Ransomware groups are using media coverage to coerce victims into paying

ransomware stock image featuring binary code in a room colored in red
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Ransomware gangs are leveraging media coverage of attacks to pile pressure on victims to meet their demands, according to new research.

Analysis from Sophos X-Ops has highlighted the increasingly close relationship between ransomware groups and the media, suggesting that while hackers are traditionally secretive, some now see the potential in using their publicity to enhance extortion techniques

Victims may be concerned about the reputational damage they might suffer if the data or sensitive information was seized, or even the fines they could incur from bodies such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for failing to prevent a data breach.

Sophos X-Ops said some hacking groups are explicit about promoting attacks via media channels to serve as a warning to victims. 

The study specifically pointed to the Dunghill ransomware gang, which threatened to “send the data to all interested supervisory organizations and the media” if their demands were not met.

In addition to using media coverage to ratchet up pressure on victims, threat actors are also making use of press coverage to generate positive publicity and boost recruitment, according to Sophos X-Ops’ research.

Ransomware gangs are aware of the coverage of their activities and have been observed to publicly correct outlets who are inaccurate in their reporting, the study noted. 

Sophos X-Ops said the trend points toward a concerted effort among some ransomware groups to develop a media strategy in an attempt to professionalize and commodify their image. 

Some have been found to publish press-releases and refine their branding to boost credibility with victims and journalists alike. Others, such as Vice Society, have even promoted content listing them as a 'top ransomware group'. 

Ransomware group Vice Society promotional page for content on the group

(Image credit: Sophos X-Ops)

Although increased publicity does also mean ransomware groups are exposed to a higher risk of law enforcement scrutiny, it also adds weight to their threats of leaking sensitive information.

Ransomware groups target better media relations


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Sophos X-Ops’ investigation shows threat actors’ attitudes towards the media are shifting with the majority of groups covered in its analysis displaying a marked turn towards collaborating with the media on their public image.

Some ransomware groups granted interviews to journalists in which they shed a positive light on their activities in what may be an attempt to drive recruitment, according to Sophos X-Ops.

The RansomHouse group, for example, features a message on its leak site that directly addresses journalists, offering to share information through a PR channel on Telegram before it is officially published.

Ransomware group Rhysida contact form for journalists

(Image credit: Sophos X-Ops)

Prominent ransomware group Rhysida’s contact form lists journalists before recoveries on its contact form, suggesting its interest in shaping its public image comes before extracting ransoms from its victims.

Some ransomware gangs are frustrated by media coverage

These groups are not completely embracing the media’s coverage of their attacks, however, with some groups becoming increasingly belligerent towards outlets and journalists deemed to have misreported on incidents involving them.

ALPHV/BlackCat, for example, released a 1,300-word blog post on its leak site criticizing publications for failing to check sources and publishing false information.

Ransomware group ALPHV/BlackCat post criticizing media coverage

(Image credit: Sophos X-Ops)

Cl0p were also found to be hostile towards media organizations, appearing to resent outlets challenging the narrative constructed through their own disclosures.

The BBC was called out by Cl0p for misrepresenting the information supplied by the group, who stated “the only story is we want money for our work. If we have your business files you have to pay”.

Solomon Klappholz
Staff Writer

Solomon Klappholz is a Staff Writer at ITPro. He has experience writing about the technologies that facilitate industrial manufacturing which led to him developing a particular interest in IT regulation, industrial infrastructure applications, and machine learning.