Published on Sep 18, 2023
Olivia Williams
Read time: 8m
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Don't Let Them Win: Empowering Strategies to Prevent Account Takeover (ATO) Attacks

Account takeover (ATO) attacks involve cybercriminals gaining unauthorized access to user accounts to steal information or carry out malicious activities. These attacks have increased by 307% between 2019-2021.


An account takeover (ATO) attack is a type of cyber attack whereby access is illegally gained into a user’s account through the use of various deceptive techniques in order to steal delicate information, make a profit by selling the user’s information to other people, make unauthorized transactions or impersonate the user online.

Account takeover (ATO) attacks have been used for a long time to steal workforce identity and use them for malicious activities. However, companies can detect these activities and protect themselves and their customers from further attacks.

New data reveals that ATO fraud exploded by 307% between 2019-2021 – Sift’s global network

What is Account Takeover (ATO) Attack?

An Account Takeover (ATO) attack is a form of theft, where cybercriminals illegally gain access to online accounts like email addresses, bank accounts, or social media profiles, using stolen passwords and usernames.

What Types of Organizations Do ATO Attacks Target?

1. Social Media Networks

Social Media Networks contain many personal information that are used by attackers to hack accounts and use them for illegal activities such as spreading spam, phishing links, or other malware distribution.

2. Streaming Services

Here, attackers usually steal the login information of premium customers and sell them at a cheaper rate to other individuals.

3. Financial Industry

The security of banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions is also threatened by attackers. They steal the credentials of users and gain access to millions of accounts.

4. Healthcare Industry

The healthcare industry is also a target of attackers who wish to gain access to medical records and commit medical identity crimes.

5. Retail Industry

Attackers also target the retail industries as they can make a lot of money from it in different ways like ordering goods using the hacked account, buying gift cards, redeeming rewards points, and selling hacked accounts on the dark web.

6. Online Gaming Platform

The gaming platform contains important in-game assets and virtual currency, which attackers would like to gain access to so they can engage in illegal activities with the credentials.

How Does Account Takeover (ATO) Attack Happen?

Account takeover attack is carried out through the following steps:

1. Research and Target Selection

Before attackers carry out their actions, they first conduct research to find possible targets. This involves collecting information regarding individuals, organizations, or industries which makes it easy to break passwords or answer security questions.

2. Credential Theft

Credential theft is the act of stealing and harvesting credentials like usernames, passwords, and financial information of a company. The attacker does this through malware or phishing techniques.

The techniques used for stealing credentials are:

  1. Phishing: This involves the use of SMS, emails, scam websites, chat conversations, malicious phone applications, phone calls, and others to deceive customers and lead them to fake websites where they give out their credentials.
  2. Viruses and Malware: viruses and malware can steal information from any user, they record keystrokes as users type them, through this, they collect the password and bank details of the user. The most effective remedy for this issue is the antivirus software.
  3. Man in the Middle (MitM) Attacks: Internet traffic passes through many servers before it reaches a website. If this traffic is interrupted while on route, and it is not encrypted, they might see all your movements on the internet, plus your usernames and passwords. This Attack is performed through home internet routers or public Wi-Fi networks. You can protect yourself through reliable VPN software.

3. Gaining Access

After stealing the credentials, the next step is to gain access to the accounts. If they have more than one site, username, or password, they would also try using different combinations of the credentials.

4. Maintaining Access

After accessing the accounts, attackers will try to make sure they maintain access. To do this, they change the password and also add recovery emails or numbers so the original owner cannot gain access to the account again.

5. Exploitation

After accessing the accounts, the attacker begins to carry out different activities in the account like stealing sensitive data, moving or spending finances, committing identity fraud, or even using compromised accounts to carry out spam or malware activity.

6. Covering Tracks

To keep their activities hidden, attackers delete notifications, emails, and other things that make it obvious so that the owner would not notice.

7. Monetization or Exploitation

If the attacker aims to make money from the account, they would try to exploit or monetize the account by selling stolen information, selling the accounts on the dark market, or using them for other fraudulent activities.

Detecting Account Takeover Attacks in Financial Institutions

Account takeover attacks are not easy to detect, however, the common indicators are:

1. Failed Logins

When an attacker tries to stuff or guess credentials on online sites, the organization is notified of failed attempts. This signifies an account takeover threat.

2. User Analytics

Users usually have a particular pattern they follow to log in to their accounts like they may log in at a particular place and time every day. When organizations notice a deviation from this pattern, there may be an account takeover attack.

3. Insecure Configurations

Most attackers disable security controls and try to set up unusual configurations like mail forwarding and filtering. These changes show that they have attacked an account.

4. Malicious Activities

Most attackers send out phishing emails with a compromised account or remove sensitive information from systems and networks. If organizations observe such malicious activities, then there is an account takeover attack and they can identify the affected account by monitoring closely.

5. Multiple Accounts Logged in on One Device

If you notice that different accounts are logged in on one device, it can be a sign of an account takeover (ATO) attack.

6. Use AI-based Detection Technology

Attackers usually use advanced bots that mimic user behaviors. This makes it difficult to identify. However, AI-based detection technology can be used effectively for the identification of these account takeover (ATO) attacks.

7. Identify Unknown Devices

Attackers usually hide their device names with device spoofing techniques. If you notice an abnormally high amount of 'unknown' in your system, then, there is an account takeover (ATO) threat.

What are the effects of Account Takeover (ATO) Attacks?

The effects of account takeover (ATO) attacks on individuals and companies are:

  1. Identity theft: Attackers steal the personal information of customers, like their social security numbers, credit card numbers, and login credentials which they use for identity theft. This results in serious financial losses and reduced credit scores.
  2. Financial losses: After stealing the credentials of customers, attackers use the stolen login credentials to make unauthorized purchases, transfer funds, or access other accounts connected to the victim's account.
  3. Damage to Reputation: Customers do not like to patronize organizations with a history of account takeover (ATO) attacks as they would not be able to trust them with their information and finances anymore.

How can users and organizations protect themselves from Account Takeover (ATO) attack?

To protect your organization from ATO, try the following methods.

  1. Multi-Factor Authentication: To protect from attackers, the user can add something to their password for authentication. This includes a security question, something in their possession, or something they are like their fingerprint or face ID.
  2. Secure Communication: To provide more protection to data in transit and prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, use HTTPS for communications between your app and backend servers. Practice certificate pinning so you can only use your app to communicate with trusted servers.
  3. Password Security: Users should be advised to create strong passwords by offering them password strength indicators and specifying the minimum requirements for password storage in the backend database.
  4. Account Recovery and Reset: Practice a secure account recovery process with a complex verification process which includes emailing a code to registered emails and phone numbers, for account recovery or password reset processes. Create rate-limiting mechanisms and CAPTCHA algorithms so that attackers cannot brute-force these processes.
  5. Anti-Bot Measures: Practice CAPTCHAs or other anti-bot mechanisms to prevent automated attacks on login and registration forms and user input validation to prevent common weaknesses like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, and injection attacks.
  6. Security Updates: security updates, and user input validation, are important processes for the prevention of account takeover attacks. They protect the user data inputs from weaknesses like SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS). Users should always be reminded to keep their versions updated.
  7. Secure Code Development: Practicing secure coding offers protection from weaknesses like insecure data storage, hardcoding sensitive information, and handling credentials without proper protection.
  8. Mobile App Encryption: Providing mobile app encryption also protects sensitive data stored locally on the device, such as user credentials or authentication tokens. Practice correct encryption libraries and algorithms to protect data confidentiality.
  9. Secure Third-Party Integrations: If your app is dependent on third-party libraries or APIs, follow procedures that make sure they follow best security practices and organize security assessments of these parts.
  10. Logging and Monitoring: Add logging mechanisms to record app activities, including authentication and other activities related to the account. Observe the user activity to notice abnormal user behaviors and any account takeover threats like changes to account information or strange transactions.
  11. User Education: Ensure your customers are well informed of the best security practices, the importance of updating apps and devices, as well as phishing awareness training.


Here in this article, you have been provided with all you need to know about account takeover attacks, so you know that attackers would go any length to gain control over your account. If they are successful, it can cause a lot of loss for an organization and the affected customers. However, this can be prevented by following the preventive measures given in this article, and if they have already gained access, there are steps you can take to stop them from reaching other accounts.


Account Takeover Attack (ATO) | Types, Detection & Protection | Imperva

Account Takeover Attacks (ATO) - Zimperium Glossary

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