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Authorities See Rise in Ransomware Attacks, Urge Businesses to Prioritize Cybersecurity

“We have seen more than 100 different types of ransomware variants with scores of victims of each of those types,” the special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office says

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Ransomware attacks are making headlines across the country keeping federal law enforcement very busy.

“Every 11 seconds an American business is impacted by ransomware,” said Matthew DeSarno, special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office.

Authorities are seeing more complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, also known as IC3.

“We have seen more than 100 different types of ransomware variants with scores of victims of each of those types,” DeSarno said.

“The rise has been exponential,” said Lisa Plaggemier, the interim executive director at the National Cyber Security Alliance.

Plaggemier said the businesses being targeted may not have made cybersecurity a priority.

“So they're going after things like hospitals and school districts and universities and colleges,” she said.

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What Is Ransomware?

Ransomware is when cybercriminals take over your computer system with a program that locks up your files and the only way to get it back is to pay.

“The criminals have essentially locked your information behind the door and you don't have the key. They're the ones that have the key," cyber security expert Alain Espinosa said.

"The bad guys wouldn't do it if nobody was paying the ransom. They would stop. They would give up because it's not fruitful for them,” Plaggemier said.

As the pandemic shut down businesses and schools in March 2020, hackers hit Fort Worth ISD with a ransomware program that targeted the district’s entire IT system.

Earlier this year, the CEO of Colonial Pipeline testified before Congress that his company had no safeguards in place to prevent a ransomware attack.

That is something Plaggemier said companies should do.

“We just have to be prepared, just like we would run fire drills or active shooter training. Schools (and companies) should be having ransomware attack drills and should have a written plan,” she said.

How to Help Prevent Ransomware Attacks

Experts say ransomware attacks are defensible if there are solid backups in place. 

“You go to your backup data and you might have a slight interruption in service to your school district, but you'll keep on going and you won't need to pay the ransom,” Plaggemier said.

“Our position on payment of ransoms is we discourage paying any ransoms. And there's a couple of reasons for that," DeSarno said. "Anyone who pays a ransom is enabling a criminal enterprise to continue to victimize others."

By paying you’re also letting the public and other cyber hackers know your system has been compromised.

“For us, it's important, just like any other ransom situation, like kidnapping for ransom or a terrorist hostage-taking. If we're not with the victims during the negotiations and collecting information about the victims during the time of the ransom discussions, then we are at a severe disadvantage,” DeSarno said.

All the cybersecurity experts said they’re seeing a lot of companies that still don’t have a solid plan in place for a potential cyberattack.

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