Account Takeover (ATO)


What are Account Takeover Attacks

Account Takeovers are a type of attack where cybercriminal gains access to someone else’s online account without permission. This could be an email account, social media account, bank account, or any other type of account that requires a login. The most common goals of this attack include:

  • Financial Loss: Hackers can steal money from bank accounts or make unauthorized purchases.
  • Identity Theft: They can use personal information to commit fraud or impersonate the account owner.
  • Reputational Damage: They might post harmful or embarrassing content on social media accounts.

How Do Account Takeover Attacks Happen

Maliious users employ various techniques to gain access to their victim’s accounts. Their methods often involve social engineering, exploiting vulnerabilities, or the use of stolen data. Here are some common ways these attacks occur:

1. Data Breaches

  • What It Is: Data breaches involve unauthorized access to large amounts of data from companies or services.
  • How It Works: Attackers obtain lists of usernames and passwords, which they can exploit directly or sell to other criminals.

2. Malware

  • What It Is: Malware is malicious software designed to infiltrate and damage systems.
  • How It Works: Once installed on a victim’s device, malware can capture keystrokes, take screenshots, or even directly access saved passwords.

3. Credential Stuffing

  • What It Is: Credential stuffing uses stolen username and password combinations, often obtained from data breaches.
  • How It Works: Attackers use automated tools to try these credentials on various websites, hoping that people reuse the same password across multiple sites.

4. Phishing

  • What It Is: Phishing involves sending fake emails, messages, or websites that appear legitimate.
  • How It Works: Victims are tricked into entering their login credentials or personal information, which the attacker then captures.

5. Brute Force Attacks

  • What It Is: This involves systematically guessing passwords.
  • How It Works: Attackers use software to rapidly try many password combinations until the correct one is found, especially targeting weak or common passwords.

6. Social Engineering

  • What It Is: Social engineering manipulates people into giving up confidential information.
  • How It Works: Attackers might pose as trusted individuals or organizations to convince victims to reveal their passwords or other sensitive data.

7. Exploiting Weak Security Practices

  • What It Is: Weak security practices make it easier for attackers to gain access.
  • How It Works: Examples include using default passwords, not enabling two-factor authentication, exploiting misconfigured cloud services, or failing to update software with security patches.

What Type of Accounts Are Most Often Targeted

Account takeover attacks can target any type of account, but certain types are more frequently affected due to their value or the sensitivity of the information they contain. Here are eight types of accounts that are most often targeted:

1. Financial Accounts

  • Bank Accounts: Access to a bank account can allow attackers to steal money, transfer funds, or make fraudulent transactions.
  • Credit Card Accounts: Attackers can make unauthorized purchases or cash advances.
  • Online Payment Systems: Accounts on platforms like PayPal, Venmo, or other payment processors are attractive targets due to the direct access to funds.

2. Email Accounts

  • Personal Email: Personal email accounts often contain sensitive information, access to other accounts, and the ability to reset passwords for other services.
  • Corporate Email: Gaining control of a corporate email account can lead to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, where attackers trick employees into transferring money or sharing confidential information.

3. Social Media Accounts

  • Personal Social Media: Personal accounts on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can be used for identity theft, spreading misinformation, or extorting the account owner.
  • Influencer Accounts: High-profile accounts with large followings can be used to spread malicious links, scams, or misinformation.
  • Corporate Social Media: Corporate accounts can be hijacked to damage a brand’s reputation, spread false information, or conduct phishing campaigns.

4. E-commerce Accounts

  • Online Shopping Accounts: Accounts on sites like Amazon, eBay, or other retail platforms can be used to make unauthorized purchases or steal stored payment information.
  • Subscription Services: Accounts for streaming services, subscription boxes, or other recurring services can be used or sold.

5. Healthcare Accounts

  • Patient Portals: Access to healthcare accounts can expose sensitive medical information, which can be used for identity theft or medical fraud.
  • Insurance Accounts: These accounts can be exploited to submit fraudulent claims or gain unauthorized benefits.

6. Gaming Accounts

  • Online Gaming Platforms: Accounts on platforms like Steam, PlayStation Network, or Xbox Live can contain valuable virtual goods, payment information, and personal data.
  • In-game Accounts: Access to in-game accounts can allow attackers to steal virtual currency, items, and personal information.

7. Cloud Storage Accounts

  • Personal Cloud Storage: Accounts on services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or iCloud can contain sensitive personal documents, photos, and other files.
  • Corporate Cloud Storage: Corporate cloud storage accounts can hold sensitive business documents, intellectual property, and customer data.

8. Professional Accounts

  • Workplace Collaboration Tools: Accounts on tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other collaboration platforms can be used to gather sensitive business information or conduct further attacks within an organization.

Examples of Account Takeover Attacks

1. Twitter Bitcoin Scam (2020)

High-profile Twitter accounts, including those of Elon Musk, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates, were compromised through social engineering, allowing attackers to promote a Bitcoin scam that netted over $100,000 before being shut down.

2. TurboTax (2019)

In 2019, TurboTax experienced an ATO attack where cybercriminals used stolen credentials to access users’ accounts, file fraudulent tax returns, and redirect tax refunds. This incident prompted TurboTax to enhance its security measures, including multi-factor authentication.

3. Uber Data Breach (2016)

Attackers accessed a private GitHub repository and used login credentials to steal personal data of 57 million Uber users and drivers, prompting Uber to pay $100,000 to keep the breach quiet, which later led to legal and reputational damage when disclosed.

4. Robinhood (2020)

In 2020, Robinhood, a popular trading app, experienced an ATO attack affecting nearly 2,000 accounts. Attackers used compromised credentials to gain access to user accounts, siphoning off funds and making unauthorized trades.

How To Prevent Account Takeover Attacks

Preventing Account Takeover (ATO) attacks requires a combination of best practices, strong security measures, and user awareness. Here are several strategies to help prevent ATO attacks:

1. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

  • MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to their accounts. This could include something they know (password), something they have (a smartphone), or something they are (biometric verification).
  • Benefits: Even if an attacker obtains the password, they can’t access the account without the second factor.

2. Use Strong, Unique Passwords

  • Encourage users to use a password manager to generate strong, unique passwords for each account.
  • Ensure that your password policies adhere to the latest NIST and OWASP password policies.

3. Regularly Monitor and Audit Accounts

  • Continuously monitor accounts for unusual login activities or behavioral anomalies, such as logins from unfamiliar locations or devices.
  • Tools: Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems and User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) can help detect suspicious activities.

4. Educate Users on Phishing and Social Engineering

  • Conduct regular training sessions to educate users about the risks of phishing and social engineering attacks.
  • Provide examples of common phishing tactics and teach users how to recognize and report suspicious emails or messages.

5. Implement Account Lockout Policies

  • Set up policies to temporarily lock accounts after a certain number of failed login attempts. This can prevent automated brute force attacks.
  • Ensure that the lockout duration is long enough to deter attackers but not too disruptive for legitimate users.

6. Use a CAPTCHA

  • Implement CAPTCHA challenges on login pages and other sensitive areas to prevent automated login attempts by bots.

7. Deploy Advanced Threat Detection

  • Use threat detection technologies to identify and automatically respond to suspicious activities in real-time.
  • Tools: Behavioral biometrics can help detect anomalies in user behavior, such as typing patterns or mouse movements.

8. Regularly Update Software and Systems

  • Keep all software, including operating systems and applications, up to date with the latest security patches to protect against known vulnerabilities.

9. Use Encrypted Connections

  • Ensure all data transmissions are encrypted using protocols like HTTPS to protect credentials from being intercepted by attackers.

10. Enable Account Recovery and Alerts

  • Set up secure account recovery options, such as secondary email addresses or phone numbers, to help users regain access if their account is compromised.
  • Enable alerts for account changes, such as password changes or logins from new devices.

11. Implement Dark Web Monitoring

  • Use dark web monitoring services to detect if user or employee credentials have been exposed or traded on the dark web.
  • Promptly notify users to change their passwords if their credentials are found on the dark web.

12. Adopt Zero Trust Security Model

  • Implement a Zero Trust security model where no entity inside or outside the network is trusted by default.
  • Continuously verify and authenticate all attempts to access resources.

13. Conduct Regular Security Audits

  • Perform regular security audits and penetration testing to identify and remediate vulnerabilities in your systems and processes.

14. Secure APIs and Third-Party Integrations

  • Ensure that APIs and third-party integrations are secured and follow best practices to prevent unauthorized access.