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What Community Banks Need to Know About Ransomware Attacks

Cybersecurity graphic

By Cassandra Krause 

With a recent uptick in activity, ransomware attacks are a form of cyberattack that has been prevalent in recent news — and for good reason. The effects can be detrimental in terms of monetary loss and reputational damage to the victim. Ransomware is a type of malicious software (a.k.a. malware) that usually encrypts a victim’s files, and the bad actors have upped their game to steal the data first, then threaten to also publish the data to the public. Criminals set their sights on businesses with the goal of extorting money, making community banks prime targets. 

Organized crime networks are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In general, the risk of getting caught for cybercrimes is much lower than for traditional crimes like robbery, and the financial gains are far higher. Ransomware developers write and sell the software to other bad actors for a cut of the profits when they deploy it and collect ransom payment, usually in the form of cryptocurrency, which is hard to trace. Compromised data may also be used to open fraudulent lines of credit. 

“The U.S. is in a ransomware crisis right now,” said Jeff Otteson, vice president of sales at Midwest Bankers Insurance Services (MBIS), a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. He explained that it has created a hard insurance market with carriers tightening up on internal control requirements such as multifactor authentication (MFA) for privileged users (users with the ability to install software or change security settings on critical systems) and encryption of backups. 

In their 2021 Cost of a Data Breach Report, IBM Security and the Ponemon Institute calculate that the average total cost of a data breach is $4.24 million, a 10% increase from 2020–2021. The per-record cost of personally identifiable information averaged $180. 

Prevention 

With the incredibly high stakes in mind, banks are dedicating significant resources to preventing malicious cyberactivity, both in terms of staff and money. Respondents to a 2020 Deloitte survey of financial institutions reported spending about 10.9% of their IT budget on cybersecurity on average, up from 10.1% in 2019. In terms of spending per employee, respondents spent about $2,700 on average per full-time employee (FTE) on cybersecurity in 2020, up from about $2,300 the prior year. 

“There is an industry-standard framework for ransomware prevention and all cybersecurity,” explained FIPCO’s Director InfoSec and Audit Ken Shaurette. FIPCO is also a WBA subsidiary. A good consultant will walk the bank through a comprehensive review of their network security, improving endpoint protection to replace traditional antivirus and endpoint detection solutions, including adding authentication improvements such as MFA, improved password strength, and protecting backups. As more and more of the digital tools that bankers utilize require users to download and install software and updates, depending on signature-based solutions for malware detection is not acceptable — it has become critical to safeguard user, file, network, and device-level activities. 

A bad actor gaining access to a bank’s data may encrypt the data and demand payment in exchange for granting access back to the bank. In this situation, having a data backup is essential.  

“The rule of thumb for data backups is 3-2-1,” said FIPCO Information Security and IT Audit Advisor Rob Foxx. “There should be three copies of all data stored on two different mediums. One of the copies should be stored off site.” 

Ransomware prevention is only one part of a complete cybersecurity system. Experts agree that early detection of unusual activity within a system can help keep a minor incident from quickly escalating into a major incident like a ransomware threat. 

“Ransomware isn’t the first attack,” said Wolf & Company, P.C. Manager of the I.T. Assurance Group Sean Goodwin, who recently presented at WBA’s Secur-I.T. Conference. “Ultimately, it’s on I.T. to put controls in place because an employee will inevitably fall for a phishing email. It becomes a question of whether we can catch that quickly.” 

Social engineering remains the greatest concern; it’s easier for bad actors to trick an employee rather than break through a firewall. Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report found that almost half of the breaches in the financial services industry involved internal actors committing various types of errors. The report stated that the financial sector frequently faces credential and ransomware attacks from external actors, 96% of which are financially motivated (followed by small percentages of motives of espionage, grudge, fun, and ideology). 

Goodwin emphasized that I.T. must be able to act quickly when there’s an indication that someone is accessing something they don’t normally access. “Prevention is ideal. If we can prevent it, that’s best-case scenario, but if not, early detection becomes critical,” he said. This area of solution, known as endpoint detection and response, is rapidly becoming a key point of protection from ransomware and all other malicious events. 

Establishing an incident response program within a bank is an important part of the overall cybersecurity program. 

Preparation 

Creating a culture of cybersecurity awareness throughout the bank is important, so that bank employees are prepared for an incident. Employee training on what to do in the event of an attack should be standard practice. Making security part of the organization’s DNA is a best practice. 

“Every bank needs an incident response plan, and that needs to be approved all the way up through the board. Part of this plan is notification of incidents to the insurance carrier,” said MBIS’s Otteson. 

FIPCO’s Foxx emphasized that the roles and responsibilities in the incident response plan must be clearly defined, and banks should revisit their plan regularly.  

“As the insurance agent, I’m the first call a bank makes when there’s an incident,” said Otteson. “It’s important that banks choose to work with an agency that understands cyber insurance.”  

MBIS insures about 220 banks and has access to a large number of carriers that provide the right coverage for their customers. Otteson recommends reporting all incidents as even a minor incident could result in a claim down the line and having reported that incident when it occurred is key to a successful claim. He says to keep in mind that the owner of the data is liable for it whether the incident occurred in house or with a vendor the bank shared customer data with. 

Mitigation 

It’s important to work with the insurance carrier to ensure that all the bases are covered and that the vendors who participate in the response are approved. Not using the cyber insurance carrier’s approved vendors may result in expenses not being covered under the insurance policy. In the event of a ransomware attack, the insurance agent or bank will immediately notify the insurance carrier. Beazley, a carrier partner of MBIS, maintains a 24/7 helpline, which has become common with other carriers as well. Knowing how to report incidents, when to report, and what to expect is key. 

Holidays and weekends are prime times for ransomware attacks: employees who are in a rush to leave may be more likely to click on a bad link, and with employees away from work, it’s easier for the bad actors to get into the network. Even if a problem is detected, it’s more likely that staff who could help put a stop to the attack may be on vacation or unavailable, buying the criminals more time to take over. 

As soon as a cyber liability claim is made, the insurance carrier’s pre-approved vendors come into play.  

“Nobody has the resources in house to effectively manage ransomware attacks,” said Foxx, who has experience working both within a bank and as an external auditor and consultant. The specialization of skills and the amount of people needed to perform adequate analysis and remediation are so significant that even large banks will not have all the players they need on staff. 

If a bank’s data becomes encrypted and made inaccessible, a vendor such as Tetra Defense would be engaged on forensics. Managed endpoint detection and response vendors such as Cynet can help from detection and prevention to response, including providing digital evidence for a vendor performing forensics. Meanwhile, a vendor such as Coveware would handle ransom negotiations with the criminals. Wolf & Company, P.C.’s Goodwin said that you don’t really know who’s on the other side of the transaction — some criminals may be willing to negotiate and others not. He referred to ransomware as a “niche space in cybersecurity that is now getting more attention.” The criminal organizations involved in these types of attacks in some ways act like a legitimate business in that they rely on their reputation and may even have customer service departments — if they fail, it will hurt their chances of getting more business in the future.  

Typically, in the event of a ransomware attack, a legal firm will handle communications and PR for the bank — putting a statement on the bank’s website, assisting staff with customer phone calls, and determining whom to notify. Getting legal involved early protects all communications and discovery with attorney-client privilege. The requirements for notification vary from state to state, and a bank may have customers in multiple states or even other countries, making the expertise of a legal team invaluable. The language used in communications matters, as the term “breach,” for example, can have different legal implications and potentially create larger issues than terms like “incident,” “situation,” or “event.” Education of staff far in advance using regular testing of the plan is a key factor in mitigating an incident. Inappropriate statements made by employees on social media or even at informal social gatherings can have severe ramifications for the bank. 

Follow Up 

While anyone who experiences a ransomware attack may be eager to breathe a sigh of relief and move on when it is over, it is essential to review the incident and revise the bank’s incidence response plan. Assessing what went well and what needs to be improved are critical steps.  

Goodwin also warns that victims of ransomware are commonly re-targeted. A Cybereason study found that 80% of organizations that previously paid ransom demands confirmed they were exposed to a second attack. He said that once a company has paid a ransom it is known that (1) you were compromised, (2) you do not have proper backups of your files, and (3) you were willing to pay. 

Summary 

Cyberattacks are the biggest risk to a financial institution — even surpassing the risk of past-due loans. The cost of a ransomware attack can be astronomical, with many factors contributing to the price tag, including vendor fees and staff hours to resolve the issue; the cost to inform customers and offer identity or other protections; the loss of destructed data; and the down time of the business. All of this, followed by the loss of customers’ trust (and subsequent loss of their business), has the potential to put a community bank out of business.  

There are safeguards banks can put in place, including a sound incident response plan, improved monitoring with better endpoint detection and response, cyber liability coverage, and employee education. FIPCOMBIS, and a wide range of WBA Associate Members are ready to support banks in keeping their data and that of their customers safe.