Credential-Stuffing Attacks Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

October 22, 2019
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2 min read

It’s no secret that passwords just aren’t very secret these days. Poor password hygiene and an overwhelming volume of digital accounts has influenced far many consumers to routinely reuse passwords across multiple accounts. As you might imagine, businesses have been hearing more and more about credential-stuffing attacks in the news.

Credential-stuffing attacks happen when a malicious actor obtains a list of stolen usernames and passwords and tests them at various other sites using a bot. The credentials themselves could come from anywhere: data breaches, phishing attacks, etc. Because so many consumers reuse the same credentials over and over again, a username and password stolen from a data breach at a major retailer could help a fraudster access that consumer’s online accounts.

To Detect Credential-Stuffing Attacks, Look for the Bots

While businesses can’t reasonably force a user to not reuse a password from another site, bot detection solutions can help detect and mitigate credential-stuffing activity. Detecting bot activity — and thereby reducing credential stuffing attacks — is helpful. Bot detection in the application layer can also help reduce denial-of-service-attacks. Bot detection that is further down, analyzing things such as behavioral biometrics, can recognize additional markers for scripted attacks and nonhuman activity.

Account Takeover: Addressing the Root Problem

Despite its utility, focusing efforts solely on bot detection to address credential-stuffing attacks is a bit like taking an aspirin for a headache when the true problem is a brain tumor. Credential stuffing is only step one; generally speaking, the ultimate goal of these attacks is account takeover. That is when a malicious actor actually gains access to an account and can begin to monetize it.

Holistic Fraud and Authentication Strategies

Business leaders should consider holistic, multilayered strategies for dealing with credential stuffing attacks and account takeovers. This means detecting bot activity and understanding the full context of the user and their activity on a site or app. By examining the user’s behavior, device, network and other behind-the-scenes factors, organizations can get a true understanding of the risk of each of their site visitors — including those that are nonhuman — and modify their authentication strategy accordingly, adapting the digital experience to match the risk.

Just as credential-stuffing attacks are indicative of the much larger issue of account takeover, this adaptive authentication is a small part of a much larger effort to actually improve the digital experience for low-risk users. This is because businesses can modify the authentication process for low-risk users as well — perhaps even embracing a passwordless strategy. Thus, organizations can move toward a world where they not only detect credential-stuffing attacks, but move the rest of us slowly away from the problem that created them in the first place.

Your Guide
to a Passwordless Customer Experience

Valerie Bradford
Product Marketing Manager

Valerie Bradford is an IBM Security product marketing professional with over ten years of experience. Her career has focused on security technology, fraud pr...
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