7 ways to defend against a credential stuffing attack

March 31, 2022  |  Anastasios Arampatzis

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

Credential stuffing attacks essentially doubled in number between 2020 and 2021. As reported by Help Net Security, researchers detected 2,831,028,247 credential stuffing attacks between October 2020 and September 2021—growth of 98% over the previous year. Of the sectors that did experience credential stuffing during that period, gaming, digital and social media, as well as financial services experienced the greatest volume of attacks. What’s more, the United Kingdom was one of the top three regions that launched the most credential stuffing attacks in the world, followed by Asia and North America.

Looking towards the rest of 2022, the security community expects the volume of credential stuffing attacks to grow even further. “Expect to see credential stuffing attacks double in number again in 2022,” noted Forbes.

Why is credential stuffing a concern for organizations?

First, the role of automation in credential stuffing makes it possible for anyone—even attackers with low levels of expertise—to perpetrate these attacks. A low barrier of entry helps to explain why credential stuffing is so pervasive and why it’s expected to continue in this way for 2022.

Let’s examine the flow of credential stuffing to illustrate this fact. According to the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), a credential stuffing attack begins when a malicious actor acquires compromised usernames and passwords from password dumps, data breaches, phishing campaigns, and other means. They then use automated tools to test those credentials across multiple websites including banks and social media platforms. If they succeed in authenticating themselves with a credential set, they can then conduct a password reuse attack, harvest the compromised account’s information/funds, and/or monetize it on the dark web.

Which brings us to our second reason why credential stuffing is so concerning: the impact of a successful attack can be far-reaching. The applications of a successful credential stuffing attack are tantamount to a data breach, so organizations can bet that all data privacy regulations will be enforced.

Meaning? Organizations could incur fines totaling millions of dollars in the aftermath of credential stuffing, per Cybersecurity Dive. Those penalties don’t include the costs that organizations will need to pay to understand the impact of the attack, figure out which data the malicious actors might have compromised, and remediate the incident. They also don’t cover the brand damage and legal fees that organizations could face after notifying their customers.

Credential stuffing defense best practices

To avoid the costs discussed above, organizations need to take action to defend themselves against a credential stuffing attack. Here are seven ways that they can do this.

1. Make credential stuffing defense an ongoing collaborative discussion

Organizations can’t tackle credential stuffing if there’s not even a discussion about the threat. Acknowledging this reality, TechRepublic recommends that organizations bring their security, fraud, and digital teams together to discuss credential stuffing, among other fraud trends, along with ways that they can use digital metrics to coordinate their defense efforts.

2. Implement multi-factor authentication

Credential stuffing hinges on the fact that malicious actors can translate access to a credential set into access to an account. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) denies this pivot point, as it forces attackers to also provide another factor such as an SMS-based text code or a fingerprint for authentication. This raises the barrier of taking over an account by forcing malicious actors to compromise those additional authentication factors in addition to the original credential set.

3. Use security awareness to familiarize employees with password best practices

Organizations can go a long way towards blocking a credential stuffing attack by cultivating their employees’ levels of security awareness. For instance, they can educate their employees on how malicious actors can leverage password reuse as part of a credential stuffing campaign. Per How-To Geek, organizations can also provide employees with a password manager for storing credentials that they’ve created in accordance with company password policies.

4. Analyze and baseline traffic for signs of credential stuffing

Infosecurity Magazine recommends that organizations create a baseline for their traffic including account activity. They can then use that baseline to monitor for anomalies such as a spike in failed login attempts and unusual account access requests.

5. Prevent users from securing their accounts with exposed passwords

The last thing security teams want is for their employees to use a password that’s been exposed in a previous security incident. Malicious actors use data breaches, information dumps, and other leaks to power automated tools used in credential stuffing, after all. Acknowledging this point, infosec personnel need to monitor the web for data breaches, information dumps, and other leaks that malicious actors could use to engage in credential stuffing. They can actively monitor the news for these types of incidents. They can also rely on receiving alerts from data breach tracking services such as Have I Been Pwned (HIBP).

6. Implement device fingerprinting

Infosec teams can use operating system, web browser version, language settings, and other attributes to fingerprint an employee’s device. They can then leverage that fingerprint to monitor for suspicious activity such as a user attempting to authenticate themselves with the device in a different country, noted Security Boulevard. If a circumstance like that arises, security teams can then prompt employees to submit additional authentication factors to confirm that someone hasn’t taken over their account.

7. Avoid using email addresses as user IDs

Password reuse isn’t the only factor that increases the risk of a credential stuffing attack. So too does the reuse of usernames and/or account IDs. Salt Security agrees with this statement.

“Credential stuffing relies on users leveraging the same usernames or account IDs across services,” it noted in a blog post. “The risk runs higher when the ID is an email address since it is easily obtained or guessed by attackers.”

Subsequently, organizations should consider using unique usernames that malicious actors can’t use for their authentication attempts across multiple web services.

Beating credential stuffing with the basics

Credential stuffing is one of the most prevalent forms of attack today. This popularity is possible because of how simple it is for malicious actors to obtain exposed sets of credentials on the web. However, as discussed above, it’s also simple for organizations to defend themselves against credential stuffing. They can do so in large part by focusing on the basics such as implementing MFA, awareness training, and baselining their traffic.

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