Recent advisories from two U.S. Treasury agencies – the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – indicating that companies paying ransom or facilitating such payments to cyber extortionists could be subject to federal penalties are a reminder of the importance of good cyber hygiene.
The notices also underscore businesses’ need to consult with knowledgeable, reputable professionals long before a ransomware attack occurs and before making any payments.
Ransomware on the rise
In a ransomware attack, hackers use software to block access to the victim’s own data and demand payment (usually in Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency) to regain access. It has been a growing problem in recent years, and such attacks have intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many people working from home for the first time.
The FBI warns against paying ransoms, but studies have shown that business leaders today pay a lot in the hope of getting their data back. An IBM survey of 600 U.S. business leaders found that 70% had paid a ransom to regain access to their business files. Of the companies responding, nearly half have paid more than $10,000, and 20% of them paid more than $40,000.
The OFAC advisory specifically targets transactions benefiting individuals or entities on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, other blocked persons, and those covered by comprehensive country or region embargoes (e.g., Cuba, the Crimea region of Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, and Syria).
If you pay ransom to anyone in these categories, you could be fined or even jailed for breaching the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) or the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA). Penalties can vary widely, depending on the circumstances.
How is a business owner to know?
“Companies should rely on experts to assist with their due diligence and work with the FBI,” writes law firm BakerHostetler in a recent blog post. “Experience in incident response is key, and your counsel should be an informed, confident partner as you navigate this rapidly evolving area.”
“Before a payment is made,” the law firm writes, “a company generally retains a third party to conduct due diligence to ensure that the payment isn’t being made to a sanctioned organization or a group reasonably suspected of being tied to a sanctioned organization. Additionally, checks are in place to ensure that anti-money laundering laws are not being violated.”
Many insurers are working with their clients to put such practices in place and taking a variety of other steps to address the threat of ransomware attacks. Cyber-insurance premiums started rising 5% to 25% late last year, according to Robert Parisi, U.S. cyber product leader at insurance broker Marsh & McLennan. Parisi called the increases “dramatic” but said insurers have not scaled back coverage.
Marsh has issued a client advisory — What OFAC’s Ransomware Advisory Means for US Companies — explaining what U.S. businesses need to know about the OFAC advisory and the importance of completing an OFAC review before payment of ransom demands. Marsh’s advisory also makes recommendations for re-assessing ransom incident response plans, mitigating ransomware risk, and preparation for and recovery from ransomware and cyber extortion attacks.