How to Recover from a Ransomware Attack - The Complete Guide

Ransomware exploits are one of the most common cyber threats facing businesses in the modern era of tech. Let's unpack how to recover from a ransomware attack.

Ransomware threats are becoming more prevalent in today's IT environment. From Colonial Pipeline to your local business, ransomware presents a huge threat to your business continuance. Ransomware is malware designed to encrypt your files and prevent you from accessing your systems until you pay an attacker a ransom.

The most common examples of ransomware are the "WannaCry" and "Petya" malware that circulated through the internet in May 2017. There are several types of ransomware circulating the internet today, including notorious software like "CryptoLocker," "Ryuk," "NotPetya," and "Maze," to name a few.

Recent advancements in ransomware led to the development of "Cerber," the first "Ransomware-as-a-Service."

Ransomware can strike any business or service at any time. Healthcare and financial institutions are popular targets for hackers implementing these attacks. Without a solid disaster recovery plan (DRP), recovery from ransomware is haphazard at best.

Without a DRP, organizations are left with two choices - pay the ransom or risk losing all their data forever. Paying the ransom isn't a guarantee the attacker will send you the encryption key you need to unlock your files.

Many companies find themselves holding the bag after paying the ransom, further exacerbating their predicament. This post looks at how to recover from a ransomware attack. We'll unpack strategies to prevent it from happening to your organization.

Understanding ransomware attacks

Before we look at how to recover from ransomware attacks, we must understand the mechanism behind this malware infestation. A ransomware attack is an Advanced Persistent Threat (ATP) where attackers run a campaign to penetrate your network.

The goal is to lock you out of your systems and gain access to your data for a prolonged period. There are several ways ransomware enters your network. The most common attack vector is via a "phishing" email. Phishing is a cyber-attack involving a bad actor sending someone on your team an email with a malicious link.

When the unsuspecting user clicks the link, it executes the ransomware protocol, creating a backdoor in your systems. The malware communicates to a command and control server that sends the ransomware payload to the system.

After the ransomware executes on your network, it encrypts folders and files, expanding throughout the network. A ransomware attack is rarely immediate. Typically, it goes undetected in your system for several hours or days before finally executing the lock-out and encryption phase.

After connecting to the command and control server, hackers utilize tools to execute network reconnaissance or enumeration. This ensures encryption of the organization's most important files and, occasionally, their backups.

The phases of a ransomware attack

The ransomware attack executes in seven distinct stages. To recover from ransomware attacks, organizations must protect their networks from falling victim to the initial stage.

The pre-attack phase

The pre-attack phase covers the first three stages of the event. During the pre-attack phase, the malware enters and establishes in your systems.

At this time, most organizations won't notice anything wrong with their systems other than a slight slowing of performance. However, a lot is going on undetected in the background.

Phase 1 –Execution

The execution phase involves an employee clicking on the malicious link sent in the phishing email. After clicking, the malware starts setting up in your systems, preparing for the attack phase.

Phase 2 –Initiation

This phase occurs after the malware enters your systems and starts setting up the backdoor to the command and control server.

Phase 3 –Activation

This stage involves the remote execution of the ransomware by the hacker or hacking group.

The attack phases

After the pre-attack phase is complete, the next stage is the encryption of your files. The malware locks users out of the system, displaying the "ransom screen" on devices connected to the network.

The ransom note tells the user that their files are encrypted and they must pay a ransom to have them unlocked. Typically, hackers demand a ransom in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin or Monero. Monero is becoming the more popular choice due to its near impossibility to trace.

After paying the ransom, the attacker will send an encryption key to the user, allowing them to restore their files. However, there are several instances where the attackers don't bother to send the encryption key, even after the ransom payment.

Phase 4 –Encryption

The ransomware encrypts the files and data on the organization's network, locking out users.

Phase 5 –Financial demands

The ransom screen appears on network devices demanding payment.

Stage 6 –Recovery or loss

The organization either pays the ransom or decides to forgo the recovery.

Stage 7 –Restoration

After clearing the malware infection, systems are restored to normal.

The progress of ransomware attacks

There are several new innovations in ransomware. Double extortion, third-party attack vectors, and Ransomware-as-a-Service are commonplace with these types of attacks.

With ransomware through third-party attack vectors, hackers target the third party to gain access to their preferred target. An example of this type of attack is the SolarWinds hack. Attackers hid the malware inside a software update, spreading it through the connected parties to the SolarWinds update system.

Double extortion attacks involve hackers moving to multi-pronged attacks, adding data exfiltration to the process. This method allows attackers to make data publicly available if the organization fails to pay the ransom.

R-a-a-S (Ransomware-as-a-Service) is a disturbing new trend emerging on hacking sites like "Caffeine V2," where even the most inexperienced hackers can launch full ransomware campaigns from a neatly programmed dashboard. The result is an exponential increase in these types of threats.

The financial cost of ransomware attacks

Discovering the initial attack phase is only part of isolating the ransomware attack. Downtime from the malware infestation can last days to months, depending on the extent of the problem.

As mentioned, there's no guarantee you will recover your systems, even if you decide to pay the ransom. Ransomware attacks continue to increase in frequency.

In 2019, the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimated out of 500 surveyed organizations, 84% were victims of ransomware attacks.

Of that, 89% of attacks were successful for the hackers, with 93% experiencing data loss or corruption. Cyber Magazine predicts financial damages from global ransomware attacks will reach $265 billion by 2031.

Case study – The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack

The Colonial Pipeline is one of the United States' largest fuel delivery networks, spanning 5,500 miles and providing 45% of gasoline delivered to the east coast. A ransomware attack executed in May 2021 saw this infrastructure come to a grinding halt.

The event was national news, resulting in gas shortages across the east coast fuel stations. The hacker group "DarkSide" claimed responsibility for the incident, demanding a $4.4 million ransom paid in Bitcoin. After days of interrupted services and no ability to restore its systems, Colonial paid the ransom.

Improving cyber resilience

With the rising prevalence of ransomware attacks, organizations must better prepare themselves for the inevitable. It's not about if you're going to become a victim. It's a matter of time before you will become a victim.

Therefore, organizations must make the necessary preparations for their systems to protect them from these cyber threats. Establishing a response plan to a ransomware attack should be part of every Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP).

An effective DRP allows organizations to rapidly restore systems in the wake of a ransomware attack and assist them with avoiding paying the hacker's ransom demands. Creating an adequate plan to back up and store data off-site for rapid deployment is essential to preventing the downtime caused by the hack.

Effective cyber resilience within security groups and IT teams is imperative to mitigate the damage caused by ransomware. A cyber resilience strategy encompasses an infrastructure strategy and a security strategy. Let's look at both and determine how they fit into your DRP.


The infrastructure side of cyber resilience strategies involves data availability. To ensure you have access to your data after a ransomware attack, organizations must replicate their data across several geographic off-site data centers.

This strategy enables operations to continue uninterrupted in the event of an attack. Companies need a fast connection to access these off-site data centers.

Another alternative to this strategy is to host the data in cloud storage for easy access. This solution gives companies instant access without the need for high-speed bandwidth resources.


The security side of the strategy involves how companies protect their data with backups and the recovery strategy required to source and restore their operations. Standard disaster recovery and business continuity plans must provide basic frameworks of security controls, ensuring data accessibility and integrity.

To ensure rapid recovery times, organizations must implement continuous data protection (CDP) policies for immediate restoration. This strategy ensures any changes to safeguarded systems are recorded off-site and recovered within the shortest time possible.

Business continuity and resilience

These strategies have several components. However, within the realm of IT systems, they refer to the organization's ability to recover data. Backup and disaster recovery are effective in restoring local files or recovering apps from secondary DR sites to assist with getting the organizations back on track.

Resilience to modern ransomware attacks requires the latest data recovery and management solutions protecting data across several platforms, including cloud, on-site, tiered storage, and SaaS apps. Those organizations that don't have a DRP or cyber resilience plan in place need to start preparing to implement one today. Waiting til tomorrow could be too late for your company.

Those organizations with DRP solutions must ensure they stress-test these systems and uncover all vulnerabilities. The IT management team must assess and audit these findings, creating solutions to any vulnerabilities discovered in the stress testing.

While it's impossible to stop all attacks, a well-planned and updated DRP ensures you can rapidly recover your data and operations for business continuance.

The five pillars of ransomware resilience –Identification, Protection, Detection, Response, Recovery

So, how long does it take to recover from ransomware attacks? If you have an adequately prepared DRP, you can quickly get your systems back online without needing to pay the ransom demanded by hackers.

The NIST identifies "The five primary pillars for a successful and holistic cyber security program." Your DRP should cover them all for the most effective recovery strategy possible. The five pillars are the following:

  1. Identification
  2. Protection
  3. Detection
  4. Response
  5. Recovery

Ransomware prevention strategies

Those are the best strategies to prevent ransomware from impacting your operations.

This involves cyber security defenses covering the first three pillars in the NIST framework, namely, "Identify," "Protect." and "Detect."

The defenses involved in this strategy are network protection, antivirus solutions, vulnerability management, patching, identity management, and security operations to identify ransomware attacks. Organizations can bolster these strategies with effective staff training and pen-testing.

Disaster recovery solutions

The goal of ransomware prevention is to avoid attacks. However, the disaster recovery plan ensures the organization has the data and infrastructure available for rapid restoration of business operations.

The DR solution is essential in delivering RTOs and RPOs acceptable to the organization. This includes frequent stress testing to ensure optimal readiness during a ransomware attack.

How to recover from a ransomware attack – Work with IT security professionals

Recovering from a ransomware attack is challenging. There's a good chance your business will suffer extensive delays to business continuance, massive financial losses, legal liability, and possible bankruptcy. The reality is recovery ransomware software doesn't work, and if you land with a ransomware attack on your systems, chances are your business is dead in the water.

That's why hiring an IT partner with expertise in preventative measures is critical. They can assist with protecting your organization from ransomware attacks. The right managed IT support in Orlando will help you set up your systems to prevent ransomware attacks from becoming a reality at your organization. IT experts can close the loopholes and vulnerabilities to prevent ransomware attacks.

The right IT partner trains your team on what to look out for with ransomware attacks and how to handle potential threats. Most of all, IT partners will monitor in real-time, ensuring they stop ransomware threats from entering your network. Stop ransomware threats before they have a chance to corrupt your systems with a dedicated IT security partner.

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