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New research: Understanding the root cause of account takeover

By Google's Kurt Thomas, Anti-Abuse Research; Angelika Moscicki, Account Security

November 10, 2017

Account takeover, or ‘hijacking’, is unfortunately a common problem for users across the web. More than 15% of Internet users have reported experiencing the takeover of an email or social networking account. However, despite its familiarity, there is a dearth of research about the root causes of hijacking.

With Google accounts as a case-study, we teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley to better understand how hijackers attempt to take over accounts in the wild. From March 2016 to March 2017, we analyzed several black markets to see how hijackers steal passwords and other sensitive data. We’ve highlighted some important findings from our investigation below. We presented our study at the
Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS) and it’s now available here.

What we learned from the research proved to be immediately useful. We applied its insights to our existing protections and secured 67 million Google accounts before they were abused. We’re sharing this information publicly so that other online services can better secure their users, and can also supplement their authentication systems with more protections beyond just passwords.

 


How hijackers steal passwords on the black market

Our research tracked several black markets that traded third-party password breaches, as well as 25,000 blackhat tools used for phishing and keylogging. In total, these sources helped us identify 788,000 credentials stolen via keyloggers, 12 million credentials stolen via phishing, and 3.3 billion credentials exposed by third-party breaches.

While our study focused on Google, these password stealing tactics pose a risk to all account-based online services. In the case of third-party data breaches, 12% of the exposed records included a Gmail address serving as a username and a password; of those passwords, 7% were valid due to reuse. When it comes to phishing and keyloggers, attackers frequently target Google accounts to varying success: 12-25% of attacks yield a valid password.

However, because a password alone is rarely sufficient for gaining access to a Google account, increasingly sophisticated attackers also try to collect sensitive data that we may request when verifying an account holder’s identity. We found 82% of blackhat phishing tools and 74% of keyloggers attempted to collect a user’s IP address and location, while another 18% of tools collected phone numbers and device make and model.

By ranking the relative risk to users, we found that phishing posed the greatest threat, followed by keyloggers, and finally third-party breaches.

Protecting our users from account takeover

Our findings were clear: enterprising hijackers are constantly searching for, and are able to find, billions of different platforms’ usernames and passwords on black markets. While we have already applied these insights to our existing protections, our findings are yet another reminder that we must continuously evolve our defenses in order to stay ahead of these bad actors and keep users safe.

For many years, we’ve applied a ‘defense in-depth’ approach to security—a layered series of constantly improving protections that automatically prevent, detect, and mitigate threats to keep your account safe.

Prevention

A wide variety of safeguards help us to prevent attacks before they ever affect our users. For example, Safe Browsing, which now
protects more than 3 billion devices, alerts users before they visit a dangerous site or when they click a link to a dangerous site within Gmail. We recently announced the Advanced Protection program which provides extra security for users that are at elevated risk of attack.

Detection

We monitor every login attempt to your account for suspicious activity. When there is a sign-in attempt from a device you’ve never used, or a location you don’t commonly access your account from, we’ll require additional information before granting access to your account. For example, if you sign in from a new laptop and you have a phone associated with you account, you will see a prompt—we’re calling these dynamic verification challenges—like this:
 
This challenge provides two-factor authentication on all suspicious logins, while mitigating the risk of account lockout.

Mitigation

Finally, we regularly scan activity across Google’s suite of products for suspicious actions performed by hijackers and when we find any, we lock down the affected accounts to prevent any further damage as quickly as possible. We prevent or undo actions we attribute to account takeover, notify the affected user, and help them change their password and re-secure their account into a healthy state.

What you can do

There are some simple steps you can take that make these defenses even stronger. Visit our
Security Checkup to make sure you have recovery information associated with your account, like a phone number. Allow Chrome to automatically generate passwords for your accounts and save them via Smart Lock. We’re constantly working to improve these tools, and our automatic protections, to keep your data safe.

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