Account Takeover Attacks: Detecting and Preventing

An account takeover (ATO) is a type of identity theft. In an ATO, attackers steal personally identifiable information (PII) such as your social security number, home address, or bank account information. Hackers use your stolen identity to commit fraud like scams and reputation damage. Hackers may also sell the information they steal to third parties.

In an account takeover, hackers gain access to your online account. Hackers could get your financial information if this account is on an e-commerce site. They can make fraudulent transactions after simply changing the shipping address. They may even accumulate excessive bills before you notice that your account has been compromised! 

Account takeovers can be very detrimental and can cause immediate damage. SEO Design Chicago wants to make sure that your accounts remain secure, so we will outline different techniques that you can use to detect and prevent account takeovers.

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What Is an Account Takeover?

Account takeover is a type of identity theft where cybercriminals illegally gain unauthorized access to someone else’s account. The victim’s account is valuable to the hacker because it contains money or access to products, services, or private information that the hacker can sell.

What Organizations Do ATO Attacks Target?

Individuals and organizations can fall victim to ATO attacks. 

For individuals, hackers collect personally identifying information (PII). They use this valuable information to apply for lines of credit in the victim’s name, commit insurance fraud, or obtain credit card information. They also use this personal information to make the fraudulent communication in phishing, and spam campaigns seem more believable.

For organizations, cybercriminals typically look for the easiest way to make money, including selling private information, ransomware, or stealing cryptocurrency. Hackers often target financial institutions to gain fraudulent access to customers’ accounts, but they can attack any organization with customer-facing logins.

Consequences of an Account Takeover

It doesn’t matter if you are an individual or an organization. Account takeovers can have harmful consequences that affect your time, money, and reputation.

Consequences of account takeovers for individuals include:

  • Identity theft
  • Financial losses
  • Subsequent account takeovers

Consequences of account takeovers for businesses include:

  • Loss of customers
  • A damaged reputation
  • Loss of funds
  • More chargebacks
  • More transaction disputes

cyber security hacking

How Do Account Takeovers Happen?

For hackers to commit successful account takeovers, they need access to user account credentials, which they can obtain through four methods.

Brute-Force Attacks

In brute-force attackers, hackers attempt to access accounts or secured systems by repeatedly entering credentials manually or with automated methods. 

Breach Replay Attacks

Breach replay attacks are also called credential stuffing. In this type of attack, hackers use stolen usernames and passwords from one organization (which they obtain in a breach or buy on the dark web) to access user accounts at another organization.


In phishing attacks, cybercriminals use fake communications that look legitimate to obtain sensitive information. Through phishing, hackers gain access to online accounts and personal data. They can also obtain permissions to modify and compromise connected systems and entire computer networks.

Malware Attacks

In a malware attack, hackers use malicious software to execute unauthorized actions on the victim’s computer. These viruses use different types of attacks like ransomware, spyware, and command and control.

Detecting Account Takeover (ATO) Attacks

Here are a few signs that hackers are attempting to take control of your accounts:

IP Addresses from Different Countries

Since cybercriminals may not know the account owner’s original location, they may use IP addresses from other countries. If you notice a rise in IP addresses from usual countries, you may be a victim of an account takeover.

Several Accounts Changing to Include Shared Details

Once a hacker successfully claims an account, they change details like email addresses and passwords so the original owner can no longer access the account. If you notice more than one account making similar changes to shared information, such as using the same email address, that’s a red flag that you’re under attack.

Unknown Devices

Hackers use a tactic called “device spoofing” to hide what device they’re using. Doing so makes it more difficult for you to detect when a device attempts to access multiple accounts. When hackers hide their devices, your system sees them as “unknown.” If you’re experiencing a higher than average ratio of unknown devices, it’s a common sign of an incoming account takeover attack.

The Same Devices Accesses Multiple Accounts

Attackers may not spoof their devices between logging into different accounts. Therefore, if they have stolen more than one account, these accounts are linked to one device. Keep in mind that there are times when friends and family members share one device, so check other factors to confirm an account takeover.

Chargeback Requests and Fraudulent Transaction Claims

If you’re getting an unusual number of chargeback requests and fraudulent transaction claims, that could be a sign of account fraud.

Excessive Login Attempts and Password Reset Requests

Hundreds of login attempts or password reset requests indicate botnets, credential stuffing, and card cracking.

If you notice any suspicious activity, immediately solve the problem.

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What Do I Do if I’m a Victim of Account Takeover?

If you believe you may be a victim of ATO, you can take action to recover from the consequences. The steps vary depending on whether you are an individual or a business.

Individual victims of ATO should:

  • Contact the company.
  • Alert your contacts.
  • Update your software.
  • Install antivirus software.
  • Review your accounts.
  • Change your passwords.
  • Set up two-factor authentication.

Business victims of ATO should:

  • Recover accounts by freezing them and resetting passwords.
  • Alert customers. Tell them you are freezing or securing their accounts.
  • Report the fraud to the proper federal, state, and local authorities.

Account Takeover Mitigation Measures

It is vital to utilize account takeover mitigation measures if you’ve been victimized. Even if you haven’t yet been a victim of ATO, you should use these three steps to protect yourself, your employees, and your customers from account takeover attacks.

Check for Compromised Credentials

Compare new user credentials with a breached credential database, so you know when a user signs up with breach credentials. Also, check your user database regularly to know when existing user information has been compromised. Doing so lets you notify them immediately.

Limit Login Attempts

To prevent account takeover, set rate limits on login attempts based on username, device, and IP address.

Notify Users of Account Changes

Notify users of any changes they made, so they will be aware when their account is compromised. Doing so ensures that even if a hacker overcame your authentication measures, you could minimize the damage.

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Other Ways to Prevent Account Takeovers

In addition to using account takeover mitigation measures, you can incorporate other methods of account takeover prevention.

Employee Education

Train your employees to recognize phishing attempts and compromised accounts. Teach them ways to keep their accounts (and your company) safe.

Use Strong, Secure Passwords

Typically, secure passwords are longer and include a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters, special characters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use previously compromised passwords or personal information like names and birthdays.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication improves security as well as account takeover detection and prevention. With multi-factor authentication, users authenticate via other methods besides their passwords. Authentication methods include:

  • Something they know, like answers to security questions.
  • Something they have, such as dongles or tokens that your system recognizes.
  • Something they are, like using facial recognition or fingerprints.

You don’t necessarily need two-factor authentication every time users log in. You can use risk-based authentication, which asks for two-factor authentication only after a user attempts to access the account with a different device or from a different location.

Use a Tracking System

You can also track login attempts and their locations automatically. If an account has been compromised, you should have measures in place to prevent further attacks. One such method is called “sandboxing,” wherein you isolate the account, so it doesn’t affect the rest of your digital infrastructure. 

Use a Web Application Firewall

You can configure web application firewalls to identify and block takeover attacks with targeted policies. Web application firewalls can locate signs of brute-force attacks and harmful bot activities.

Use AI-Based Detection Software

AI-based detention software can identify more sophisticated bot attacks and account takeover attempts. Advanced AI-based technologies can attempt behavior-based detection to identify complex ATO attempts. They also effectively monitor your website for suspicious activities.

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Proactively Detect Account Takeover Attacks to Help Prevent Them

To keep your company’s credential-protected accounts and website safe, you must proactively detect account takeovers and take steps to prevent them. Compromised websites can cause your business to lose consumer trust, and they can even cause permanent damage to your brand’s reputation.

If you need to improve your website’s security. SEO Design Chicago can help! We offer website development services, website hosting services, and website migration services. Let us create a safe and secure website for your business today.


  • How do hackers accomplish account takeover attacks?
  • Why do account takeovers occur?
  • What are signs that hackers are attempting to take control of my accounts?
  • How can I prevent an account takeover?
  • What measures can I take to mitigate account takeover attacks?

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