Account Takeover Protection: 6 Best Practices

What Is Account Takeover Protection?

Account takeover (ATO) is a type of cyberattack in which an attacker gains unauthorized access to a user's online account by stealing or guessing their login credentials. The attacker can then use the compromised account to steal sensitive information, make fraudulent transactions, or use the account for other malicious purposes.

Account takeover protection is a set of security measures designed to prevent unauthorized access to a user's online account. The goal is to ensure that only the legitimate owner of the account can access and make changes to it, even if their login credentials have been stolen or compromised.

This is part of a series of articles about cyber threats.

Why Is Account Takeover Protection Important?

With the increasing number of data breaches and the rise of cybercrime, it's crucial for individuals and organizations to take steps to protect their accounts from unauthorized access. Consequences of an account takeover attack include:

  • Theft of personal and sensitive information: The attacker may steal sensitive information such as credit card numbers, addresses, and social security numbers stored in the account.

  • Unauthorized transactions: The attacker may use the account to make unauthorized purchases or transfer funds to their own accounts.

  • Damage to reputation and credibility: The unauthorized activities carried out using the compromised account can damage the individual's or the company's reputation and credibility.

  • Loss of confidence in online services: An account takeover attack can lead to a loss of confidence in online services and discourage users from using them in the future.

  • Legal implications: Depending on the nature of the unauthorized activities carried out using the compromised account, the victim may face legal consequences.

  • Increased risk of identity theft: The attacker may use the stolen information to engage in identity theft, leading to further financial losses and harm to the victim's credit score.

Account takeover protection helps to secure personal and sensitive information stored in the user's account and prevent financial losses.

6 Ways to Prevent Account Takeover

1. Assess the Risk of Account Takeover

An account takeover risk assessment is a process of evaluating and assessing the risk of unauthorized access to a user's account. It typically involves identifying potential security threats and vulnerabilities, assessing the impact of potential security breaches, and implementing measures to minimize the risk of a successful account takeover. The goal is to improve the security of a user's account and protect against unauthorized access.

This assessment typically involves several steps:

  1. Identifying potential risks: The first step is to identify the potential risks and threats to the account, such as phishing attacks, malware, weak passwords, and social engineering.

  2. Assessing impact: Once potential risks have been identified, the impact of a successful account takeover is assessed. This includes evaluating the potential financial losses, reputational damage, and legal liabilities that could result from a breach.

  3. Evaluating security measures: The next step is to evaluate the current security measures in place to protect the account, such as two-factor authentication, encryption, and access control mechanisms.

  4. Identifying vulnerabilities: After evaluating the security measures, any vulnerabilities or gaps in the security are identified. This includes identifying areas where security could be improved, such as implementing stronger passwords or improving access control mechanisms.

  5. Developing mitigation strategies: Based on the results of the assessment, mitigation strategies are developed to minimize the risk of a successful account takeover. These strategies may include implementing stronger security measures, increasing user education, and conducting regular security audits.

2. Enforce Secure Passwords

This involves implementing strong password policies that encourage users to create secure passwords and regularly change them. It also involves implementing tools such as password managers to help users manage their passwords.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides guidelines and standards for password management, including:

  • Length and complexity requirements: NIST recommends using passwords of at least 8 characters, with a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.

  • Regular password changes: NIST recommends requiring users to change their passwords at least once every 90 days.

  • Avoiding password reuse: NIST recommends avoiding the reuse of passwords across multiple accounts to reduce the risk of a compromise in one account leading to a compromise in other accounts.

  • Use of passphrases: NIST recommends using passphrases (a sequence of words) instead of traditional passwords to make it easier for users to remember and harder for attackers to guess.

  • Avoiding password-based authentication: NIST recommends avoiding the use of passwords as the sole means of authentication and incorporating additional factors such as multi-factor authentication to increase security.

3. Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security measure that requires users to provide more than one form of authentication to access an account or system. By adding an extra layer of security, MFA helps to prevent unauthorized access to accounts and systems.

MFA typically involves the following steps:

1. Initial login

The user provides their username and password, as in single-factor authentication.

2. Additional authentication factor

Once the password is verified, the user is required to provide an additional form of authentication, such as:

  • Something the user knows: This could include a security code sent to the user's phone, an answer to a security question, or a one-time code generated by an authentication app.

  • Something the user has: This could include a security token, smartcard, or a smartphone with a biometric factor such as a fingerprint.

  • Something the user is: This could include a biometric factor such as a fingerprint, face recognition, or iris scan.

3. Verification of authentication factors

The authentication factors provided by the user are verified, and if they match, access to the account or system is granted.

MFA helps to prevent account takeover attacks by making it more difficult for attackers to access a user's account. Even if an attacker obtains the user's password, they would still need to provide the additional authentication factor to access the account. It can be implemented as an optional security measure or made mandatory for all users.

4. Email and Phishing Protection

Email and phishing protection measures help protect email accounts and prevent phishing attacks. Phishing is a type of cyber attack where attackers impersonate a trustworthy entity to trick victims into revealing sensitive information, such as login credentials or financial information.

The following are some of the measures that can be taken for email and phishing protection:

  • Spam filters: Automatically detect and block malicious emails from reaching a user's inbox.

  • Email authentication: Technologies such as DMARC, SPF, and DKIM can be used to verify the authenticity of an email's sender and prevent email spoofing, a common tactic used in phishing attacks.

  • Email encryption: Can help protect the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive information transmitted via email.

  • Phishing simulations: Help test an organization's ability to detect and respond to phishing attacks. These simulations involve sending simulated phishing emails to employees to see how many fall for the attack and to train employees on how to identify and avoid phishing attacks.

5. Security Awareness Training

Security awareness training is a process of educating and instructing individuals about the importance of cybersecurity and how to protect themselves and their organization from cyber attacks. The goal is to create a culture of security within an organization, where all employees understand the importance of protecting sensitive information and their role in maintaining security.

Security awareness training typically covers topics such as:

  • Password management: Employees are taught best practices for creating and managing strong passwords, including the use of multi-factor authentication.

  • Social engineering: Employees are trained to recognize and respond to social engineering attacks, which are designed to manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that compromise security.

  • Data protection: Employees are taught how to protect sensitive information, such as customer data, financial information, and intellectual property, according to the company’s policies and the relevant data privacy and security regulations.

  • Mobile and portable device security: Employees are trained on the security risks associated with using mobile and portable devices and best practices for securing these devices.

  • Incident response: Employees are trained on what to do in the event of a security incident, such as reporting the incident, preserving evidence, and cooperating with an investigation.

By providing security awareness training to employees, organizations can increase their overall security posture and reduce the risk of a successful cyber attack. Security awareness training can be delivered through various means, including in-person training, online training, and interactive simulations.

6. Zero Trust Security

Zero trust is a security model that assumes that all users, devices, and networks are potential threats and assumes that no one is inherently trustworthy. It requires strict identity and access management, where every access request is verified before granting access to sensitive data or systems.

Zero trust security models enforce strong authentication, for example via multi-factor authentication (described above). It can also help protect against account takeover by the following means:

  • Network segmentation: Zero trust divides networks into smaller segments and implements strict access controls between them. This makes it more difficult for attackers to move laterally within the network if they succeed in compromising an initial target.

  • Continuous monitoring: Zero trust requires continuous monitoring of network activity to detect and respond to any suspicious behavior, such as a user attempting to access a system from an unfamiliar device or location.

Defend your organization against account takeovers

BlueVoyant monitors threat actor activity to find exposed credentials in real time and take action to prevent them from being used in account takeover attacks for your organization.

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