Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) is a method of distributing and deploying ransomware using the Software as a Service (SaaS) business model, offering advanced tools on a subscription or profit-sharing basis. Ransomware, a type of malicious software, blocks access to a computer system or encrypts files until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks used to be isolated incidents before RaaS platforms enabled widespread attacks, and today, even individuals lacking extensive technical knowledge can initiate devastating ransomware attacks, often with losses amounting to millions of US dollars.


RaaS platforms operate on the dark web and often offer facilities such as customer support and regular updates to streamline the process of executing attacks and maximize profits. Basically, RaaS democratizes access to ransomware, complicating the efforts to combat cybercrime, as it blurs jurisdictional boundaries and disperses accountability among a network of independent actors, including developers, operators, and affiliates. The spread of RaaS has become a major concern for businesses, governments, and cybersecurity professionals worldwide.

How Ransomware as a Service work?

ransomware as a service - how it works diagram



Through the adoption of the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) makes cyber extortion accessible to a broad audience, not only to a traditional cybercriminal profile. This illegal business model creates an ecosystem where ransomware developers, or RaaS operators, lease or sell their ransomware tools to affiliates under various arrangements.


RaaS platforms often feature user-friendly interfaces, offering tools and services such as customizable ransomware variants, command and control (C&C) dashboards for tracking attacks, and victim payment portals. Also common are support services, including assistance with victim negotiations and access to dedicated leak sites for data extortion.


RaaS operations are often marketed with a level of professionalism and customer support that matches legitimate SaaS offerings. Operators actively recruit affiliates through forums and even complex marketing campaigns.


The competitive nature of the RaaS market encourages continuous innovation among operators, who enhance their offerings with new features like victim-specific ransomware attributes, which complicate decryption efforts. This adaptability makes RaaS a persistent and evolving challenge within cybersecurity.



The Business Model of RaaS?


The RaaS framework includes several revenue models, appealing to a diverse range of possible customers:


·       Monthly Subscription: Affiliates pay a recurring fee for access to the ransomware tools.

·       Affiliate Programs: Similar to the subscription model but includes profit-sharing, a portion of the ransom collected (typically 20-30%) is paid to the ransomware developer.

·       License Fee: Affiliates pay a single fee for perpetual access to the ransomware tools, with no obligation to share the profits.

·       Pure Profit Sharing:  This model involves no upfront costs for the affiliates. Instead, a significant percentage of each ransom payment (often 30-40%) is allocated to the RaaS operators.



How RaaS Affects Global Cybersecurity


Ransomware as a Service (RaaS) is escalating the risk and complexity of ransomware attacks globally as it brings the efficiency and adaptability of the gig economy to an old criminal practice. Ransomware as a Service has allowed the increase in financial demands: in 2023, ransomware payments skyrocketed, exceeding for the first time ever the $1 billion mark. The Cl0p's exploitation of the MOVEit zero-day vulnerability led to over $100 million in ransom payments and accounted for a significant portion of the total ransomware revenue in 2023.

Such meticulous and adaptive campaigns are indicative of the broader trends within RaaS, where cybercriminals exploit systemic vulnerabilities and network weaknesses. Law enforcement efforts, such as the FBI's infiltration into the Hive ransomware operation, which averted an estimated $130 million in ransom payments, highlight the tangible impact of strategic counter-ransomware operations. However, despite these successes, the sheer volume of new variants and the clever exploitation of vulnerabilities continue to pose serious challenges for cybersecurity defenses.

RaaS platforms have facilitated an increase in both double and multiple extortion attacks. Double extortion involves the encryption of a victim's data coupled with threats to release the information publicly if the ransom is not paid. Meanwhile, multiple extortion adds further pressure by introducing additional forms of attack, mostly Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), to coerce victims into paying more promptly. The emergence of “pure extortion” tactics, where attackers threaten to leak stolen data without employing encryption, is another evolution of ransomware strategies within the RaaS ecosystem, as this approach represents a shift from traditional ransomware methods.


RaaS has made sophisticated tools more accessible, but this is not the only contributing factor to the growth in ransomware revenues. The surge can also be linked to the anonymity and security provided by cryptocurrency transactions, which offer cybercriminals a safer and untraceable method of receiving payments. Additionally, the fight against ransomware is often compromised by human-related vulnerabilities. Shortcomings in staff training, inadequate process oversight, and lapses in standard security practices provide fertile ground for RaaS exploits.

Legal and Ethical Implications of RaaS


The layered structure of RaaS – with the developers, distributors, and end-users of ransomware often being distinct parties - complicates the process of investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Developers of ransomware might lease their products to affiliates in another country, who might target victims in yet another, which creates a tangled web of jurisdictional issues.


The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is one legal framework under which RaaS actors can be prosecuted in the United States, but to address these crimes effectively often involves international cooperation. Law enforcement agencies such as the Interpol, FBI, or Europol may be hindered by borders, legal systems, and international relations, which can slow down the pace of investigation and prosecution.



Should You Pay the Ransomware Demands?


Paying a ransom contravenes the advisory of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, which recommends against such payments to discourage the perpetuation of these criminal activities. The legality of ransom payments falls into a grey area due to the challenges in identifying the recipient. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, regulates transactions involving sanctioned parties, and ransom payments could inadvertently violate sanctions laws if the ransom is delivered to individuals or groups on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, as well as to embargoed regions.


Organizations must carefully weigh the legal risks and potential penalties against the immediate operational needs. Legal repercussions can include substantial fines and, in some cases, criminal liability. As such, entities are encouraged to prioritize preventative measures, report incidents to authorities promptly, and implement robust cybersecurity protocols to mitigate the risk of RaaS attacks, rather than resorting to ransom payments, which may have far-reaching legal consequences.


For those exposed to a RaaS attack, the dilemma of whether to pay the ransom becomes a lot more complex than in theory. In reality, there will probably always be entities that opt to pay, often out of desperation or business necessity. The current landscape reveals that businesses, especially within the small and medium enterprise sector, are increasingly considering ransom payments. There is certainly a business aspect of this decision, as each organization weighs differently the pros and cons of paying, taking into consideration operational continuity, financial implications, and reputational impact.



Understanding RaaS Attacks


RaaS attacks have evolved from the straightforward malware campaigns of the past into complex operations that exploit every available vulnerability. Below is a blueprint of how RaaS attacks are currently planned and executed. (Source)


·       Initial Access: RaaS attacks still rely on phishing emails, unpatched vulnerabilities, or compromised credentials to access remote desktop protocols (RDP). Automated scalable attacks usually target smaller companies, while larger entities often face spear-phishing campaigns personalized to exploit system vulnerabilities.

·       Staging: After a successful infiltration, attackers prepare the environment for the attack by escalating privileges and establishing persistent access. They might use specialized tools for setting the stage for extensive network compromise.

·       Expansion: This phase involves reconnaissance and lateral movement across the network. Attackers use legitimate administrative tools and commands - a technique known as “Living off the Land” - to avoid detection while they map out the network and identify key assets.

·       Extortion:  With the groundwork laid, attackers focus on maximizing impact to pressure victims into paying the ransom. This might involve double or triple extortion tactics, where data is not just encrypted but also exfiltrated for potential public release, combined with other pressure tactics like DDoS attacks or harassment. Before deploying the ransomware payload, attackers often locate and destroy backups to weaken the victim’s position further.



Main Ransomware Entry Points


RaaS attackers gain access to networks and systems through the most common vectors that should be taken into consideration when deciding on the best defense strategy.


·       Phishing Emails: Still a popular method, attackers use sophisticated social engineering methods to earn trust from the staff.

·       Exploited Vulnerabilities: Unpatched software or insecurely configured services offer an easy access point for attackers.

·       Malicious Downloads and URLs: Compromised or malicious websites can also serve as launchpads for ransomware.

·       Infected Media:  USB drives or other external devices can introduce ransomware into secure networks.


Identifying RaaS Attacks


Early detection of a ransomware attack can stop it, or at least help minimize its impact. There are several red flags signaling the possible presence of a criminal operation within your network, including:


Direct Indicators

·       Changes in File Access: The sudden inability to access files or the discovery of encrypted files with ransom notes are among the most direct indicators of a ransomware attack.

·       Altered File Extensions: Discovery of multiple files with strange extensions is often a clear sign of confirmed illegal encryption. For example, Locky ransomware was known for using extensions such as “.locky”, “.zzzzz”, and “.odin”.



Indirect Indicators

·       Unusual Network and Disk Activity: High network traffic or odd connections might indicate data exfiltration, while increased disk activity without clear cause, particularly if it results in system slowdowns, can signal ongoing file encryption by ransomware.

·       Account Irregularities: Observing multiple failed login attempts or access requests from unfamiliar locations could indicate compromised credentials, suggesting that attackers are trying to gain or expand access within your network.

·       Security Alert Fatigue: An unusually high number of security alerts can overwhelm system administrators, potentially hiding real indicators of an attack among false positives.


Strategies to Protect Against RaaS


Ransomware as a Service platforms continuously refine their methods and tools. A solid defense strategy must adapt to current threats but also create long-term protection against future challenges. Organizations should take technological, policy, and educational measures, while they cultivate an internal culture of constant security awareness. To avoid being affected by ransomware, organizations of all sizes should have a proactive, and informed strategy, based on some essential defense tactics:


·       Updated Cybersecurity Measures: Make sure that your cybersecurity suite can offer real-time protection against a broad spectrum of threats, including the latest ransomware tactics.

·       Email Vigilance: Given that email is still a prime vector for ransomware delivery, use advanced filtering and anti-spam technologies. Also, educate team members to scrutinize emails, particularly those with links or attachments from unfamiliar sources, to avoid phishing attempts.

·       Robust Backup Strategy: Adopt the 3-2-1 backup rule – that is, maintain at least three copies of your data across two different media, with at least one backup offsite.

·       Strong Endpoint and Network Security: Layered endpoint defenses and network segmentation can drastically limit the ability of ransomware to propagate. Continuous monitoring for unusual network activity can help you detect potential threats before the situation gets out of control.

·       Principle of Least Privilege: Minimize the attack surface by applying the principle of least privilege across your network's access controls, reinforced by multi-factor authentication, if possible.

·       Regular Security Assessments: Continuous security evaluations, through audits, penetration tests, and vulnerability scans, can uncover risks you weren’t aware of.

·       Ongoing Education and Awareness: A well-informed employee is less likely to become a victim of a phishing email. Awareness programs can significantly reduce the likelihood of successful social engineering attacks.



RaaS Prevention Tools and Techniques


To counter Ransomware as a Service threat, organizations should deploy a suite of tools and techniques able to preemptively identify and mitigate ransomware attacks. A robust RaaS prevention strategy includes:


·       Advanced Threat Detection Systems: Systems that use heuristics, behavior analysis, and machine learning can proactively detect ransomware and zero-day threats. These systems monitor applications and processes on a continuous basis, identifying and neutralizing threats based on their behavior rather than relying solely on known signatures.

·       Encryption: Strong encryption for sensitive data at rest and in transit can protect against unauthorized access, even if a breach occurs. Encryption acts as a last line of defense, ensuring data confidentiality and integrity.

·       Secure Backup Solutions: In addition to the implementation of the 3-2-1 rule, backups should be encrypted and tested regularly to ensure they are recoverable. Secure, immutable backups prevent ransomware from encrypting or deleting backup data, facilitating recovery without paying a ransom.

·       Regular Security Audits: Audits and vulnerability assessments are useful to identify security gaps in your organization’s network. Regular checks, combined with penetration testing, can simulate ransomware attacks to evaluate the effectiveness of current defenses and incident response protocols.



How Bitdefender Can Help Protect Against RaaS?


In the continuous arms race against Ransomware as a Service, Bitdefender can act as a strong ally, offering comprehensive solutions that integrate seamlessly into any cybersecurity strategy. Bitdefender's cybersecurity solutions feature real-time protection and active scanning to thwart ransomware and other cyber threats, using:


•            Anti-ransomware Technology: Specifically designed to counter ransomware, Bitdefender's anti-ransomware technology is a critical layer of defense, offering robust protection mechanisms that prevent encryption attempts.

•            Endpoint and Network Security: For comprehensive endpoint protection and network security, explore Bitdefender's GravityZone Platform. It delivers multi-layered defense strategies, including endpoint detection and response (EDR) capabilities, to effectively limit ransomware propagation and detect abnormal activities.

•            Advanced Business Security Solutions: To ensure maximum protection, Bitdefender's advanced business security solutions are tailored to meet both individual and organizational needs, providing scalable options from SMBs to large enterprises.

Future Trends in Ransomware as a Service


Ransomware gangs are facing heightened scrutiny and legal actions, as evidenced by the U.S. Department of Justice's seizure of $6 million from REvil or the recent international law enforcement action that disrupted the operations of the LockBit ransomware group.


Nevertheless, the highly competitive nature of RaaS platforms has made cybercriminal activities more calculated, making full use of technological advances and constantly shifting tactics to exploit vulnerabilities with precision. Opportunistic attacks weaponize zero-day exploits with amazing speed, as ransomware developers use modern programming languages like Rust to create harder-to-analyze code. Another noticeable trend is the growing specialization within ransomware groups, driven by a profit-sharing model.


In this context, staying ahead in cybersecurity is more than about adopting the latest tools, it is also about understanding and anticipating cybercriminal tactics and regulatory responses. Continuous education, policy adaptation, and technological vigilance are paramount in crafting a resilient defense against the sophisticated and evolving threat of RaaS. Bitdefender’s Business Insights blog offers valuable resources and analyses to help organizations stay one step ahead of ransomware and other cyber threats.



What is the most popular ransomware as a service?

Ransomware primarily focuses on encrypting data to make it inaccessible rather than stealing it.

However, newer variants of ransomware have evolved to include tactics like exfiltrating data and threatening to release it publicly unless a ransom is paid. This approach is sometimes referred to as "double extortion."

So, while the primary function of ransomware is to encrypt data, some variants do engage in data theft as an additional leverage tactic.

What was the first Ransomware-as-a-Service?

The decryption of ransomware-affected files depends on several factors, including the specific ransomware variant involved and the availability of decryption tools.

For some older or less sophisticated ransomware strains, cybersecurity firms and researchers have developed free decryption tools that can assist in data recovery. However, for newer or more advanced variants, decryption without the unique key held by the attacker can be exceedingly difficult or virtually impossible.

You can check here the currently available Bitdefender Free Tools.

How much does Ransomware-as-a-Service cost?

Depending on the pricing model and the malware sophistication, subscription prices can range from as low as $40 for basic, off-the-shelf ransomware kits to several thousand dollars for more advanced, customizable solutions that include additional services like customer support, updates, and even tutorials on how to launch attacks.