Ransom Demands: To Pay or Not to Pay?

September 24, 2021

As the threat of ransomware attacks against companies has skyrocketed, so has the burden on companies forced to decide whether to pay cybercriminals a ransom demand. Corporate management increasingly is faced with balancing myriad legal and business factors in making real-time, high-stakes “bet the company” decisions with little or no precedent to follow. In a recent advisory, the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) has once again discouraged companies from making ransom payments or risk potential sanctions. 

OFAC Ransom Advisory

On September 21, 2021, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued an Advisory that updates and supersedes OFAC’s Advisory on Potential Sanctions Risks for Facilitating Ransomware Payments, issued on October 1, 2020. This updated OFAC Advisory follows on the heels of the Biden Administration’s heightened interest in combating the growing risk and reality of cyber threats that may adversely impact national security and the economy. 

According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics from 2019 to 2020 on ransomware attacks, there was a 21 percent increase in reported ransomware attacks and a 225 percent increase in associated losses. All organizations across all industry sectors in the private and public arenas are potential targets of such attacks. As noted by OFAC, cybercriminals often target particularly vulnerable entities, such as schools and hospitals, among others.  

While some cybercriminals are linked to foreign state actors primarily motivated by political interests, many threat actors are simply in it “for the money.” Every day cybercriminals launch ransomware attacks to wreak havoc on vulnerable organizations, disrupting their business operations by encrypting and potentially stealing their data. These cybercriminals often demand ransom payments in the millions of dollars in exchange for a “decryptor” key to unlock encrypted files and/or a “promise” not to use or publish stolen data on the Dark Web.  

The recent OFAC Advisory states in no uncertain terms that the “U.S. government strongly discourages all private companies and citizens from paying ransom or extortion demands.” OFAC notes that such ransomware payments could be “used to fund activities adverse to the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States.” The Advisory further states that ransom payments may perpetuate future cyber-attacks by incentivizing cybercriminals. In addition, OFAC cautions that in exchange for payments to cybercriminals “there is no guarantee that companies will regain access to their data or be free from further attacks.” 

The OFAC Advisory also underscores the potential risk of violating sanctions associated with ransom payments by organizations. As a reminder, various U.S. federal laws, including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act, prohibit U.S. persons or entities from engaging in financial or other transactions with certain blacklisted individuals, organizations or countries – including those listed on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blacked Persons List or countries subject to embargoes (such as Cuba, the Crimea region of the Ukraine, North Korea and Syria).  

Penalties & Mitigating Factors

If a ransom payment is deemed to have been made to a cybercriminal with a nexus to a blacklisted organization or country, OFAC may impose civil monetary penalties for violations of sanctions based on strict liability, even if a person or organization did not know it was engaging in a prohibited transaction. 

However, OFAC will consider various mitigating factors in deciding whether to impose penalties against organizations for sanctioned transactions, including if the organizations adopted enhanced cybersecurity practices to reduce the risk of cyber-attacks, or promptly reported ransomware attacks to law enforcement and regulatory authorities (including the FBI, U.S. Secret Service and/or Treasury’s Office of Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Protection). 

“OFAC also will consider a company’s full and ongoing cooperation with law enforcement both during and after a ransomware attack” as a “significant” mitigating factor. In encouraging organizations to self-report ransomware attacks to federal authorities, OFAC notes that information shared with law enforcement may aid in tracking cybercriminals and disrupting or preventing future attacks. 

Conclusion

In short, payment of a ransom is not illegal per se, so long as the transaction does not involve a sanctioned party on OFAC’s blacklist. Moreover, the recent ransomware Advisory “is explanatory only and does not have the force of law.” Nonetheless, organizations should consider carefully OFAC’s advice and guidance in deciding whether to pay a ransom demand. 

In addition to the OFAC Advisory, management should consider the following: 

  • Ability to restore systems from viable (unencrypted) backups

  • Marginal time savings in restoring systems with a decryptor versus backups

  • Preservation of infected systems in order to conduct a forensics investigation

  • Ability to determine whether data was accessed or exfiltrated (stolen)

  • Reputational harm if data is published by the threat actor

  • Likelihood that the organization will be legally required to notify individuals of the attack regardless of whether their data is published on the Dark Web. 

Should an organization decide it has no choice other than to make a ransom payment, it should facilitate the transaction through a reputable company that first performs and documents an OFAC sanctions check.

© 2021 Wilson Elser
National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 267
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