Wielding methods that dupe, manipulate, or outright exploit trusted users, attackers aim to take advantage of the core mechanic of modern identity verification, and gain access to a user’s online account. Once wearing the guise of a user’s account, they are granted deeper access to otherwise tightly-defended networks.
The lure of such an open door has seen account takeover attacks skyrocket in popularity throughout the last two years. For example, in 2021, online transactions grew by a total of 65%, while account takeover attacks increased by 233% YoY. They’re now so common that an entirely new industry has sprung up around laundering funds stolen in ATO attacks. Organizing and meeting through Telegram, cybercriminals work together to connect hijacked bank accounts with crypto wallets. The thieving attacker will post on such a group about the amount of stolen funds, seeking another fraudster skilled in crypto account takeover offering a crypto account to load those stolen funds onto. Once laundered via a stolen crypto account, all funds are withdrawn to a private wallet and split between the two parties.
In a security landscape pitted with reused and leaked credentials, alongside rapidly-bloating account management demands, ATO attackers represent a highly organized, keenly precise threat.
With the average user having to handle over 100 online accounts, passwords have quickly spiraled out of reasonable control. From banking to barber’s appointments, login info is bandied about with reckless abandon. Attackers exploit this with increasing degrees of severity, in attacks that range from hyper-personalized to spray-and-pray. By exploiting vulnerabilities in security systems and user behaviors, attackers can take control of these accounts for nefarious purposes.
The following is a detailed explanation of how account takeover attacks work:
Attackers begin by gathering information about potential targets. Social media accounts present vast goldmines of easily-accessible, personal information, which can be built into tailored social engineering attacks. Alongside this, the attackers’ ammunition is bolstered by data from previous data breaches.
Armed with the acquired data, attackers use automated tools to systematically test stolen credentials on multiple websites and applications. Since people often reuse passwords across different platforms, successful logins are likely when passwords have been compromised in previous breaches. The RockYou21 list is one incredibly common – and incredibly large – database of plaintext credentials that have previously been leaked. Compiled of over 8.4 billion entries, attackers can wreak extensive damage with absolutely no warning.
While credential stuffing attempts to match a leaked password with the correct one, brute-force attacks simply try every possible combination, in an effort to guess. With automated software that systematically generates and tries different combinations of usernames and passwords, brute-force attacks present particular risk to weak and commonly used passwords.
Instead of wasting time guessing, phishing attacks get users to simply hand their passwords over. With deceptive emails, messages, and websites, attackers imitate well-known brands or services. Unsuspecting users are lured into providing their login credentials on these fake sites, unknowingly handing over their account details to the attackers.
Phishing isn’t the only form of deception – cyber criminals will often attempt to deploy malware and keyloggers onto vulnerable devices. These allow credentials to be stolen directly from users’ devices.
The vast number of attack types center around two key weaknesses: users and software.
Social engineering describes deceptive tactics that take advantage of individuals, persuading them into divulging sensitive information – or performing actions that compromise their security. Phishing is one of the most common forms of social engineering attacks, and involves heavy use of fraudulent emails, messages, or websites that imitate their legitimate counterparts. By posing as a trusted individual or authority figure, attackers pretend to be a colleague, a bank representative, or a law enforcement officer to gain trust and extract sensitive information.
There are further distinctions between the types of phishing attack, however. For campaigns that take a wide approach, baiting is an extremely common tactic. Victims are enticed with promises of rewards in exchange for performing certain actions. Attackers may leave infected USB drives or send malicious links disguised as enticing offers, luring individuals into compromising their security. Spear phishing attacks, on the other hand, focus on highly specific individuals or organizations. Attackers spend hours researching and gathering information about the target to create highly personalized and convincing messages. Spear phishing attacks are often leveraged against ‘whales’ – high-profile individuals like CEOs or high-ranking executives.
While users are one way in, many attackers leverage the software that they interact with on a daily basis. The growing trend of users employing third-party services to access multiple accounts conveniently has had drastic ramifications on the account takeover landscape. After all, if these third-party services are compromised, attackers can gain access to linked user accounts. In 2021, it was revealed that Facebook had suffered a severe breach of the details for 533 million user accounts. This data, including emails and passwords, has fueled a torrent of ongoing ATO campaigns.
Detecting signs of account takeover attacks is crucial to preventing compromised accounts. From incoming messages to your system’s performance, here are some indications of potential compromise.
Unexpected Account Activity
ATO attacks can manifest in a number of key ways. For instance, if a user receives password reset notifications or emails for accounts they haven’t initiated, it could indicate that an attacker is attempting to gain control of their account. In such cases, users should investigate independent of the suspicious email’s link. This same tactic is used to dupe unsuspecting users into inputting their details into a fake login page, so always go through the verified channels. If users suddenly find themselves unable to access their accounts, despite using correct credentials, it could be a sign of an ATO attack. Attackers may have changed passwords or locked users out of their own accounts.
Password resets aren’t the only unusual activity generated by ATOs – unrecognized login attempts, changes in personal information, or unfamiliar transactions, may indicate unauthorized access. If a significant increase in spam or phishing emails begin to flood an inbox, it may indicate that the associated email address has been leaked or compromised.
Poor PC Performance
In some cases, compromised accounts may experience unusual system behavior, such as slow performance, frequent crashes, or unexpected pop-ups. These signs could indicate the presence of malware such as keyloggers.
Financial organizations can employ key approaches to enhance their defense against account takeover attacks. User behavior analytics provide essential tools that monitor and detect abnormal patterns. Deviations in login times, geolocation, device usage, and transaction history can all form a cohesive view of potential compromise. Alongside this, IP reputation analysis enables organizations to assess the various IP addresses accessing their systems, helping to identify and block suspicious traffic. Device fingerprinting techniques assist in recognizing and tracking devices used for account access, thereby detecting account takeover attempts. Real-time transaction monitoring systems, utilizing behavioral analysis and anomaly detection, empower financial institutions to promptly identify and block suspicious or fraudulent transactions, thereby mitigating the impact of ATO attacks.
These approaches collectively strengthen the security posture of financial organizations, forming a barrier against full account compromise.
To protect against any account takeover attack, all organizations should implement several layers of best practices at both the individual and organizational levels.
Empowering end-users with the knowledge and tools to keep accounts secure is vital. As on-the-ground users of each account, each individual plays a key role in an organization’s security stance. Unique, robust passwords are only the beginning – password management tools allow users to not only use secure password practices, but follow them without the danger of forgetting highly secure and unique passwords.
Alongside this, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple factors of authentication, such as biometrics, security tokens, and of course – passwords. This mitigates the risk of ATO attacks as even if passwords are compromised, attackers cannot gain access without the additional authentication factor.
Supporting the efforts of every employee, organizational defenses against ATO are just as crucial. Security incident response needs to be cemented into employee routines. Establishing an effective security incident response plan is crucial. Organizations should have protocols in place to handle ATO incidents, including timely communication with affected users, investigation and remediation of compromised accounts, and post-incident analysis to improve security measures. Alongside this, account activity monitoring allows organizations to detect and respond to suspicious account activities promptly. By analyzing patterns, anomalies, and behavioral indicators, organizations can identify ATO attempts, flag unauthorized access, and take appropriate action. Finally, regular security assessments and penetration testing helps identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems and applications. By proactively addressing these issues, organizations can bolster their defenses against ATO attacks and enhance overall security.
By implementing these practices, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of ATO attacks, protect sensitive data, and maintain the trust of their users. A comprehensive approach that combines technological solutions, user education, and proactive monitoring is essential to effectively combat ATO threats.
LayerX’s browser extension is an innovative solution designed to prevent account takeover attacks. LayerX offers comprehensive protection against phishing, credential stuffing, and session hijacking. The tool employs advanced algorithms and machine learning techniques to analyze user behavior, detect anomalies, and block suspicious activities in real-time. It also integrates seamlessly with existing security infrastructure, making it compatible with different browsers and platforms. With the first user-focused approach to ATO prevention, LayerX helps organizations enhance their account security, safeguard sensitive information, and mitigate the risks associated with account takeover attacks.
LayerX Account Takeover Prevention Capabilities:
- Hardened access requirements based on the transformation of the browser as an additional authentication factor, practically preventing any access unless initiated by the LayerX protected browser.
- Configurable policies that leverage LayerX’s ability to trigger a protecting action when detecting user behavioral anomalies that indicate a potential account takeover.
- Configurable policies that alert or block access upon detecting a web-borne risk. based on LayerX’s risk engine threat detection capabilities.