In 2020, our research report on account takeover (ATO) highlighted the risk of using credentials in an unsafe manner, which was being exploited by cyber threat actors to great effect. In the coming weeks, we will be issuing our follow on report on ATO, which found that many of the problems surrounding credential use remain; many users are failing to create, manage, and store their credentials in a safe manner. This is permitting accounts to be identified, stolen, and exploited, by an array of malicious actors.

What is ATO?

Account takeover occurs after a malicious actor seizes access to your accounts, by using compromised credentials. This affects any of the online accounts you can think of, including your social media, banking applications, or other service providers. ATO is influenced by a multitude of factors, but mostly is caused by weak, brute force(able) credentials being used across multiple accounts. Of course, remembering distinct, complex passwords for every account you own isn’t feasible, although there are options available for users and organizations alike, such as the use of password managers. 

Our paper discusses many of the methods in which users can minimize the likelihood of ATO, however, password managers are likely to be the simplest, cheapest, yet most effective method of gaining control of your credentials

What can ATO lead to?

So what can an actor do with your accounts? That’s ultimately limited by the experience and imagination of the threat actor holding the accounts. A big percentage of ATO leads to financial fraud or exploitation, sale of the accounts to other actors looking to commit fraud, or wider social engineering targeting the owner of the account. 

There is an absolute abundance of criminal locations purely dedicated to the fine art of facilitating the theft and sale of stolen accounts, which are often sold quickly for premium prices. Several factors determining account prices, notably the accounts recency, the seller’s reputation, and the number of accounts being advertised. An example of this can be seen below, with advertisement identifying over 1.7m Singaporean bank accounts being sold for USD 3500.

Singaporean banking accounts advertised for USD 3500

Of course, other than financial theft, ATO is one of the primary points of entry that advanced threat actors use during their campaigns. In the Solarwinds attack—which was described as the most sophisticated attack of all time—guess what the access vector was? Yep, a default password, which provided Russian APT NOBELLIUM with an access point into an exposed Solarwinds file server. 

This is also the case from a cybercriminal perspective, with a big percentage of ransomware attacks resulting from a compromise of an exposed remote service with a weak credential. The Colonial Pipeline attack—which was arguably the most impactful ransomware attack in the last 12 months—also resulted from an exposed credential belonging to a former employee (Hello, joiners, movers, and leavers process (JML), this is where you’re is supposed to kick in..). 

A more recent example of ATO being used in live attacks was by the Lapsus$ data extortion groups, who have found a significant amount of success from targeting users accounts via social engineering, including at several high-end technology companies with significant security budgets; including Microsoft, Samsung, Nvidia, and Okta. So it’s not just your low-hanging fruit, ATO can impact even the biggest of companies. 

Don’t ruin your CISO’s week with a weak password

What continues to contribute toward ATO?

Our previous report in 2020 highlighted a number of issues, notably a lack of password complexity, reuse of passwords across multiple platforms, and a lack of compensating controls to mitigate credential risk. Unfortunately, we’re sad to say that despite the abundance of reporting highlighting the risk, these factors remain. Ultimately, users are continuing with bad practices, which has coincided with an increase in digital footprint for both individuals and organizations. It sounds like a really obvious point to make, but the world is increasingly digitized, with everyday tasks typically permitted through the use of online services; most of these online services facilitate users’ access through a simple username and password combination. 

The tools and techniques used by threat actors to perform ATO are also incredibly efficient at what they aim to do. Free, open source password cracking tools are able to break most encryption used in hashing mechanisms, with offline techniques in particular able to bruteforce simple passwords in a matter of seconds or minutes; even if your stolen password is hashed, it’s typically childsplay for a dedicated actor to crack it. 

Credential stuffing—where an attacker uses an automated injection of breached username/password combinations to fraudulently gain access to user accounts—can also easily be achieved using a variety of open-source tools; we’ve previously detailed the OpenBullet credential stuffing, which is still the jack-of-all-trades for cybercriminals.  Such tools allow actors to commit ATO en masse, by verifying stolen credentials across multiple services on the internet; this is ultimately a problem because of the systemic reuse of passwords we detailed earlier. 

ATO: A problem that is here to stay

ATO is a massive problem and one that likely doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Credential misuse is still one of the primary access methods used by threat actors in the modern day, which is permitted through a wealth of bad practices and an increasingly efficient criminal marketplace for trading stolen accounts. This was recently emphasized in Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), which identified the human element as the key driver in 82% of breaches. This could be fixed with simple controls and changes in behavior, however if we’re being realistic, these sweeping changes aren’t likely to occur anytime soon. 

The future for credential management is likely to be one without passwords, instead favoring the use of passwordless authentication via other authentication factors. This could include something in the user’s possession (e.g., a mobile authenticator app, hardware token or OTP) or a biometric trait such as a fingerprint or facial scan. Of course these methods aren’t footproof either, but it might see an end to the horrors of admin:admin, password1234 and the like. 

Our upcoming research paper details the lifecycle of an ATO attack and why it’s important to close the door on attackers. Be sure to check out this paper written by the Photon research team on its release on June 6th.