Don’t take the bait, defend against ransomware

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The Internal Revenue Service, state tax agencies and the tax industry recently warned tax professionals that ransomware attacks are on the rise worldwide as bad actors here and abroad infiltrate computer systems and hold sensitive data hostage.

Ransomware is a type of malware that infects computers, networks and servers and encrypts – locks – data. Cybercriminals then demand a ransom to release the data. Users generally are unaware that malware has infected their systems until they receive the ransom request.

The IRS is aware of a handful of tax practitioners who have been victimized by ransomware attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently cautioned that ransomware attacks are a growing and evolving crime threatening the private and public sectors, as well as individuals.

The “Don’t Take the Bait” campaign, a 10-week security awareness campaign aimed at tax professionals, hopes to increase awareness about these attacks. The IRS, state tax agencies and the tax industry, working together as the Security Summit, urge practitioners to learn to protect themselves. This is part of the ongoing “Protect Your Clients; Protect Yourself” effort.

“Tax professionals face an array of security issues that could threaten their clients and their business,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “We urge people to take the time to understand these threats and take the steps to protect themselves. Don’t just assume your computers and systems are safe.”

The 2017 “Phishing Trends and Intelligence Report,” which is issued annually by Phishlabs, named ransomware one of two transformative events of 2016 and called its rapid rise a public epidemic. In May 2017, a ransomware attack dubbed “WannaCry” targeted users who failed to install a critical update to their Microsoft Windows operating system or who were using pirated versions of the operating system. Within a day, criminals held data on 230,000 computers in 150 countries for ransom.

The most common delivery method of this malware is through phishing emails. The emails lure unsuspecting users to either open a link or an attachment. However, the FBI also has warned that ransomware is evolving and cybercriminals can infect computers by other methods, such as a link that redirects users to a website that infects their computer.

Victims should not pay a ransom. Paying it further encourages the criminals. Often, the scammers won’t provide the decryption key – even after a ransom is paid.

Tips to prevent ransomware attacks

Tax practitioners – as well as businesses, payroll departments, human resource organizations and taxpayers – should talk to an information technology security expert and consider these steps to help prepare for and protect against ransomware attacks:

• Make sure employees are aware of ransomware and of their critical roles in protecting the organization’s data.

• For digital devices, ensure that security patches are installed on operating systems, software and firmware. This step may be made easier through a centralized patch management system.

• Ensure that antivirus and anti-malware solutions are set to automatically update and conduct regular scans.

• Manage the use of privileged accounts – no users should be assigned administrative access unless necessary. Only use administrator accounts when needed.

• Configure computer access controls, including file, directory and network share permissions, appropriately. If users require read-only information, do not provide them with write access to those files or directories.

• Disable macro scripts from office files transmitted over email.

• Implement software restriction policies or other controls to prevent programs from executing from common ransomware locations, such as temporary folders supporting popular internet browsers and compression/decompression programs.

• Back up data regularly and verify the integrity of those backups.

• Secure backup data. Make sure the backup device isn’t constantly connected to the computers and networks they are backing up. This will ensure the backup remains unaffected by ransomware attempts.

Victims should immediately report any ransomware attempt or attack to the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center, IC3.gov. Tax practitioners who fall victim to a ransomware attack also should contact their local IRS stakeholder liaison.

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