Credential Harvesting: Ultimate Guide For Security Awareness Managers

A comprehensive breakdown of what credential harvesting tends to look like, how to spot attacks and the measures you can take to protect your organization.

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Breaching an organization's defenses typically begins with gaining initial access.

And one of the most effective ways hackers achieve this is by stealing credentials.

This is where credential harvesting attacks come into play, where cybercriminals collect large quantities of usernames and passwords (often through tactics like email phishing).

Below, we'll break down what these attacks tend to look like, how to spot them and the measures you can take to protect your employees.

What is credential harvesting?

📚 Quick definition: Credential harvesting is a cyber attack that involves stealing user credentials (like usernames and passwords).

Attackers use various methods, such as phishing emails, fake login pages, or malware, to trick users into revealing their credentials. These credentials can be then used to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, systems, or accounts.

Here are some of the common techniques that threat actors use

Phishing

If you're in the cybersecurity space, then you probably already know all about phishing...

Attackers will use deceptive emails, messages, or websites to trick your employees into disclosing their login credentials.

Spoofed websites (also known as 'domain spoofing')

Employees can be tricked into entering their details on login pages that closely resemble legitimate websites.

Keylogging malware

This kind of malware gets installed on a user's device and records keystrokes (including usernames and passwords).

This information is sent back to threat actors, allowing them to harvest credentials without the user ever knowing.

Credential theft (from data breaches)

Attackers will get login credentials from data breaches and then use those credentials to attempt unauthorized access to accounts.

Man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks

In this kind of attack, criminal actors will intercept communication between a user and a legitimate website or service, capturing their login credentials.

Brute force attacks

Automated tools can be used to systematically guess usernames and passwords until attackers find the correct combination.

Some email attacks are more sophisticated than others

Office 365 credential phishing attacks are fairly common.

And the vast majority of these attacks are pretty poorly constructed.

These 'lazy' attacks will come from strange email addresses or contain obviously suspicious content.

Lazy credential harvesting attack example
Here's an example of a 'lazy' credential phishing attack

However, some emails will look like carbon copies of real Microsoft emails, teams messages, email server notifications or O365 subscriptions.

Example of sophisticated credential harvesting email
And this is what a more sophisticated attack looks like

🚨 Beware of advanced, embedded credential harvesting attacks

Phishing email are becoming increasingly more advanced and harder to detect...

Attackers are now embedding their credential harvesting page in the middle of the email body.

This stripped-back design makes this particularly dangerous.

Why? Because a typical phishing email will usually give more away - with links malicious websites or attachments that you can cross-check.

Embedding form fields directly into an email makes credential phishing forms look more legitimate and tricky to tell apart from legitimate forms.

Note: Hoxhunt's phishing simulation training will test employees on this kind of advanced attack to prepare them for the real thing.

Example of embedded credential harvesting attack

What impact can credential harvesting have? Why should security awareness managers care?

Data breaches: Credential harvesting tends to lead to data breaches. According to the 2023 Cost of a Data Breach Report by IBM, the average cost of a data breach globally was $4.45 million.

Financial loss: Stolen credentials will result in financial losses for your organizations. Verizon's 2024 Data Breach Investigations Report found that over the last decade, 31% of breaches involved the use of stolen credentials.

Reputation damage: Data breaches caused by credential harvesting can have a real, measurable impact on your organization's reputation and bottom line. Companies that experience a data breach tend to see an around a 3.3% decrease in their stock price.

Fines: If credentials are stolen and sensitive data gets into the hands of malicious actors, you could be in store for some hefty fines. GDPR fines for data breaches can reach up to 4% of your company's annual global turnover or €20,000,000 (whichever is higher).

Credential harvesting attacks: real-life case studies

SolarWinds supply chain attack

🧐 What happened?

SolarWinds, an IT management software provider fell victim to a sophisticated supply chain attack.

Attackers exploited compromised credentials to insert malicious code into SolarWinds' Orion software updates, distributing malware to thousands of SolarWinds customers (which included government agencies and major corporations!).

📊 Impact

The breach resulted in remediation costs, legal expenses, and severe damage to SolarWinds reputation.

Estimates suggest that the breach cost the U.S. government approximately $18 billion in total.

Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack

🧐 What happened?

Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel pipeline operator in the US, experienced a ransomware attack that disrupted fuel supplies along the East Coast.

Attackers used stolen credentials to access to Colonial Pipeline's network and deploy ransomware, leading to operational disruptions and fuel shortages.

📊 Impact

Disruption to critical infrastructure lead to widespread fuel shortages and transportation disruptions.

Not only did they have to pay ransom to the attackers, Colonial Pipeline also had to shell out for expenses related to incident response, remediation, and infrastructure upgrades.

When the dust settled, the total cost of the attack amounted to millions of dollars.

JBS cyberattack

🧐 What happened?

JBS, one of the world's largest meat processing companies, suffered a cyberattack that disrupted its operations in North America and Australia.

Stolen credentials were used to infiltrate JBS' network and disrupt meat processing operations, leading to supply chain disruptions and shortages in the meat industry.

📊 Impact

JBS incurred significant financial losses due to the ransom payment (an eye-watering $11,000,000), the cost of cybersecurity enhancements, incident response, as well as business continuity efforts.

The total cost of the attack exceeded millions of dollars, and concerns were raised about the company's ability to safeguard sensitive information and critical infrastructure.

Preventing credential harvesting attacks

Make sure you have training in place

If you want to reduce risky behavior and equip employees to deal with security threats, security awareness training is a must-have.

Employees will be brought up to speed on things like phishing emails, social engineering tactics, and password security best practices so that they're able to recognize and avoid potential threats.

Regular training and simulated phishing attacks will give employees a feel for what real threats look like as well as a process for dealing with them.

Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA)

MFA will give you an (essential) extra layer of security that is absolutely necessary for preventing credential phishing.

Although MFA doesn't provide 100% protection, what it does mean is that stolen passwords alone won't be enough to for attackers to gain any unauthorized access.

Regularly update your organization's software and devices

Keep software applications, operating systems, and devices up to date to safeguard against credential harvesters.

Software updates will often include patches and security fixes that address known vulnerabilities exploited by attackers.

Consider investing in security tools and solutions

Here are some of the tools you might want to look into:

  • Endpoint security solutions
  • Email filtering systems
  • Network intrusion detection systems (IDS)
  • Encryption technologies
  • Identity and access management (IAM) solutions
  • Password management tools (more on these below👇)

Best practices for secure credential management

Although some credential-based attacks can be tricky to spot, there are still measures you can take to protect your employees.

Make sure employees are using strong passwords

Using strong, unique passwords that are difficult to guess or brute-force is your first line of defense.

Passwords should be complex, incorporating a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters.

Employees shouldn't be using easily guessable information such as birthdays, names, or common phrases.

You'll also need to make sure employees update their passwords and avoid password reuse across multiple accounts.

Use password managers and vaulting

Password management tools and vaulting solutions can be used to securely store and manage passwords.

A password manager will allow employees to generate, store, and autofill complex passwords for different accounts, reducing the reliance on memory and minimizing the risk of password-related vulnerabilities.

You can also use vaulting solutions to centralize storage and access control for privileged credentials.

Audit and monitor user accounts and access

Regularly audit and monitor user accounts and access permissions to detect and mitigate potential security risks.

Conduct periodic reviews of user privileges, permissions, and access levels to ensure that users have the appropriate level of access required for their roles and responsibilities.

Look into risk-based access control methods

Implement risk-based access control methods to dynamically adjust access privileges based on user behavior, context, and risk factors.

You can also use contextual information such as user location, device characteristics, and login patterns to assess the risk level associated with access requests.

Adaptive authentication mechanisms that require additional verification steps for high-risk access attempts (such as MFA) may also help protect against credential phishing.

How to spot and respond to credential harvesting attacks

Monitor network traffic for anomalies

  • Regularly monitor network traffic and logs for any unusual or suspicious activities indicative of credential harvesting attempts.
  • Look for patterns such as multiple failed login attempts, unusual login locations or times, and repetitive access requests to sensitive resources.
  • Implement intrusion detection systems (IDS) and security information and event management (SIEM) solutions to automate the detection of anomalous network behavior.

Investigate user accounts with unauthorized access

  • Conduct thorough investigations into user accounts that exhibit signs of suspicious activity.
  • Monitor user login activities, privilege escalations, and file access patterns to identify any unauthorized changes or misuse of credentials.
  • Implement user behavior analytics (UBA) and anomaly detection techniques to identify deviations from normal user behavior and flag potential security incidents for investigation.

Incident response strategies

  • Establish clear incident response procedures and workflows to guide security teams in detecting, containing, and mitigating credential harvesting incidents.
  • Define roles and responsibilities, establish communication channels, and prioritize incident response actions based on the severity and impact of the attack.
  • Use threat intelligence feeds to enhance incident response capabilities and identify emerging threats.

Simulate credential harvesting attacks with Hoxhunt

FACT: Most security training isn't effective when it comes to changing behavior.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

By implementing security awareness and phishing training that is personalized, rewarding and digestible, you can build a solid foundation of security-first practices and tangibly change the way employees behave.

Hoxhunt also allows you to simulate well-known login pages to test users on credential-based attacks 👇

  • Train on safe credential management: Build up end-users' ability to detect and report credential harvesting attacks.
  • Simulate trusted login experiences: Mimic sites and login pages that are well-known and trusted by your end-users.
  • Report the amount of entered credentials: Monitor and report the number of end-users starting to enter credentials.
  • Ensure safe and secure training practices:
  • Hoxhunt allows you to train your end-users  securely, without storing any entered data

Grab our data sheet to find out exactly how Hoxhunt trains users to catch and report credential harvesting (no email required).

Hoxhunt phishing training solution

Credential harvesting FAQ

How do cybercriminals use harvested credentials?

Cybercriminals use harvested credentials to gain unauthorized access to sensitive systems, accounts, or data belonging to individuals or organizations. They may exploit these credentials for financial gain, identity theft, espionage, or further cyber attacks.

What methods used in credential harvesting attacks?

Common methods used in credential harvesting attacks include phishing emails, where attackers impersonate legitimate entities to trick users into disclosing their credentials, and the use of keyloggers or malware to capture login information.

How can organizations detect and prevent credential harvesting attacks?

Credential harvesting attacks can be prevented by implementing security measures such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), employee training and awareness programs, email filtering and monitoring solutions, and regular security assessments and audits.

What should organizations do if they suspect that their credentials have been compromised?

If credentials have been compromised, immediately change passwords, revoke access to affected accounts, notify relevant stakeholders, and conduct a thorough investigation to identify the source and extent of the breach.

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