What is Extortionware? (Extortionware vs. Ransomware)


Extortionware is a unique cyber attack businesses must learn to defend against. It’s rising in popularity because it’s usually much more effective than traditional ransomware attacks. While the difference between cyber extortion vs. ransomware may not seem apparent initially, defining it is crucial for adequate cybersecurity.

What Is Extortionware?

Extortionware utilizes sensitive operational information or incriminating evidence to coerce businesses into paying a ransom. Although its name suggests it might be a tool, it’s a category of cyber attack. It’s more of a process type than an exact method, encompassing various approaches.

Typically, it focuses on industries like finance, insurance, health care, and education. Still, any type is vulnerable. Businesses with system vulnerabilities are at risk, no matter their sector. The chance of an extortionware attack can increase after a data breach because it gives threat actors more to work with.

How Does Extortionware Work?

Someone silently gains access to storage systems and downloads whatever is of interest. Typically, they look for sensitive material like financial or personal data. After successful exfiltration, they announce their actions to the organization and claim they’ll leak or sell their findings until they get a deposit.

For instance, cyber attackers targeted a Finnish psychotherapy facility in 2020, threatening to release health records. They also contacted patients to demand cryptocurrency since they had taken detailed and up-to-date contact information.

Another instance of this type of attack targeted a cybersecurity professional. After a ransomware group exfiltrated hundreds of gigabytes of consumer data, it began extorting the business’s IT director with proof of adult content on their computer. The evidence included screenshots of their explicit files. It cautioned it would make everything public unless it received payment.

The group’s post eventually disappeared, suggesting the company caved to the extortion attempt and paid. While this kind of situation is not unique, it does reveal the significant implications of extortionware. The threat actors could’ve utilized the information as leverage, but they took advantage of an employee’s embarrassing situation instead.

Cyber Extortion Vs. Ransomware

Ransomware is a form of malware that prevents businesses from using their systems or files. It typically returns access upon payment. These kinds of cyber attacks cause millions of dollars in damages each year because they often have no choice but to pay. The approach of holding data hostage to receive money may make it sound like extortionware, but they’re not the same.

While the similarities between cyber extortion vs. ransomware are significant, the crucial difference is the attacker’s final approach to secure the ransom. Traditionally, they’d offer to return access to secure payment, but this attack threatened to release the findings. Hackers no longer leverage data — instead, they weaponize it.

Organizations typically face millions in regulatory fines and reputational damage after experiencing a breach. Cyber attackers know this and take advantage of it. They extract sensitive data relating to consumer details or business financials because it’s easier to extort. They can even use embarrassing personal information to target high-ranking cybersecurity professionals.

Why Do the Differences Matter?

While ransomware is technically different from extortionware, threat actors only need to alter their approach slightly to adapt. For instance, they don’t need to invest in any special equipment. They can continue their process like usual and simply threaten to leak or sell their findings when it comes time to demand payment.

Organizations can’t simply make backups, either. Typically, they could ignore the attackers’ demands and use copies of data to restore their operations. However, extortion attempts render this approach useless. Traditional protection measures generally aren’t effective.

On top of fines or monetary damages, they risk a lot when they don’t have enough protection. If they don’t pay the ransom, they could lose intellectual property, employee trust, proprietary knowledge, and consumer approval.

How to Defend Against Extortionware

The Federal Bureau of Investigation cautions businesses against paying ransoms because it may incentivize future attacks. Even if organizations want to, they may be unable to because laws prohibit funding particular threat groups. The cost of extortionware may be much higher than a typical ransomware attack, so preventative action is the best approach.

1. Privileged Access Management

Human error is the root cause of 95% of cybersecurity incidents organizations face. Even though employees may be well trained, minor miscategorizations or security mistakes can open their employer to extortionware attacks.

Privileged access management limits administrative IT capabilities to trusted individuals. It ensures only relevant authorized users can enter, alter or update information storage systems. While it won’t eliminate potential risks, it’s an excellent starting point for enhancing security.

2. Data Encryption

Data encryption is one of the best preventative solutions. It’s relatively easy to set up and incredibly effective once it’s in place. Since only trusted recipients can decrypt files with their key, the attackers have no use for whatever they manage to collect. They can’t extort a business with the threat of exposure when they only possess meaningless text strings.

While preventing them from gathering information is ideal, no approach can guarantee 100% security coverage. This is why encryption is essential. Organizations can protect themselves, their employees, and consumers even if they fall victim to extortionware.

3. Network Segmentation

Segmentation can help prevent attackers from accessing company files or holding systems hostage. Separating the network into subnets minimizes their impact — even if someone gets in, they’re essentially stuck. Also, it gives the organization more time to respond to threats, giving them a better chance of reducing any potential adverse effects.

Plus, it still allows internal devices to communicate freely while forcing anything external through multiple firewalls. Businesses can even establish additional user restrictions in subnets to limit access to sensitive information and systems. The increased control capabilities can help them manage threats and identify unusual traffic.

4. Extortionware Training

A workplace needs training specific to extortionware to understand how to prevent it best. Employees often make minor mistakes that can increase the possibility an attempt will target them or their employer. For example, around 30% of ransomware attacks come from them clicking on malicious email links.

Properly teaching them how to identify and respond to extortion attempts can significantly reduce the chances of this kind of cyber attack. Businesses should establish routine mandatory meetings to cover the potential threats and remind everyone of the best cybersecurity practices.

5. Network Traffic Monitoring

Organizations should monitor network traffic to defend against potential extortion attempts, as threat actors may reveal themselves through unusual activity logs. It also allows the cybersecurity team to recognize and address security concerns before they become an issue.

They could even invest in artificial intelligence to streamline this process. A deep learning model could analyze real-time activity to uncover potential threats. Typically, it can identify complex data patterns practically invisible to the human eye. Since it processes a massive amount of information quickly, it can be an incredibly effective tool.

6. Zero-Trust Architecture

The zero-trust architecture combines workplace policies and technologies that only authorize essential data or system access instances. It involves granting the most minimal amount of privileges possible. For example, a human resource worker can only view employee files after confirming their identity multiple times. Even though they must use the information to perform their job duties, they’d still have to complete security steps regularly.

A 2022 global survey found 30% of security professionals have implemented zero-trust strategies. It’s not common, but it’s becoming more popular as remote work opportunities increase. Establishing multi-layered security practices can take time, but many standard methods can integrate easily into a workplace. For instance, multi-factor authentication requires minimal additional equipment or applications.

This approach to security is one of the most in-depth solutions to defend against extortionware. It encompasses every aspect of operations, from employee identity authentication to device authorization. It may take a while to implement, but it’s an effective method that covers most potential areas of concern.

7. Vulnerability Testing

Vulnerability testing is integral to any business’s security routine, but it’s particularly instrumental when dealing with ransomware. Since extortionware is only possible if threat actors get ahold of sensitive information, preventing them from ever gaining access is an excellent approach.

Continuously checking for security weaknesses can help a business identify how an attacker could get in and fix these flaws, increasing security. For instance, penetration testing makes cyber attacks less likely because it strengthens system security. Recognizing potential threats in advance is generally a much safer approach than betting on quick incident response.

Prevent Extortionware Attacks

The differences between cyber extortion vs. ransomware may seem inconsequential, but they’re critical. They dictate which preventative measures a business should take. While defending against extortionware is possible, it will require unique security approaches. Companies should carefully consider adapting their current methods to meet these new challenges.