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Targeted ransomware attacks are on the rise, warns Europol

European cyber crime investigators are handling a surge of targeted ransomware attacks, according to a new report from Europol.

In this year’s Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, the law enforcement agency warns that while the total number of ransomware attacks is declining, those that emerge are increasingly destructive.

Europol’s analysts say that criminals are moving from “scatter gun attacks” to more sophisticated strikes on larger organisations, which have the ability to pay ransom demands of up to €1m (£870,000).

Meanwhile so-called “spray and pray campaigns” are becoming less common, resulting in fewer attacks on individuals. Europol links the decline to “increased awareness among potential victims”, rising adoption of mobile devices, which are immune to the most common ransomware strains, and a lower uptake of exploit kits.

Nevertheless, ransomware remains the most prominent threat facing cyber crime investigators in 2019, due to the rising cost of the attacks, according to the report.

“Ransomware maintains its reign as the most widespread and financially damaging form of cyber attack, while criminals continue to defraud e-commerce and attack the financial sector,” said Europol director Catherine De Bolle.

“Cyber crime continues to mature and become more audacious, shifting its focus to larger and more profitable targets. To tackle it, law enforcement must be equally audacious in order to meet the challenge head-on.”

High value ransomware attacks are not confined to Europe. A number of local government organisations in the US have been hit by targeted ransomware in 2019, with hackers demanding up to $2.5m (£2.2m).

It is feared that the insurance market may be fuelling the illicit industry by paying ransoms on behalf of organisations unnecessarily. ProPublica reported in August that in some cases insurers are paying out ransoms when the files could eventually be salvaged.