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The World’s Biggest Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware has become one of the most formidable threats in the realm of cybersecurity, inflicting significant financial and operational damage on organizations worldwide. This malicious software encrypts the victim's data, demanding a ransom for the decryption key.

With the help of ExpressVPN’s report on the top ransomware groups, this article explores some of the largest and most impactful ransomware attacks in history, highlighting their methods, impacts, and lessons learned.

WannaCry: The Global Epidemic

In May 2017, the world witnessed one of the most widespread ransomware attacks in history, known as WannaCry. The attack exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft's Windows operating system, which had been previously discovered and used by the National Security Agency (NSA). The exploit, known as EternalBlue, was leaked by the hacking group Shadow Brokers.

Impact and Spread

WannaCry infected over 230,000 computers in more than 150 countries within just a few days. Major organizations, including the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica, and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, were severely impacted. The NHS alone faced disruptions that led to the cancellation of thousands of medical appointments and surgeries.

Financial and Operational Damage

The financial cost of WannaCry was staggering, estimated at $4 billion worldwide. However, the operational disruptions, especially in critical sectors like healthcare, underscored the far-reaching consequences of ransomware beyond monetary losses.

NotPetya: The Destructive Disguise

NotPetya, which surfaced in June 2017, initially appeared to be another ransomware attack. However, it quickly became apparent that its primary goal was destruction rather than profit. Originating from Ukraine, NotPetya spread rapidly, causing widespread damage to global companies.

Mechanism and Spread

NotPetya used a combination of the EternalBlue exploit and another vulnerability to spread within networks. It also had the capability to steal credentials and move laterally across systems. Companies such as Maersk, Merck, and FedEx were among the hardest hit.

Devastating Impact

The attack cost companies over $10 billion in damages, with Maersk alone estimating their losses at around $300 million. Unlike typical ransomware, NotPetya offered no real way for victims to recover their data, emphasizing its role as a wiper rather than true ransomware.

Ryuk: Targeted Attacks on High-Value Targets

Ryuk, first detected in 2018, is known for its highly targeted approach, often focusing on large organizations and demanding hefty ransoms. Its operators typically gain initial access through phishing emails or other malware, such as TrickBot or Emotet, before deploying Ryuk.

Sophisticated Operations

Ryuk's operators demonstrate a deep understanding of their targets' networks, often waiting weeks or months to strike at the most opportune moment. This ransomware has been used to attack various sectors, including healthcare, government, and education.

Financial Impact

Ryuk is notorious for demanding and receiving some of the highest ransoms in ransomware history. The average ransom payment has been reported to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with some demands reaching several million. The total financial impact is difficult to quantify, but it is known to be in the hundreds of millions.

REvil (Sodinokibi): The Profit-Driven Predators

REvil, also known as Sodinokibi, emerged in 2019 and quickly became one of the most prolific ransomware groups. Known for their ruthlessness and high ransom demands, REvil's operators have targeted a wide range of industries.

High-Profile Attacks

One of the most notable REvil attacks was against the global meat processing company JBS in June 2021. The attack forced JBS to shut down operations in North America and Australia temporarily, leading to significant disruptions in the food supply chain. JBS eventually paid an $11 million ransom to REvil to restore operations.

Double Extortion Tactics

REvil is infamous for its double extortion tactics, where they not only encrypt the victim's data but also steal it. They then threaten to release the stolen data publicly unless the ransom is paid, adding an extra layer of pressure on victims.

Colonial Pipeline: A National Security Wake-Up Call

In May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, a major pipeline operator in the United States, fell victim to a ransomware attack by a group known as DarkSide. This attack had severe implications for national security and the economy.

Immediate Consequences

The attack led to the shutdown of the pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the East Coast's fuel, causing widespread fuel shortages and panic buying. The incident highlighted the vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and the potential for ransomware to cause large-scale disruptions.

Response and Ransom Payment

Colonial Pipeline paid a ransom of 75 bitcoins (approximately $4.4 million at the time) to the attackers to regain access to their systems. However, the broader impact of the attack, including regulatory and security changes, is still unfolding.

Lessons Learned from Major Ransomware Attacks

The Importance of Cyber Hygiene

One of the key lessons from these attacks is the critical importance of maintaining robust cybersecurity practices. Regular software updates, employee training on phishing and social engineering, and rigorous backup procedures are essential.

The Role of Governments and International Cooperation

Ransomware is a global issue that requires coordinated international efforts to combat. Governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide are increasingly collaborating to track down and disrupt ransomware groups. The takedown of the REvil infrastructure in October 2021 is a prime example of such efforts.

The Evolution of Ransomware Tactics

Ransomware tactics are continually evolving, with attackers adopting new methods to maximize their impact and profits. Organizations must stay informed about the latest threats and adjust their defences accordingly.


The ransomware attacks discussed above highlight the severity and complexity of this cyber threat. They serve as stark reminders of the need for continuous vigilance, robust cybersecurity measures, and global cooperation to combat ransomware effectively. As cybercriminals continue to innovate, the fight against ransomware will require an ongoing commitment to cybersecurity resilience and preparedness.

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