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Credential Stuffing and Account Takeovers -- The Business View

Account takeovers (ATOs), in which criminals impersonate legitimate account owners in order to take control of an account, cause tremendous pain for businesses in all industries. This pain may be monetary, such as losses from stolen accounts, but may also include a number of related problems, like regulatory and legal issues, lost customers, and the inability to gain new consumers due to a lack of trust. Losses from ATOs and new account fraud are estimated at more than $10 billion annually in the United States alone.

A couple of years ago, we'd usually hear about ATOs as an aspect of the attack surface that exists in the financial services industry. But now we're seeing credential stuffing and ATOs increasing in multiple industries like media, gaming, and retail. At Akamai's recent Edge Live Adapt event, our team talked about criminal innovations in the credential stuffing and ATO space in all of those verticals. You can view the session on-demand here.

ATOs are the end goal for credential stuffing attacks, where a criminal launches a bot attack to test a large number of usernames and passwords against the targeted website or service. Akamai recorded more than 100 billion credential stuffing attacks from July 2018 through June 2020. 

Criminals Are Business People

When we think about credential stuffing, ATO, or really any other kind of automated security attack, we often worry about the sophistication of the attacker's technology. Have they adopted new tools to better mimic human behaviors? Have they evolved their attacks to evade known detections? My colleague Tony Lauro lists many of the newer techniques used by bot operators in a recent Daily Swig article.

Firms often overlook another reason attackers are successful: their business skills. Criminal enterprises such as botnet operators work very much like legal businesses. They'll try to pursue the best market opportunities, minimize their costs, and maximize profits. Another Akamai colleague, Jonathan Singer, recently wrote about criminal economics in the gaming industry, as an example.

Criminals even have attack workflows they follow. We call them kill chains, a term and framework developed for the cyber security industry by Lockheed Martin in 2011. Derived from military concepts, the kill chain is the process that criminals go through to execute on their goals. In the case of credential stuffing and ATOs, the kill chain looks like the one shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. The credential stuffing and ATO kill chain

How Target Organizations Can Disrupt the Kill Chain

But the kill chain is the criminal's perspective. What does the intended target organization see? And, more to the point, what can the intended target do to disrupt the kill chain? It's an oft used trope in movies that to catch a criminal one must think like a criminal. And in the case of a credential stuffing/ATO kill chain, that means thinking like a businessperson. Rather than allow their organizations to become passive targets, security teams can put mitigations in place for each phase of the bot and human elements of the kill chain. Many mitigations focus on stopping the criminal from executing each phase, but other mitigations aim to make the attack so expensive that the attacker decides to pick an easier/less expensive target. 

Diving into the concept a little deeper, we can consider a credential stuffing/ATO attack as a cat-and-mouse game, where each action taken by the attacker is met with a reaction by the intended target and vice versa. It's a complex, co-created workflow (see Figure 2). We see that it may not be possible to completely stop an attacker in every case. But if we simultaneously focus mitigations on making it harder for the attacker to get in and making it more expensive for the attacker, we disrupt the kill chain. 


Figure 2.  How organizations can disrupt the credential stuffing and ATO kill chain

Raise Attackers' Costs to Lower Your Own

Remember that the best way to protect your business from credential stuffing and ATO is to think of the attacker as a business foe and as not just a technology adversary. 

Raising the technical and financial costs for attackers means:

  • Making attackers spend more money on hardware, compute, and on human augmentation like captcha farms

  • Increasing the number of stolen credentials they need to purchase in order to get the same or fewer number of credentials validated

  • Increasing the amount of time and effort needed (like phishing and social engineering) to validate credentials or to use validated ones

  • Reducing the attackers' return on investment by lowering their probability of success and value returned relative to the cost of the attack

By increasing the technical difficulty and monetary costs of attacking your firm, you should see corollary costs go down for your organization in one or more of the following ways:

  • Reduced cost and effort needed to check for compromised accounts

  • For regulated businesses, mitigating risk of regulatory noncompliance, government fines, and lawsuits

  • Lower costs from having to replace stolen accounts 

  • Lower financial loss resulting from customer churn and tarnished brand equity

  • Lower infrastructure costs from fewer attacks and less attack traffic

  • Less time demand from already-overloaded security and fraud teams

Innovate Business-Oriented Roadblocks to Disrupt Credential Stuffing and ATOs

Attackers are always innovating their techniques and technologies as they try to execute credential stuffing and ATOs. Just like any business person, they're striving to get better over time. To protect your customers, your workers, and your company, you need to innovate, too -- especially in the ways you thwart attacks. Technology, implemented well, can stop many attacks, but not all of them. That's why it's important to also focus on the business side and find innovative ways to make yourself a financially unattractive target. Take steps like the ones above to raise the attackers' costs, make their operations less efficient, and disrupt their business model overall.