Cyber Threats

Current trends in credential-based cyber threats

2023 saw over 8.2 billion records compromised in data breaches, highlighting the urgency of enhanced data security measures.

January 25, 2024

In 2023, the world witnessed a significant surge in data breaches, with over 8.2 billion records compromised across 2,814 incidents. These breaches spanned various sectors and geographies, including a staggering breach of over 3.8 billion records by a UK-based cyber security firm, and major incidents in healthcare and IT services across countries like India, the USA, and Kazakhstan. Such an extensive spread of incidents highlights a concerning trend of data vulnerability.

For businesses, this escalation in data breaches translates to an increased risk of exposure. The accessibility of sensitive information on the dark web provides cybercriminals with ample opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities. Businesses of all sizes become potential targets for identity theft, ransomware attacks, and other forms of cybercrime, leading to financial loss and damage to reputation. This situation emphasizes the importance of robust cybersecurity measures to protect against such evolving threats.

Understanding Credential-Based Attacks

Credential-based attacks are a form of cyber threat where attackers use stolen or forged credentials to gain unauthorized access to systems and data. These attacks are particularly dangerous as they can bypass many traditional security measures, allowing attackers to impersonate legitimate users and exploit internal systems.

The lifecycle of stolen credentials typically follows a defined pattern, and the earlier it's detected, the lesser its damages are. Each stage presents opportunities for both attackers to advance their goals and for organizations to detect and mitigate the threat. Understanding this flow is crucial for businesses to develop effective defense strategies:

  1. Initial Theft: Credentials are obtained through methods like phishing, malware like keyloggers, infostealers, or purchasing stolen data on the dark web.
  2. Validation: Stolen credentials are tested by cybercriminals to verify their validity.
  3. Monetization: Valid credentials are used for malicious purposes like making purchases online, buying crypto-assets, or selling them to hacker groups for malicious activities like corporate espionage, ransomware, etc.
  4. Exploitation: Attackers can also use these credentials to gain unauthorized access to systems, exploring the ins and outs inside the corporate network until they see something valuable, often leading to data theft or system compromise.
  5. Discovery and Response: The breach is eventually discovered, leading to security responses like changing passwords or enhancing security measures, and the process starts once again.

The Dark Web: The Stolen Credential Trafficking Source

If we talk about Credential-Based Attacks, we have to talk about the primary source of stolen credentials shopping mall: The dark Web. Understanding the dark web's threats is essential for recognizing the hidden risks lurking on the internet. The dark web serves as a clandestine marketplace for cybercriminal activities, including the trade of stolen credentials, which fuels various forms of cybercrime.

Credential trafficking on the dark web is a significant threat, as stolen login details are bought and sold, often unbeknownst to the victims. This illicit trade operates in several ways:

  • Auctioning of Bulk Data: Large volumes of stolen credentials are auctioned, often used for mass phishing campaigns or to fuel large-scale identity theft operations. For example, credentials from a retail company might be used to access customer accounts and make fraudulent purchases.
  • Specialized Sales: Specific high-value credentials, like those of corporate executives or IT administrators, are sold individually. These are used for targeted attacks, such as spear-phishing or direct unauthorized access to sensitive corporate data.
  • Credential Bundles: Bundled credentials, grouped by industry or value, are used for targeted sector attacks. For instance, healthcare industry credentials might be used to access patient records for identity theft or insurance fraud.

Types of Credential-Based Attacks

Credential-based attacks come in various forms, each posing unique risks to security. In this section, we delve into various types of credential-based attacks, understanding their mechanisms, and learning how to defend against them:

  • Keylogger Attacks: These attacks involve malware that records keystrokes, capturing sensitive information like passwords. Awareness of keylogger tactics is vital for implementing countermeasures like using virtual keyboards.
  • Infostealer Malware Attacks: This type of malware stealthily extracts information from infected systems, leading to data breaches and compromised personal information. Understanding its operation helps in deploying effective anti-malware solutions and maintaining secure system configurations.
  • Spear Phishing: A targeted email attack that tricks recipients into revealing credentials. Prevention involves education and vigilance against suspicious emails.
  • Brute Force Attacks: Attackers use trial-and-error to guess login info, often automated. Strong, complex passwords and lockout policies are effective defenses.
  • Credential Stuffing Attacks: Here, stolen credentials from one breach are used to access other accounts. Understanding this risk highlights the importance of unique passwords for different accounts and the use of multi-factor authentication.

Risks of Compromised Credential-Based Attacks

The digital realm is increasingly becoming a battleground for identity and data security. As we've seen in recent years, compromised credentials can lead to significant risks, with far-reaching consequences. From major corporations to individual users, the impact of these attacks can be profound and diverse.

  • Identity Theft: Instances of identity theft have been prominent, with notable examples including major incidents like the ChoicePoint breach in 2004 and the Anthem Inc. breach in 2015, affecting millions of individuals. These breaches resulted in the compromise of sensitive personal and financial data, leading to significant financial losses and a long-lasting impact on the victims' lives and credit scores.
  • Account Takeover Attacks: Major corporations are not immune to credential-based attacks. For example, Norton Lifelock Password Manager experienced a brute-force attack, leading to the compromise of nearly 6,500 customer accounts in 2023. Despite strong security measures, stolen credentials from less secure sources played a critical role in the breach.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware attacks have increasingly targeted critical infrastructure and major companies. For instance, the City of Oregon faced a ransomware attack in 2023 that encrypted county data and disrupted government operations. These attacks not only encrypt data but also involve data theft, adding to the complexity of the threat.
  • Data Breaches: The record-breaking number of breaches in 2023, with over 66 million victims by September alone, highlights the evolving tactics of cybercriminals. From ransomware to data theft and extortion, these breaches have left victims dealing with financial and emotional damages, and businesses facing reputational harm.

Preventing Credential-Based Attacks with Strong Security Measures

Safeguarding against credential-based attacks is not just about deploying the latest tools; it’s about adopting a comprehensive and proactive approach to security. Implementing strong security measures is crucial for protecting sensitive information from the increasing sophistication of cyber threats. From the principle of least privilege to regular credential updates, each element plays a pivotal role in fortifying defenses against credential-based attacks.

  • Least Privilege Principle: This security concept involves granting users only the access necessary to perform their job functions. The benefits include minimizing the risk of insider threats and reducing the potential damage from compromised accounts.
  • Incident Response Planning: Developing an incident response plan involves preparing steps and strategies to detect, respond to, and recover from cyber incidents. This includes identifying key roles and responsibilities, establishing communication protocols, and regularly testing and updating the plan.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication and Strong Password Policies: Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) and enforcing strong password policies is critical. Strong password policies, including complexity and regular changes, prevent easy password cracking.
  • Regular Credential Updates and Management: Regularly updating and managing credentials is essential for maintaining security. Effective management reduces the risk of outdated credentials being exploited.
  • Dark Web Monitoring Solutions: These solutions monitor the dark web for signs of stolen credentials. By keeping an eye on these underground marketplaces, businesses can be alerted if their credentials are compromised, enabling them to take proactive steps to secure their accounts.
  • Employee Training and Awareness Programs: Cultivating a culture of security through employee training and awareness programs is crucial. Educating staff about the latest threats, phishing tactics, and best practices in cybersecurity helps in building the first line of defense against credential-based attacks.


Safeguarding against credential-based attacks demands a multi-faceted approach, where education and policy implementation play pivotal roles. Training employees on the importance of robust password practices is the first line of defense. Beyond this, enforcing policies that incorporate secure password measures, two-factor authentication (2FA), and the least privilege principle significantly fortifies an organization's cybersecurity posture.

The benefits of averting credential-based attacks are extensive, ranging from preserving sensitive data integrity to safeguarding financial assets. By thwarting unauthorized access, organizations not only protect their own reputation but also uphold the trust of their clients and stakeholders. Furthermore, by adopting tools that continually monitor and scan for leaked credentials, companies can stay one step ahead, preventing the exploitation of compromised information before it becomes a liability.

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