Credential harvesting: Is it too big of an attack or can you fight back?

August 1, 2022  |  Shigraf Aijaz

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

The hybrid working model is the new norm due to its effectiveness and the productivity it offers. However, it does pose significant drawbacks to an organization's network security, making it vulnerable to several cyber-attacks such as credential harvesting.

Credential harvesting is an approach hackers use to attack an organization and get access to its credentials virtually. These credentials often include username, passwords, email address, and emails. The hackers use multiple tactics, techniques, and procedures such as man-in-the-middle (MiTM), DNS poisoning and phishing to access valid credentials illegally. These credentials provide open access to the organization's database, network, and system for malicious extraction. The hacker might sell this data to third parties over the Dark Web.

The exponential rise in credential harvesting attacks poses a particularly alarming situation. The recent Account Takeover Report found 24 billion credentials on sale over the dark web. Amidst this, it has become downright crucial to understand credential harvesting attacks and adopt appropriate measures to mitigate them.

How does credential harvesting impact an organization?

Cyber attackers long ago figured out the easiest way to gain access to an enterprise's sensitive data is by invading the end users' privacy by compromising their credentials or identity. Hackers widely use credential harvesting, and their main aim and goal are to access the network to steal the data or sell the stolen information on the dark web. Moreover, cybercriminals even use the data to demand hefty ransoms.

Credential harvesting is somewhat similar to phishing. 71.5% of phishing attacks occurred in 2020 that focused on credential harvesting, while 72% of the employees confirmed that they had clicked on the malicious link in phishing emails, making it easy for attackers to harvest credentials.

By embedding malicious links in PDF or word files, hackers bypass safety firewalls and email protection systems. By entering their username and passwords, the targeted victims give away their credentials. To appear more legitimate, attackers may dupe the name and email addresses of company employees and other partners.

Besides this, hackers may use password dumping tools that extract passwords and make their work easier. Once infecting a system, attackers can laterally move within the organization network to achieve their goal.

Another tactic that attackers use is the MiTM attack. They set up a bogus network that pretends to be a business Wi-Fi spot. By connecting to such networks, victims provide complete access to their system to hackers who track and record their activities and data.

What makes these attacks successful is the widespread lack of security awareness. While working remotely, users often tend to connect to public WiFis and unsecure networks without using appropriate tools such as VPNs. Even if any user decides to use a VPN, many adhere to using a free VPN that significantly compromises their privacy and security.

Ways to fight back against credential harvesting

Strong credentials might not save you from hackers' intrusions and data leaks. But taking strong security measures will help prevent unauthorized users from accessing the organization's accounts. Following are some of the best practices to reduce the risk of credential harvesting.

  •  Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Another great way to defend against credential harvesting attacks is to implement MFA. It is one of the best-known methods to stop unwanted people from moving within an organization and accessing sensitive data laterally. This method allows users to set up multiple ways (text messages, email, or phone calls) to verify their identity. If hackers have compromised your credentials, they won't bypass the authentication stage. Also, the target would be warned about unusual activity, and they can immediately change the password.

  •  Risk-based access control

Risk-based access control is an advanced protection method that uses a machine learning system to define and enforce the access control policy according to user behavior. Using ML-based systems and users' profiles, access decisions are made in real-time and set up low-risk access or block access when the risk is higher. It is used along with MFA and includes various steps of identification, authentication, and authorization.

  •  Phishing education

As phishing attacks are a primary cause of credential harvesting attacks, all employees must be given adequate training about phishing. Through training and awareness programs, staff members should learn how to identify and respond to a phishing attack. Furthermore, they must be encouraged to report any unusual signs they experience to take quick actions before damage is done.

  •  Ensure credential vaulting

Credential vaulting also provides a secure pathway for users to avoid credential harvesting attacks. While using these systems, you are assured that privileged credentials are kept in an encrypted vault and users never see the actual login information. Moreover, users can check out the tools that are logged in, pass the encrypted credential to the appropriate system, and login automatically. This ensures that credential keys are never stolen as users don't have the login information in the first place.

In addition, credential vaulting offers valuable tracking and usage information for all your privileged logins for auditing and monitoring.

Final thoughts

Stealing credentials and using them to access a network is the hackers' ultimate goal. Threat actors use various tactics to harvest credentials and use them for malicious purposes. But by incorporating strong defensive measures and educating employees, organizations can reduce the risk factor.

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