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Why Antivirus Software Can’t Stop Ransomware

In today's modern digital world, installing top-rated antivirus software on your personal and business devices has become a no-brainer. Antivirus software is effective at detecting and blocking many different forms of malware, providing security for networking systems in general and individual devices in particular.

However, there is one form of malware that can slip right past antivirus software's blind spots: ransomware. In this article, we're going to explain why antivirus software is ineffective against ransomware, and what your alternatives are for staying safe against these forms of cyberattack.

What Is Antivirus Software?

To understand what antivirus software is and is not effective against, you first need to understand how antivirus software works.

Antivirus software uses three different types of detection to find and warn you of potential viruses that could infect your devices. It does so by comparing the files and programs it scans to the antivirus software's database of known malware types.

The first and most common of the three major forms of antivirus detection is scanning, which entails an antivirus software comparing the data it collects against the database of unique characteristics that most viruses share. By doing this, antivirus software is able to detect the presence of a malicious software program.

However, because this form of antivirus detection is so common, malware developers have had plenty of experience in developing software that gets around this method. For example, a malware developer could use encryption to mask the malicious code, preventing antivirus software from recognizing the virus as malicious.

The next form of detection used by antivirus software is generic detection, which involves the software performing a broad scan for generic characteristics that are shared by most forms of malware. For instance, software using generic detection can scan for malware signatures, which are characteristics shared by a major strain of malware.

The third and final form of antivirus detection is heuristic detection, which is the most advanced of the three methods. Heuristic detection works by comparing the behavior of a file or program to virus-like behavior. Segments of code are tested against the rules created by antivirus software developers for this purpose. If the antivirus software determines that a program is acting suspiciously, that program will be flagged.

As you can imagine, antivirus software that uses all three forms of detection can pinpoint a wide variety of malicious programs, but as we will see below, there are some programs that are still able to get around the considerable safeguards created by antivirus software.

What Is Ransomware?

The cat-and-mouse game between antivirus software developers and malware coders is like an arms race, with each side racing to outpace the other and overcome the capabilities of the opponent's software.

Ransomware & Malware is an example of an advanced threat that is largely able to get around the safeguards that are created by antivirus software developers. Ransomware works by encoding data within your network or computer system in order to block your access to it. The hackers do this so they can extort money from you for the privilege of regaining control of your own data.

Ransomware threats rely not just on smart coding by the bad guys but also on social engineering (meaning the use of deception to commit digital fraud or extortion). For example, a certain type of ransomware may work by disguising itself as an email from a coworker or a friendly-looking link in a seemingly innocuous message.

However they come across your radar, ransomware strains work primarily by tricking you into letting the ransom code enter your own system. In a certain sense, a victim has to be tricked into "letting the ransomware in" for it to do its work of encrypting your files and forcing you to pay money to restore your access.

There is more than one approach that ransomware developers can use to trick you into giving their ransom code unauthorized access to your system. We will discuss these sophisticated attacks below.

How Ransomware Gets Around Antivirus Software

As we've mentioned before, antivirus solutions are sophisticated, but malware developers are working just as hard to overcome cybersecurity software as good guy developers are to create a defense against ransomware.

As in most cases of offense vs. defense, defensive software is limited in that it has to be reactive rather than proactive. Antivirus programs can be limited in their ability to recognize the strains of malware listed in their database, their ability to recognize suspicious behavior in a program, and more.

Software is kept up to date when a new strain of malware attacks, but this means that someone's device has to be infected with new strains of ransomware that the developers can then learn to counter.

These new, ever-shifting threats make it difficult for even the best antivirus software developers to keep up. This is especially the case with ransomware, which can lock your business systems and keep you out of your own files for long periods if your network gets infected.

And if you don't have any data backups saved and are unable to use a ransomware decryption tool to unlock your files, you'll have to either pay the ransom demanded by the hackers or else abandon your encrypted data entirely.

Ransomware Techniques

Ransomware infects friendly devices in a variety of ways. For example, as already mentioned, hackers may send you ransomware in the form of a seemingly legitimate email or similar digital message. By opening the email or clicking a corrupted link included in the body, you allow ransomware to infect your device. This technique is known as phishing and is one of the most common forms of ransomware hacking.

Even if it does scan emails, your antivirus software may not be able to detect any ransom code embedded in those messages in the form of a shady link. This means that phishing attacks are still commonly used to circumvent the safeguards created by antivirus software.

Malicious advertising (aka "malvertising") is a similar method that involves infecting your device through banner or pop-up ads encountered while you're surfing the Internet. While antivirus software is often adept at blocking access to websites that have been infected with malware-based ads, there's still the chance of stumbling upon an infected ad during your browsing.

And there's also the possibility of user error. Your antivirus software may warn you not to access a certain website, but if you ignore the antivirus notification and hop onto the infected site anyway, you're putting your device at risk.

The same goes for downloading an infected application onto your computer or other device. If you give an app access to your data as part of the downloading process, you could be putting your device at risk of ransomware infection whether or not you use antivirus software.

Finally, your network could be infected through the use of a piece of hardware containing ransomware, such as a USB or hard drive. This is why only using trusted hardware is an essential part of basic cybersecurity.

How to Stay Safe Against Ransomware

Don't get us wrong, investing in antivirus software is a must for protecting your technology from hacking. It just isn't a magic cure-all for safeguarding against ransomware. Still, to increase your chances of catching malware (including ransomware), strive to keep your antivirus updated with the latest software patches.

There are several specific steps you can take to keep yourself and your team safe against ransomware. For starters, make sure everyone is trained on how to identify and prevent phishing attempts through scam emails, unsolicited private messages, and more. This can be done with the help of a dedicated digital security team that can also help you develop a security strategy against ransomware.

On that same note, be mindful about clicking on any potentially malicious links or ads, and never go onto an unsecured website. Be alert for web URLs that don't contain "https," which is a good indicator of suspicious activity on that site.

Next, always back up your data in a secured configuration. That way, even if your computer or mobile device falls victim to a ransomware attack, you will still be able to access copies of your sensitive files and other information and thereby avoid disaster.

Finally, keep your physical devices secure at all times. Never insert a piece of hardware that you can't trust, and never give any strangers the chance to access your physical work or personal devices.

Contact a Leading Cybersecurity Provider to Schedule a Consultation

The digital world can be a scary place, which is why enlisting the help of a trusted cybersecurity provider is so necessary. TechBldrs is all about providing quality cybersecurity training and resources for small businesses, network security assessments, and so much more.

Contact us today to find out how our digital security professionals can help secure your small business from ransomware attackers and other online bad actors!

If you enjoyed this article, check out these other articles about Cybersecurity:
Tips for Catching a Phishing Scam Before It Catches You
Keep Your Accounts Safe with Two-Step Verification

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