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Furthermore, organizations that had weak security postures suffered harsher outcomes of ransomware attacks as opposed to companies with stronger postures. This finding indicates that the need to strengthen security postures in a bid to defend organizational assets against ransomware attacks is greater than ever. Hackers are relentlessly taking advantage of well-documented issues (e.g. RDP brute-force, poor security training, insufficient vulnerability management).

This work makes a number of valuable contributions to the existing body of academic literature on ransomware. It increases knowledge about factors that can make crypto-ransomware attacks absolutely unbearable for affected organizations. We urge readers to learn from the experiences of victims presented in this work and take appropriate preventative actions to avoid, transfer or mitigate the risks of a crypto-ransomware attack. Finally, we developed an Impact Assessment Instrument, which can be applied in further academic works that specifically focus on the crypto-ransomware impact.

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While we cannot offer any insights into the probability of an attack, we can speak about impact. Except where otherwise stated, the hypotheses were assessed using two-sided Fisher’s Exact tests. The size of our sample provides acceptable power to detect moderate-to-large relationships between categorical variables using this technique. Where data was missing, cases were excluded; the number of relevant cases is stated in the results of each test.

It is important to note that organizations must focus on technical and non-technical controls as both are vital; one without the other is futile. As our results demonstrate, targeted attacks are mainly preying on technical shortcomings but even if all technical loopholes are closed down, hackers can still hit a potential victim by exploiting human weaknesses. There is a recent trend of a particular variant of ransomware called BitPaymer, which is seen as a big problem.

Twenty organizations (59%) had a weak security posture, 13 (38%) had a medium-security posture and only one had a strong posture. We used the criteria outlined in Appendices 5 and 6 to assess the security postures of organizations. The headings from this taxonomy served as a guide for questions.

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Although the IT/Security Manager wrote a report recommending organizational changes, senior management did not act upon it. Yes, there was a financial impact because resources were directed towards dealing with the cyber-attack. But it is difficult for us to quantify the financial impact … . Even road potholes – people could not report potholes because our systems were down.

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Table 1, it greatly complicates comparability between studies. We executed our study as rigorously as we could, combining quantitative and qualitative data, and although we believe it is robust and broadly generalizable, that is a point of conjecture.

It seems to me to be very targeted because cybercriminals are making extremely large demands on the businesses, which I have never seen before – £30,000 –so they are clearly very targeted. When I first started, the virus was very specific to the machine. The machine that clicked on the email was the machine that got the virus and the ransomware and that was it. More recent variants of ransomware have the ability to spread. We have seen this evolution ISO Recorder, where suspects are using vulnerabilities to spread across networks. This type of ransomware is more prevalent than it ever was because it gives hackers an advantage. Several respondents commented that if vulnerabilities are not closed down following ransomware attacks, organizations will get attacked again.

This work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [EP/P011721/1]. Furthermore, in terms of limitations, in Phase 1, we interviewed one participant per organization. We used a snowballing sampling strategy in Phase 2 of data collection which, though not ideal, was the only pragmatic way we could collect data on ransomware attacks.

We succeeded to connect with 10 police officers and 1 Civilian Cybercrime Investigator, who provided information on 22 usable ransomware incidents via semi-structured interviews and one focus group. Two police officers were interviewed twice as they were able to add new information. The average professional experience of the study respondents was 19 years. We also managed to collect data on 22 more cases with a Detective Inspector, who, unfortunately, was not able to meet with us face-to-face but agreed to provide data via a structured questionnaire (sent over e-mail). Additionally, we interviewed an IT/Security Manager with over 20 years of professional experience, which added one final case to our database of ransomware incidents. Relevant information is available inAppendix 1 (Cases 16–60).

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