Securing the Frontier: Preventing Account Takeovers with AI

Machines against machines—AI promises the future’s most decisive counterpunch against surging account takeover threats.

Securing the Frontier: Preventing Account Takeovers with AI
Photo by Eduardo Soares / Unsplash

Account takeover – also referred to as credential stuffing or account hijacking – involves cybercriminals gaining unauthorized access to a user’s online account by stealing or guessing the credentials. It remains one of the most common and damaging forms of digital fraud. Driven by surging motivation and opportunity among cybercriminals, ATO attacks have steadily escalated in frequency, diversity, and impact. Artificial intelligence is emerging as a crucial line of defense against existing and future permutations of account compromise.

What is Account Takeover?

Account takeover is a type of identity fraud where attackers compromise users’ login credentials to gain illicit access to accounts. Often, cybercriminals steal passwords and usernames from website breaches or malware attacks. They then systematically check these stolen credentials across other popular websites and apps through automated brute-force login tools. Once credential stuffing grants the attackers access, they can carry out various fraudulent activities through the hijacked accounts.

Common methods used in account takeovers include:

  • Phishing sites trick users into revealing credentials
  • Keylogging malware tracking keyboard input on devices
  • Brute force attacks guessing password combinations
  • Social engineering schemes manipulating users

Attackers typically seek to takeover accounts with financial data, purchase history, loyalty rewards, or personal information that can enable additional theft and fraud. Examples include:

  • Email accounts used for password resets
  • Retailer accounts with saved payment cards
  • Bank accounts and digital wallets
  • Social media profiles

The Impacts of Account Takeover

A successful account takeover can have devastating financial and personal consequences. With access to an online account, cybercriminals can:

  • Make unauthorized purchases with stored payment cards
  • Transfer funds from account balances or linked bank accounts
  • Access sensitive emails for further criminal activity
  • Steal personal information for identity fraud
  • Access or delete valuable data like photos

Victims often face arduous processes to regain control of compromised accounts, reset passwords across breached emails, monitor identity theft risks, and reverse fraudulent transactions.

How AI Helps Defend Against Account Takeover

Artificial intelligence and machine learning offer powerful capabilities to help defend users and organizations against account takeover attacks before they cause damage. AI-enhanced defense capabilities include:

  • Behavioral Analytics – By baseline users’ normal account access patterns, AI can detect out-of-the-ordinary activity indicative of account takeover. Sudden impossible geographical account access, unfamiliar devices, and other anomalous events trigger alerts.
  • Credential Stuffing Protection – Networks trained on known malicious login patterns can identify and block programmatic credential stuffing attacks as they occur. This prevents access to fraudsters.
  • Anti-bot Defenses – By tracking mouse movements, micro-interactions with pages, and other signals, AI can distinguish real human logins from automated bot attacks and allow the legitimate while blocking fraudulent logins.
  • User Identity Verification – Once suspicious activity is detected, AI algorithms can initiate additional identity verification challenges for users to confirm real account owners and block bad actors. Challenges assess human traits like visual puzzle solving.

Enterprises are increasingly deploying such AI systems in their identity and access management (IAM) stacks to reduce account takeover risks. Leading identity providers also offer AI defenses to users and application owners. Over time, advances in AI will make account takeover efforts more difficult and easier to thwart before major fraud occurs.

The Future of Account Takeover Attacks

As AI defense measures grow more widespread, fraudsters will likely attempt to evolve their account takeover techniques to sustain criminal profits. Potential developments include:

  1. Increased Phishing Sophistication – Very specific, personalized phishing lures could trick more users into giving up credentials without triggering generalized phishing alerts.
  2. Enhanced Social Engineering – Leveraging information from breaches and social media, criminals could better impersonate contacts and manipulate victims.
  3. Multi-Channel Coordinated Attacks – Orchestrating phishing, smishing, vishing, and business email compromise could overwhelm users’ defenses across multiple channels.
  4. Synthetic Identity Fraud – Stealing enough data to fabricate fake digital identities could help fraudsters create more accounts to takeover.

However, while criminals adapt, so too will AI and identity protection controls with expanded datasets, new detection patterns, and self-learning capabilities. The forces battling for and against account takeover will fuel an ongoing cybersecurity arms race for the foreseeable future – with AI acting as a bulwark against identity fraud.

Individuals and organizations must remain equally vigilant and leverage advanced protection systems to secure identities in the digital age. Account takeovers will remain a threat into the future, but the damages can be mitigated through AI and savvy personal security habits.