Ransomware is becoming bespoke, and that could mean trouble for businesses and law enforcement investigators. 

It wasn’t always like this. 

For a few years now, ransomware operators have congregated around a relatively new model of crime called “Ransomware-as-a-Service.” In the Ransomware-as-a-Service model, or RaaS model, ransomware itself is not delivered to victims by the same criminals that make the ransomware. Instead, it is used almost “on loan” by criminal groups called “affiliates” who carry out attacks with the ransomware and, if successful, pay a share of their ill-gotten gains back to the ransomware’s creators.

This model allows ransomware developers to significantly increase their reach and their illegal hauls. By essentially leasing out their malicious code to smaller groups of cybercriminals around the world, the ransomware developers can carry out more attacks, steal more money from victims, and avoid any isolated law enforcement action that would put their business in the ground, as the arrest of one affiliate group won’t stop the work of dozens of others. 

And not only do ransomware developers lean on other cybercriminals to carry out attacks, they also rely on an entire network of criminals to carry out smaller, specialized tasks. There are “Initial Access Brokers” who break into company networks and then sell that illegal method of access online. “You also have coders that you can contract out to,” Liska said. “You have pen testers that you can contract out to. You can contract negotiators if you want. You can contract translators if you want.”

But as Liska explained, as the ransomware “business” spreads out, so do new weak points: disgruntled criminals. 

“This whole underground marketplace that exists to serve ransomware means that your small group can do a lot,” Liska said. “But that also means that you are entrusting the keys to your kingdom to these random contractors that you’re paying in Bitcoin every now and then. And that, for example, is why the LockBit code got leaked—dude didn’t pay his contractor.”

With plenty of leaked code now circulating online, some smaller cybercriminals gangs have taken to making minor alterations and then sending that new variant of ransomware out into the world—no affiliate model needed.  

“Most of what we see is just repurposed code and we see a lot of what I call ‘Franken-ransomware.'” 

Today, on the Lock and Code podcast with host David Ruiz, Liska explains why Franken-ransomware poses unique challenges to future victims, cybersecurity companies, and law enforcement investigators. 

Tune in today.

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Show notes and credits:

Intro Music: “Spellbound” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Outro Music: “Good God” by Wowa (unminus.com)

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