal is a criminal, and there is no guarantee once you pay that you can get your files back.  Bleeping Computer reports that of the 38.7% who opted to pay the ransom, a little less than half (19.1%) recovered their files using the tools provided by the ransomware authors.

Cost.  The cost of paying a ransom can be negligible compared to the cost of recovery on your own.  The City of Atlanta for example was seized by a SamSam ransomware.  They refused to pay the $50,000 ransom and ended up spending well over $2.6 million in emergency recovery efforts, while their long term costs are projected to exceed $16 million. On the flip side, there are websites and projects Like the international “No More Ransom” that may be able to unlock your system for free with one of their decryption tools that can undo 85 different types of ransomware.  A solid cost-benefit analysis should be done to see which options is best for you.

Reputation.  A cyber-event like ransomware can not only hinder your public image, it can also mark your company to criminals as an easy target.  Organizations that pay out often find themselves the target of repeated attacks within days of paying the ransom.  After all, if you paid once, you’ve shown that your system has vulnerabilities, and if those vulnerabilities can be exploited you’ll pay again.

Insurance Coverage.  Does your company have cyber insurance?  If not, now is the time to invest in a policy that can help mitigate your financial risk.  Not all policies are the same, so be sure to clarify with your broker exactly what is and is not covered.  “Cyber Extortion” coverage, for example, may need to be purchased as an add-on to a standard policy.  Also determine when the policy begins.  Some payments may be made on order by law enforcement, others may cover the payment and recovery efforts, while some don’t start coverage until a certain waiting period is past.

Recovery Preparation.  How prepared is your IT department for recovery in a malware event?  Despite security awareness training, improving technical controls, and leveraging sophisticated security tools, no cybersecurity plan is infallible.  Ensuring your system has reliable backups in place is essential. Reliable backups can restore data once the virus is contained and have your company back up and running without paying the ransom.

Regardless of your personal opinion on whether to pay or not, your organization needs to be prepared with an emergency plan. Always report the event to authorities.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues for help.