Helping the Healthcare Industry Avoid Being the Next Ransomware Victim: 5 Tips for Employees

By Marcus Chung, CEO, BoldCloud.

Marcus J. Chung
Marcus Chung

Every person, from the newest employee to the CEO, can either strengthen or weaken an organization’s security posture. For this reason, healthcare companies need to help their employees take precautions against the latest ransomware scams, otherwise their organization  may be the next ransomware victim.

One of the main reasons healthcare has become such fertile ground for ransomware hacks is the shift to digitalized personal healthcare records in a rapid time frame. Less than ten years ago, most physicians updated patient records manually and stored them in color coded file systems. By the end of 2017 industry data suggests that approximately 90 percent of office-based physicians have moved to electronic systems (electronic health records/electronic medical records) for the storage, retrieval and management of electronic health data. Virtually all of these systems are online and internet accessible. Electronic healthcare medical records really made the healthcare industry a perfect target for ransomware attempts.

But, the cost of a ransomware attack goes far beyond any extortion payment. When considering the associated costs including downtime, lost revenue, angry patients or customers, attack mitigation and recovery expenses, brand reputation damage, and non-compliance fines, in retrospect the cost of the ransom itself may seem trivial.

When United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) was impacted by the global WannaCry outbreak of 2017, it brought hundreds of NHS facilities to a standstill for several days, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of appointments and operations, as well as the urgent relocation of patients from impacted emergency centers. In April 2017, Erie County Medical Center lost access to 6,000 computers due to a ransomware attack, which resulted in six weeks of manual operations and a recovery process that ultimately cost the medical center $10 million.

Unfortunately, security technologies can only do so much to protect your organization against an attack. Ransomware typically spreads through phishing emails or by visiting an infected website. Even the most advanced antivirus and anti-ransomware solutions can’t stop Fully UnDetectable (FUD) threats that were conceived by cybercriminals to directly evade existing security layers and harm data.  In fact, the majority of ransomware victims have some traditional Anti-Virus and Anti-Malware protection in place and yet still fall prey to attacks.

Even if your organizations has backups, you may be surprised to find that you are still vulnerable. Today, many criminals do reconnaissance on their victim’s network and compromise backups before deploying the encrypting malware to increase the odds that the organization will pay the ransom.

But paying the ransom doesn’t always work out either.  study by the CyberEdge Group shows that of the 39 percent of ransomware victims who have paid, less than half recover their data. It also leaves the victimized organization vulnerable to another attack. If the root cause of the breach is not corrected, another day can bring another ransom request.

Ultimately, it is up to your organizational leaders to decide whether or not to pay. Healthcare organizations are a favorite target of cybercriminals because they are more likely to pay up when computer downtime can introduce life or death consequences. Regardless of your position on paying cybercriminals a ransom, the best strategy is to avoid being placed in a compromised position in the first place. But how?

Obviously, all healthcare organizations want to avoid being a ransomware victim, but cybersecurity is a complex problem that requires multiple layers of defenses. Small to medium size healthcare organizations are particularly vulnerable since many believe they don’t have adequate financial or technical resources to defend themselves against the onslaught attacks.

Industry experts estimate that a company with 50 employees may have to spend upward of $50,000 to deploy sophisticated endpoint technologies such as antivirus, anti-malware software and firewalls to keep intruders out and then thousands of dollars each year to keep everything up to date. Even when making this investment in security, it doesn’t guarantee a breach won’t happen. Just one wrong click by an employee is all it takes.

5 Ransomware Prevention Tips to Help Employees

In the face of this rapidly-growing threat, healthcare organizations should take concrete steps to deploy the technologies needed to protect systems from ransomware attacks. But employees need to educated on how ransomware is distributed and taught how to be cautious when clicking on online advertisements or email links, visiting a new website, and opening attachments from unfamiliar or suspicious senders.

To avoid ransomware threats whether at home or on the job, all computer users should follow these security best practices:

Always have a trusted antivirus or anti-malware software installed on every single computer and mobile device used at work and home. Eset, Avast and Malwarebytes all offer highly rated antivirus and anti-malware products for home users and businesses.

Choose strong and unique passwords for all work and personal accounts including mobile devices and wireless connections. Then keep them safe with a password management tool. LastPass and Roboform are two very popular password management tools that can be used to generate, protect and manage both work and personal passwords.

Regularly backup files to an external hard drive that is not connected to the Internet. Programs like Macrium, Novastor and Acronis provide a convenient and safe way to backup frequently used files to the cloud (via encrypted backups).

Never open suspicious email attachments or links. Check out the email business security tools offered by Zerospam or Mailwasher which offer free versions for home users.

Use Mirror Shielding technology as a fail safe data protection measure, just in case things go wrong. NeuShield offers a free version of its product for home users and trial versions for businesses. Their Mirror Shielding technology allows an attacker to believe he or she has taken control of a computer’s data files, but the malicious code is seeing a mirror image of the system and does not have actual possession of the data. If a user does receive a ransom demand, it only takes a single click to revert back to the original files.

Other helpful hints include making sure employees know that they should immediately disconnect from the Internet to avoid any additional infections or data losses if they receive a ransomware popup or message alerting them to an infection. Additionally, targeted individuals and organizations should alert local law enforcement personnel and file a complaint at www.IC3.gov.

Conclusion

Many malicious attacks can be stopped by endpoint security products and advanced threat protection solutions, but creative scammers keep finding ways to get past these defenses. If a company’s security program does not address these new methods of attack, and its employees are not empowered to defend themselves, the company will be more likely to fall for a scam or engage in actions that threaten the security of data and network integrity.

A 2017 survey from Wombat Security Technologies revealed that 30 percent of employees don’t know what phishing is. Additionally, ransomware is an unknown concept to nearly two-thirds of workers. If an organization is dependent on computer systems to serve patients or simply generate revenue, these statistics should serve as a wake-up call.

It may seem like an uphill battle, but if the healthcare industry is willing to make the investment in the right tools and training, employees can help defend against growing ransomware attacks and other sneaky methods used to scam healthcare organizations out of cash and valuable data.

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