Ransomware: To pay or not to pay?

Towards the end of July 2016, Kevin Townsend brought it to my attention that Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, had announced an initiative to address the ransomware problem. No More Ransom is intended to provide information and help victims recover their data without paying a ransom to the criminals. As well as being quoted by Kevin in his article linked above, I commented on the No More Ransom portal at more length for AVIEN, where I maintain information resources on ransomware and on tech support scams.

Subsequently, however, Kevin came back to me when he was researching another article based on research commissioned by Malwarebytes indicating that:

39% of enterprises were hit by ransomware last year … Of those, 40% paid the attackers in order to retrieve their data.

Picking up on the suggestion that ‘40% of corporate victims pay up’, he said:

Many AV companies say there is little chance of recovery without the keys. FBI says corporates have a risk decision to make. Europol says simply ‘don’t pay’. Is Europol being realistic?

You can read a brief extract from my response to that question in Kevin’s article, as well as the replies of other commentators such as Jérôme Segura and Graham Cluley. However, here’s my full response (slightly re-edited for clarity):

In the abstract, there’s an undeniable argument that if you give in and pay the ransom, you’ve directly contributed to the wellbeing of criminality. In many cases, it’s a purely economic decision: it’s cheaper to pay up than lose the data. In other words, you’re providing sustenance to a protection racket.

On the other hand, if you don’t pay up, you probably don’t get your data back – sometimes there is an effective free decrypter available, but most of the time the security industry can’t provide one – and maybe the damage is so severe that you go out of business. You can’t blame people – or companies – if they decide to pay up rather than commit financial suicide, any more than you can blame them for giving their wallets to people who threaten them with knives. In fact, since we’re talking about corporates rather than individuals, it might be seen as being more responsible to pay up rather than destroy the livelihoods of all staff, including those right at the bottom of the hierarchy who are generally less likely than the board of directors to survive the damage to their finances.

If people and companies didn’t pay up, then ransomware attacks would become uneconomic, which wouldn’t stop criminality, but would force crooks to explore other avenues – or maybe I should say dark and sinister alleyways. However, the attacks will remain economically viable as long as people aren’t willing or able to defend their data proactively. It’s easy for those who have the knowledge and resources to implement adequate defences – which is not as easy as many commentators point out – to say that it’s ‘wrong’ to give in to ransom demands. Of course companies should implement such defences, and that would impact on the viability of the attacks. If they don’t do so because it’s cheaper to pay up than to spend money on a backup strategy, then that is reprehensible. I don’t know how often that happens, though: after all, sound backup practice is a defence against all sorts of misfortune, not just ransomware.

We sometimes hear of instances where organizations pay ransomware even though they do have backups because it’s the cheaper option. That’s not only irresponsible (because there is no doubt that it encourages criminality) but it suggests something significantly wrong with the backup strategy they have in place. A deterrent that you can’t afford to use is of little practical use.

Most security bloggers will advise individuals and businesses not to pay the ransom, taking the same view as Europol, as quoted in another article.

If your own business data are at stake, or even your personal data such as photographs which are irreplaceable by any other means, you might feel differently. It seems to me, though, that there is a certain amount of recent softening on that hard-line view. Martijn Grooten pointed out for Virus Bulletin that:

… Paying the ransom should always be the last resort … but sometimes … the only sensible business decision left is to pay the criminals …

As you may have gathered from the above, I’m pretty much in agreement. Ryan Naraine also admits to a shift in his viewpoint. He described in How to avoid becoming the next victim of ransomware, how he was forced to acknowledge that some institutions have real difficulty in resourcing the sort of security that defeats ransomware and have no choice but to pay up after a ransomware incident simply in order to stay in business. Specifically, he quotes from a healthcare organization’s IT administrator, who pointed out that:

We have no computers to use. All our backups are encrypted. It’s a case of desperation. We either pay $800 or we spend thousands to rebuild systems and try to recover data. In practice, we have no choice but to pay the ransom …”

It’s worth pointing out that in such a case an organization is not only obliged to meet statutory obligations but also has a duty of care to the people who use their services. In the event of a failure to protect their data, irrespective of whether that failure is down to technological shortcomings or human error, and where there is no other way of retrieving those data, that duty of care might – and perhaps should – outweigh the point of principle stressed by Europol. Healthcare is not the only area in which such a conflict may arise with a serious impact on the individual, of course, but healthcare organizations have been heavily and publicly hit by ransomware over the last year or so.

Nevertheless I’m going to repeat my own advice that an ounce of prevention (and backup) is worth a ton of Bitcoins, and doesn’t encourage the criminals to keep working on their unpleasant technologies and approaches to social engineering. It’s worth remembering that paying the ransom doesn’t get the data back, either. And there’s unlikely to be a money-back guarantee, as pointed out in an advisory issued by the FBI that also takes a strong ‘no pay’ position.

The agency also offers a series of basic tips on reducing the risk from ransomware that will benefit individuals as well as corporate users, and reduce the risk from other kinds of attack too. I’m still mildly amused, though, by the advice to:

Secure your backups. Make sure they aren’t connected to the computers and networks they are backing up.

Since it’s a bit tricky to back up data without connecting to the system used for primary storage, I suspect that what they meant was that you shouldn’t have your secure backups routinely or permanently accessible from that system, since that entails the strong risk that the backups will also be encrypted by the ransomware. The expanded tips given in an FBI brochure are somewhat clearer on that point.

By David Harley

WARNING: Windows 10 Anniversary Edition – DO NOT REMOVE YOUR ANTIVIRUS!

This week, Microsoft issued the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, which changes the way in which security status is presented to home users.

Windows Defender now displays a user’s protection status as “off” if any non-Microsoft antivirus protection, including ESET, is in use. Additionally, Windows Defender advises the user to remove their non-Microsoft antivirus protection.

This is a very different stance to Microsoft’s position in the past, where Windows Defender played well with others, and if you ran ESET (or any other) antivirus with Windows Defender, they co-existed relatively well together. Computer Security Solutions always recommended turning off the real-time protection of Windows Defender, so that you didn’t have two programs scanning the same file when you accessed it – but leaving Windows Defender “on” for a “second look” during an overnight scan was not a problem. Even though we have never heard of Microsoft’s product finding something that ESET didn’t (quite the reverse) – we felt it was OK to leave Defender on “just in case”.

Well now that Microsoft has changed the way the defender works, our advice has to change – because Microsoft is going to recommend that you remove ESET (and any other 3rd-party antivirus), and keep their Windows Defender as a single product.

This is actually quite a BAD IDEA – because in independent test, ESET’s protection technologies used in NOD32 Antivirus, Smart Security, CyberSecurity for Macintosh, ESET Endpoint Antivirus, ESET Endpoint Security, and just about every ESET product, will out-perform Microsoft in every available metric.

Before we even get to important factors, such as system performance hits, or Memory usage, or malware detection – you need to consider that ESET (which you have bought and paid for a license to run and operate) – has a much larger feature-set:

Comparison Chart of Security Features - ESET vs Microsoft Windows Defender

Comparison Chart of Security Features – ESET vs Microsoft Windows Defender

But when it comes to metrics which matter – ESET outperforms Microsoft where it counts…

ESET beats Microsoft in Malware Detection:

Detection of malicious software - AV Comparatives - ESET Scores 99.4%, while Microsoft Scores 98.1%

Detection of malicious software
AV-Comparatives, March 2016

ESET beats Microsoft in Impact on System Performance:

Impact on system performance* AV-Comparatives, April 2016 *Lower impact score is better

Impact on system performance*
AV-Comparatives, April 2016
*Lower impact score is better

ESET uses far less memory than Microsoft:

Memory usage during System Idle* Passmark, February 2016 *Less megabytes is better

Memory usage during System Idle*
Passmark, February 2016
*Less megabytes is better

ESET has much faster scan-times than Defender:

Scan time in seconds* Passmark, February 2016 *Lower impact score is better

Scan time in seconds*
Passmark, February 2016
*Lower impact score is better

We Strongly recommend that you keep your ESET product and disable Windows Defender – to learn how to do this with a step-by-step guide on how to do this, just visit this ESET Support Article – How to Disable Windows Defender.

Password Strength: It’s not about special characters!

Did you see our most recent Computer Security Solution blog post?

Many of us use dozens (or hundreds) of online websites that need a password. Traditionally, experts have offered two pieces of advice about passwords: first, strong passwords are those with random characters and second, avoid using the same password for different accounts. Most Internet users manage an increasingly large portfolio of password-protected accounts – and that includes us here at CompSecGlobal. It has become a practically impossible task to remember a long-string of alphanumeric characters. We have some many passwords that we MUST use a password manager.

twitter promotion: Ends July 31st

We’re running a twitter promotion – it ends on the 31st of July, 2016.

This month (and through July – because we’re actually starting this before the end of June) – save 10% on all licenses in our online store – use the coupon: save3words

This coupon cannot be combined with other coupons and cannot be applied retroctively to orders already placed in our online store

ESET releases new decryptor for TeslaCrypt ransomware

Have you been infected by one of the new variants (v3 or v4) of the notorious ransomware TeslaCrypt? If your encrypted files had the extensions .xxx, .ttt, .micro, .mp3 or were left unchanged, then ESET has good news for you: we have a decryptor for TeslaCrypt.

We have been covering this malware for a few months now, sometimes along with Locky or being spread by Nemucod. Recently, TeslaCrypt’s operators announced that they are wrapping up their malevolent activities:We must stress that ransomware remains one of the most dangerous computer threats at this moment, and prevention is essential to keep users safe. Therefore, they should keep operating systems and software updated, use reliable security solutions with multiple layers of protection, and regularly back up all important and valuable data at an offline location (such as external storage).

We also advise all users to be very careful when clicking on links or files in their email or browsers. This is particularly true when messages are received from unknown sources or otherwise look suspicious.

For more information about how to protect yourself against these and other ransomware threats, please check this: 11 things you can do to protect against ransomware.

ESET discovers new USB-based data stealing malware

“The USB Thief is, in many aspects different from the more common malware types that we’re used to seeing flooding the internet,” Mr. Gardoň notes.

“The USB Thief is, in many aspects different from the more common malware types that we’re used to seeing flooding the internet,”

“The USB Thief is, in many aspects different from the more common malware types that we’re used to seeing flooding the internet,”

“This one uses only USB devices for propagation, and it does not leave any evidence on the compromised computer. Its creators also employ special mechanisms to protect the malware from being reproduced or copied, which makes it even harder to detect and analyze.

When reading about new malware, the first question that comes to mind is ‘What is the goal of its creator?’. What is your take on the USB Thief?

We can guess their intentions from the capabilities implemented in the malware. Because it is USB-based, the malware is capable of attacks on systems isolated from the internet. Another benefit of being run from a USB removable device is that it leaves no trace – victims don’t notice that their data has been stolen.

Another feature – and one that makes this malware unusual – is that not only it is USB-based, but it is also bound to a single USB device, since it is intended that the malware shouldn’t be duplicated or copied. This binding, combined with its sophisticated implementation of multi-staged encryption that is also bound to features of the USB device hosting it, makes it very difficult to detect and analyze.

Could you elaborate on reasons behind binding the malware to a particular device and encrypting it?

Traditionally, malware is often encrypted, and the obvious reason is that encryption prevents the malware from being detected or – if it gets detected – from being analyzed. In this case, encryption also serves the purpose of binding the malware to a particular device.

As for the reasons for binding to a particular device – this obviously makes it harder for the malware to spread but on the other hand it prevents it from leaking outside the target environment. And, given that the attack leaves no traces, the chances are that the malware won’t be spotted if kept on the USB device and wiped off the machine after completing its mission.

To sum up, to me it seems that this malware has been created for targeted attacks.

Malware capable of targeted attacks against systems isolated from the internet – it’s quite a dangerous tool, isn’t it?

Well, taking into account that organizations isolate some of their systems for a good reason … yes. Any tool capable of attacking these so called air-gapped systems must be regarded as dangerous. More so if it is able to disappear without leaving any trace.

How can organizations prevent attacks based on such malware from succeeding?

This malware is unique because of some particular features but the defense against it still falls within the capabilities of general cybersecurity measures.

Most importantly, USB ports should be disabled wherever possible and, if that’s not possible, strict policies should be in place to enforce care in their use. It’s highly desirable for staff at all levels to undergo cybersecurity training – including real-life testing – if possible …

… Not to get tricked into running the malware, right?

Unfortunately, this is not the case with the USB Thief as it uses an uncommon way to trick a user – it benefits from the fact that USB devices often store portable versions of some common applications like Firefox portable, Notepad++ portable, TrueCrypt portable and so on. It can be stored as a plugin source of portable applications or just a library – DLL – used by the portable application. And therefore, whenever such an application is executed, the malware will also be run in the background.

But people should understand the risks associated with dealing with USB storage devices from sources that may not be trustworthy. Several surveys have shown that people are surprisingly likely to insert every thumb drive they may find into their computers.

Of course, other means of protecting data should be also deployed – from perimeter protection to encryption to data backup.

When we talk about air-gapped systems, these may also be industrial systems, right? This malware is not that serious of a threat to industrial systems as it is only capable of stealing data …

Well, there are many ways in which bad guys could damage a system once they get into it. And this malware’s payload can be redesigned, moving away from data stealing to any other kind of malicious action.

Mr. Gardoň has delivered a technical analysis of the trojan here.

ESET Smart Security 9 received the highest rating in the AV-Comparative File Detection Test

ESET Smart Security 9 received the highest rating in the AV-Comparative File Detection Test.

ESET Smart Security 9 received the highest rating in the AV-Comparative File Detection Test.

April 16, 2016

ESET Smart Security version 9 – March, 2016

ESET Smart Security 9 received the highest rating in the AV-Comparative File Detection Test and was awarded with the File Detection, Advanced + Award. The File Detection Test assesses the ability of antivirus programs to detect malicious files on a system. While the test only assesses one antimalware feature of the programs, this feature is important for a security solution because it can identify malware attacks from sources other than the internet, and detect malicious files already present on the system.


ESET continues winning awards with yet another AV-Test Advanced+ Award!

ESET Wins PC Magazine Parental Controls Award

ESET Wins PC Magazine April 2016

ESET Wins PC Magazine Parental Controls Award – April 2016

April 5, 2016

ESET Parental Control – April, 2016

PC Magazine awarded ESET Parental Control an “Excellent” rating, recommending if for parents, and noting that it is now available with ESET Multi-Device Security. CLICK TO READ

“ESET Parental Control for Android is a great service in its own right and a fantastic addition for users of ESET Multi-Device 9” – PC Magazine, April 2016

“…no matter how you get it, ESET Parental Control for Android is a solid solution for families…” – PC Magazine, April 2016

ESET assists law enforcement in mumblehard takedown

One year after the release of the technical analysis of the Mumblehard Linux botnet, we are pleased to report that it is no longer active. ESET, in cooperation with the Cyber Police of Ukraine and CyS Centrum LLC, have taken down the Mumblehard botnet, stopping all its spamming activities since February 29th, 2016.

ESET is operating a sinkhole server for all known Mumblehard components. We are sharing the sinkhole data with CERT-Bund, which is taking care of notifying the affected parties around the world through their national CERTs.

Collaboration with law enforcement and external entities was crucial in making this operation a success. ESET would like to thank the Cyber Police of Ukraine, CyS Centrum LLC and CERT-Bund. We are proud of our efforts to make the internet a safer place. Mumblehard might not be the most prevalent, the most dangerous or the most sophisticated botnet out there, but shutting it down is still a step in the right direction and shows that security researchers working with other entities can help reduce the impact of criminal activity on the internet.

ESET has not seen any new variants of Mumblehard, or any activities from this malware group, since the takedown.

For more details on the Mumblhard virus, the botnet and its takedown – please read the article on ESET’s blog or this article on theEnquirer.net.

Selecting Protection for your PC

We’ve been an ESET Partner and Reseller for 13+ years. We are one of the original resellers for ESET in the USA.

So why do we continue to sell their product – and – more importantly – why do we use ESET protection on our own machines here in the Computer Security Solutions Office?

Choosing the best Antivirus/Anti-Malware solution for your needs is fraught with challenges. Every IT scenario is different – some have modern, superfast machines, while others might run aging PCs given to them as donations – a common scenario for non-profits.

Protection needs vary – but there are a few factors we consider:

  1. How well a product detects KNOWN threats.
  2. How effectively a product detect NEW & EMERGING threats.
  3. How many system resources are used or System Impact on the user.
  4. How easy it is to INSTALL the software in your environment.
  5. How easy is it to REMOVE the software if you choose to change.
  6. Are the management tools provided by the manufacturer extra cost or included?
  7. Does the vendor charge more for Upgrades for minor/major upgrades?
  8. How honest the product vendor is in their advertising + marketing.
  9. Does the vendor have a proven and consistent track-record in protection?
  10. What % of revenue does a vendor spend on marketing vs research + development?

When we evaluate all these factors in-house.

We install and use the products ourselves, we evaluate the vendor, the vendor reps, the vendor distributors and we use industry standard antivirus testing lab reports for some very in-depth technical testing criteria (like the reactive + proactive testing).

There are a TON of lab reports to choose from – and we have delved deeply into the testing methodologies used by these labs. Some tests are nothing more than paid endorsements – others are fair and have solid test procedures which we trust. Some have a balances approach in one test, but not so much in another. For these reasons we weight our lab reports and the TOP TWO we use are: VirusBulletin – and AV-Comparatives – in that order.

We also weight one-off passes or failures in testing against the longevity and consistency of a product. That means, a single amazingly good, or very bad test does not automatically mean we drop or rave about a product.

A quick comparison – PCMatic

Marketing hype is common in all industries – in the antivirus industry this is no different, and marketing spin might even be more prevalent than many other industries. To check out a competitor, we look at PCMatic, a product vendor that spends a LOT of money on TV commercials.

So are PCMatic promising the moon and delivering, or are they pushing hype + bluster?

PCMatic says it performs well in VB100 Awards – we check out the marketing claim:

Rob Cheng - Founder + CEO likes to claim that PCMatic does well in the "VB100 RAP Test"

Rob Cheng – Founder + CEO likes to claim that PCMatic does well in the “VB100 RAP Test”

First – there is no ‘VB100 RAP Test’ – the RAP Quadrant is a combination report of two tests – the Reactive And Proactive tests.  When someone talks about a VB100 RAP Test, it makes us a little concerned.  Do they really understand the tests, or are they spinning the results?  We will see….

Virus Bulletin Results Over Time:

OK – let’s take a look at the last 10 VB100 tests of PCMatic:

The Last 10 PCMatic Tests for VirusBulletin (VB100)

The Last 10 PCMatic Tests for VirusBulletin (VB100)

10 test = 5 fails, 5 VB100 Awards

Compare that to the last 10 VB100 tests of ESET:

The Last 10 ESET Tests for VirusBulletin (VB100)

The Last 10 ESET Tests for VirusBulletin (VB100)

10 tests = 0 Fails, 10 VB100 Awards

Now look closer at those results.  Things to note:

  1. what is the machine impact – shown in the VB100 test as ‘system impact’ – lower scores are better.  PCMatic has VERY large scores.
  2. ESET gets 10 VB100 awards in 10 test – PCMatic gets 5 and misses 5 (ie, they have 5 fails)
  3. Stability rating – ESET scores a SOLID in each test – and PCMatic scores FAIR
  4. RAP Score – the score that PCMatic even says they get 30% more than their competitors – ESET consistently scores 80-91% – PCMatic scores high 80’s to 92%.  Does that look like a 30% higher score for PCMatic than their competitors?  It doesn’t look that way to us.


ESET products have received solid VB100 awards since the start of testing by VirusBulletin – PCMatic has a spotty test result – failing about 50% of the tests (mostly for false positives).

ESET is a solid and stable product – PCMatic is rated ‘fair’ – not exactly ‘SOLID’.

PCMatic makes wild claims about their performance vs the competition – ESET is quiet and goes about the business of building better solutions in a low-key way.

Have you come to realize why we don’t sell PCMatic at all??  We think the choice is clear…