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17 steps to prevent ransomware and limit its impact

Ransomware infection accounts for over 60% of all cyberattacks, with newer, more efficient ransomware variants emerging. This is why it’s important to always have a plan to prevent ransomware attacks on your system. Not only is this a good way to keep your data safe, but it can also function as an integral part of your vulnerability management strategy. Preventing ransomware involves a combination of technical measures, user education, and proactive strategies. Here are some key steps to help prevent ransomware attacks.

17 steps to prevent ransomware and limit its impact

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Harden endpoints

Endpoints can include individual computers, servers, laptops, mobile devices, and other devices connected to a network. Ransomware often targets these endpoints to gain unauthorized access and encrypt data for extortion or use them to inject malicious code into a system.

Securing endpoints means making these devices more secure against ransomware or other cyberattacks, usually by limiting access or device functionality without compromising the device’s performance. This gives ransomware attackers fewer windows to exploit vulnerabilities in the device’s operating systems. Consequently, this helps foil a ransomware attack in its early stages.

2. Install antivirus and anti-malware software

Most antivirus and anti-malware software contain specific protections against malware and ransomware attacks. They can scan, detect, and quarantine malicious software in real time. These security tools are some of your first lines of defense against a ransomware attack.

You must always update these security solutions to keep up with the latest ransomware infection protocols used in attacks today. By keeping your antivirus and anti-malware software up to date, you’ll have a strong foundation for ransomware protection.

3. Keep software patched and updated

You should always keep your software patched and up to date. This includes operating systems, applications, and antivirus software. Software updates often include patches for security vulnerabilities that ransomware could exploit.

Usually, a malware attack will take advantage of unpatched software as an entry point into most systems. System administrators should always address potential security gaps in their networks and download the latest security patches to protect against ransomware.

4. Use firewalls

Firewalls can close security gaps in your network protection by applying a blanket filter on all incoming requests, specifically from IP addresses known to distribute ransomware. Simply enabling your firewall prevents ransomware attacks from reaching your endpoints. Firewalls can easily be enabled and updated as necessary.

It can even protect against specific types of malware that try to gain access to your network via incoming traffic on specific ports, like the ones used for file sharing and printing. It also uses other security measures like deep packet inspection (DPI) to prevent specific packets or data to enter your network that may contain ransomware.

5. Disable unnecessary ports and services

Ransomware attacks often look for unattended or vulnerable ports to inject malicious code into your system. Many of these ports are usually left open or unsecured since closing them would interfere with their ease of use. However, to keep your network safe, you should only enable access to these ports when needed.

Closing ports and services is a method of denying ransomware and malware another entry point into your system, which can further protect you from most cyber threats.

6. Disable macro scripts from emails

One way that ransomware gets into operating systems is via macro scripts embedded in office files, such as PDFs or Word documents. These are often sent as malicious emails disguised as legitimate online interactions, fooling victims into downloading malicious attachments to their devices.

By disabling macro scripts, you can ensure your system is appropriately protected against most ransomware attacks that rely on downloading and executing macro scripts. This can also protect you against more sophisticated cyber threats like injecting a malicious remote desktop protocol into your system.

7. Deploy email security solutions and practices

Email security is one of the most crucial areas in any online security awareness training. As an online channel, email is one of the easiest and most consistent methods attackers use to distribute ransomware. Fortunately, most email clients now implement security solutions for detecting ransomware. However, security teams should recognize that user error may still leave windows for attacks.

A reliable way to maintain email security is to avoid suspicious email attachments and immediately report any suspicious emails to your system administrator. Always ensure that any email you receive is from a legitimate sender because phishing emails are also a popular method for attackers to distribute malware.

8. Practice cyber hygiene

Cyber hygiene refers to practicing safe online habits, which limit potential opportunities for attackers to inject malware into your systems. Most organizations train employees and users to recognize phishing attempts, suspicious links, and attachments or pop-ups. It is crucial to educate users on the risks of unsolicited emails and how to recognize them.

Many third-party security solutions providers will also have recommendations on practicing safe online habits, which can be integrated into an overall cybersecurity strategy.

9. Secure remote access

The Covid-19 pandemic has made remote work (and remote access) the norm in many working environments. System administrators should ensure that any remote access granted to devices connecting to their network has been properly vetted and given the appropriate permissions.

Users can even go one step further and secure their remote access from their devices using security solutions like virtual private networks (VPNs) to encrypt their data. Doing this provides another layer of security to your network traffic and blocks access from threat actors and other attackers.

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10. Encrypt stored data

Encryption is another essential way of protecting yourself against a ransomware event. One of the risks of experiencing a ransomware infection is the possibility that the attacker can gain access to important data as they lock your system. When you encrypt files, you ensure that even if they have access to your data, they won’t be able to easily use it.

11. Maintain regular offline backups

Another way to mitigate any potential damage from a successful ransomware infection is by creating encrypted backup files of all your data. These backups should always be stored offline and inaccessible to your operating system to prevent attackers from gaining access to it.

12. Restrict access controls

System administrators should also consider limiting access rights and implementing the principle of least privilege, ensuring that only the necessary access and permissions are granted to users. Restricting access to control systems narrows the potential attack vectors for ransomware and makes the network more secure against multi-pronged malware attacks.

13. Implement zero trust architecture

In the context of ransomware prevention, zero trust architecture emphasizes that organizations should not automatically trust anything, whether inside or outside their network perimeter. Instead, it requires verification and authentication from everyone and everything trying to connect to resources within the network. Implementing zero trust security ensures that you’ll have a robust security system that forces verification every time, limiting the opportunities for attackers to inject ransomware into your systems.

14. Use multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security mechanism designed to add an extra layer of protection to the authentication process. In the context of ransomware prevention and general cybersecurity, MFA is a crucial tool for enhancing the security of user accounts and systems. It’s a simple way to ensure that an attacker won’t be able to compromise your network from a single endpoint. Simultaneously, it helps signal that a ransomware attack may be taking place in your network.

15. Implement network segmentation

Network segmentation divides a network into smaller, more isolated segments that can classify data and access. By splitting your network into segments, you can quickly take action if one segment gets infected by ransomware — simply cut off its access to the other segments to limit any potential damage.

16. Prepare a ransomware incident response plan

Have a plan in place for responding to a ransomware attack. This should include isolation of affected systems, notification procedures, and steps to restore systems from backups. A cyber incident response plan may limit the damage a successful ransomware infection can cause your network. Additionally, it helps to recover data easier after you remove ransomware from your system.

17. Conduct regular security audits and tests

Conduct regular security audits of your network and perform penetration testing to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities. This will allow you to identify and address any potential security gaps before they become potential entry vectors for ransomware attacks. Even a regular IT security audit can highlight potential gaps in your security and help keep your protection up to date.

Ransomware awareness as a prevention measure

Remember: No system can be completely immune to ransomware, but these steps can significantly reduce the likelihood and impact of an attack. System administrators and users should be aware of the possibility of a ransomware attack and adjust their online behavior and how they access networks accordingly.