What is Account Takeover?

Account takeover (ATO) occurs when a cybercriminal exploits vulnerabilities or uses methods like phishing to gain unauthorized access to a user’s online account.

Once an attacker logs in, they can manipulate the compromised account for malicious purposes, including unauthorized transactions, identity theft, or stealing sensitive information. This cybersecurity threat emphasizes the need for individuals and organizations to implement robust authentication measures and remain vigilant against evolving cyber threats.

Main Account Takeover (ATO) Techniques

With login credentials in hand, fraudsters can sign in and quickly change security and contact information to lock legitimate users out. Some of the most common ways to obtain account login details include:

  • Phishing emails or texts: Sending deceptive messages with links that trick users into revealing their login credentials
  • Credential stuffing: Using previously leaked username and password combinations found on the dark web to gain unauthorized access to multiple accounts, leveraging the tendency of users to reuse passwords across different platforms. 
  • Brute force attacks: Systematically trying different password combinations until the correct one is found. 
  • Malware and keyloggers: Installing software that captures keystrokes as users log in to accounts on their devices
  • Unsecured WiFi: Stealing credentials while users log in to websites over free, public WiFi 

Proactive strategies like user education, password policies, and cybersecurity solutions with features like DNS filtering to prevent malware infection can go a long way in protecting against account takeover attacks.

How Does Account Takeover Fraud Happen?

Once a cybercriminal is able to log in to a legitimate user’s account, they can engage in a variety of fraudulent activities. ATO fraud may involve activities such as:

Unauthorized Transactions

One of the primary objectives of ATO fraud is often financial gain. Attackers may use the compromised account to make unauthorized transactions, such as transferring funds, making purchases, or conducting fraudulent activities.

Identity Theft

ATO fraud often involves the misuse of personal information obtained from the compromised account. Cybercriminals may use this information for identity theft, opening new accounts, applying for credit, or committing other fraudulent activities in the victim’s name.

Spread of Malware

In some cases, attackers use compromised accounts to spread malware. This may involve sending malicious links or attachments to the account owner’s contacts, leading to further security breaches.

Data Exfiltration

ATO fraud can include the unauthorized extraction of sensitive information stored in the compromised account. This stolen data may be used for various malicious purposes. It can be sold for profit on the dark web or exploited in other ways.

Social Engineering Attacks

Attackers may use the compromised account to launch social engineering attacks on the account owner’s contacts. This can include phishing attempts, fraudulent messages, or other tactics aimed at deceiving the compromised account user’s contacts.


Attackers may use the threat of exposing sensitive information or personal data as a means of extortion, attempting to coerce the victim into paying a ransom to prevent disclosure.

Network Intrusion

If the compromised account has access to broader systems or networks, cybercriminals may exploit this access to launch more extensive attacks, compromise additional accounts, or infiltrate organizational networks.

Who are the Main Targets for Account Takeover?

Account takeover is a concern for individuals and organizations alike, but certain groups may be particularly vulnerable or attractive targets for cybercriminals. Here are some categories of entities that should be especially concerned about account takeover:

  • Individuals: Anyone with online accounts, especially those linked to financial or sensitive information, should be vigilant. This includes banking, email, social media, and other accounts that may contain personal data.
  • Businesses: Organizations face significant risks if employee accounts are compromised. Cybercriminals may gain access to sensitive company data, intellectual property, or confidential information. Additionally, business accounts may be targeted for financial fraud or to facilitate more extensive attacks on the organization’s infrastructure.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks and financial service providers are prime targets for account takeover due to the potential for direct financial gain. Cybercriminals may attempt to access customer accounts to initiate fraudulent transactions or steal sensitive financial information.
  • E-commerce Platforms: Platforms that handle online transactions and store customer payment information are attractive targets for account takeover. Cybercriminals may exploit compromised accounts to make unauthorized purchases or access customer data for malicious purposes.
  • Healthcare Providers: With the increasing digitization of healthcare records, medical institutions and individuals with health-related online accounts are potential targets. Account takeover in healthcare can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive patient information.
  • Government Agencies: Government entities hold vast amounts of sensitive information. Account takeover in government agencies can lead to the unauthorized access and manipulation of confidential data, potentially compromising national security.
  • High-Profile Individuals: Celebrities, public figures, or individuals in positions of authority may be targeted for various reasons, including the potential for media attention, financial gain, or political motivations.

Individuals and organizations can both fall victim to ATO attacks, often as a result of phishing attempts. Robust security measures that include web filtering can help organizations control access to potentially dangerous websites, including those known to be involved in phishing schemes and stolen credentials.

Supercharge Your Business Security

Impact of ATO Attacks

ATO can have significant and far-reaching impacts on enterprises, affecting their operations, reputation, and financial stability. Here are several ways in which ATO can impact enterprises:

Financial Losses

ATO can lead to direct financial losses for enterprises. Attackers may exploit compromised accounts to conduct unauthorized transactions, make fraudulent purchases, or divert funds. The financial impact can be substantial, especially if the compromised account has access to financial systems or is linked to payment methods.

Data Breaches

ATO often leads to unauthorized access to sensitive information stored within an enterprise’s systems. Resulting data breaches can expose confidential customer data, intellectual property, or proprietary business information. Data breaches can have legal and regulatory consequences and can harm an organization’s reputation.

Reputation Damage

When customer accounts are compromised, consumers may lose confidence in the organization’s ability to secure their data, leading to a loss of business and potential long-term damage to the brand.

Operational Disruption

If employee accounts are compromised during an ATO, criminals may gain unauthorized access to critical systems, email accounts, or collaboration platforms, impacting day-to-day activities and potentially causing delays or disruptions.

Intellectual Property Theft

ATO can facilitate the theft of critical assets like intellectual property and trade secrets, putting the organization at a competitive disadvantage and jeopardizing innovation.

Compliance Violations

ATO incidents that result in data breaches may lead to non-compliance with these regulations, resulting in legal penalties and fines, especially in highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance.

Supply Chain Risks

A compromised account within an enterprise’s supply chain can have cascading effects. Cybercriminals may exploit these accounts to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, disrupt supply chain processes, or launch attacks on other interconnected organizations.

Enterprises may face legal consequences if ATO incidents lead to the exposure of sensitive customer information. This can result in lawsuits, regulatory investigations, and other legal actions that further impact the organization’s financial health and reputation.

How to Protect Your Business from Account Takeover

Protecting your business against account takeover is crucial, as it is for any cybersecurity threats. You can take some key steps to safeguard sensitive information, maintain customer trust, and ensure business continuity:

  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implement MFA to add an extra layer of security beyond passwords. This typically involves using a secondary form of verification, such as a code sent to a cell phone, to confirm the user’s identity.
  • Password Policies: Enforce strong password policies that require employees to create complex passwords and regularly update them. Discourage password reuse across different accounts.
  • User Education and Awareness: Conduct regular security awareness training for employees to educate them about common ATO tactics, such as phishing. Organizations should always train employees to recognize and report suspicious activities.
  • Security Audits and Monitoring: Regularly audit and monitor user accounts for unusual activities, login patterns, or changes in account settings. Implement automated systems to detect and alert potential ATO incidents.
  • Device Management: Implement device management policies to ensure that only authorized and secure devices can access sensitive systems and accounts. This can include enforcing security measures on mobile devices and laptops.
  • Incident Response Plan: Develop and regularly update an incident response plan specific to ATO incidents. This plan should outline the steps to be taken in the event of a suspected or confirmed ATO, including communication strategies and containment measures.
  • DNS Security: A DNS security solution allows regulations to whitelist and blacklist websites according to their reputation, block access to known phishing sites, and block communication with botnet domains to prevent attackers from taking control of compromised accounts. 
  • Content Filters: Content filtering, which includes URL filtering and web filtering, can detect and block potentially harmful websites, preventing malware installation and phishing attacks.
  • Account Lockout Policies: Implement account lockout policies that kick in after a certain number of failed attempts. This can help prevent brute force attacks.
  • Continuous Monitoring of Third-Party Integrations: Regularly review and monitor third-party integrations and applications that have access to enterprise accounts. Ensure that these integrations meet security standards and are regularly audited.
  • Regular Security Updates: Keep software, applications, and systems current by applying security patches to prevent exploitation by attackers.
  • Data Encryption: Always encrypt data — in transit and at rest — to protect sensitive information. That way, even if unauthorized access occurs, the stolen data remains unreadable without decryption keys.
  • Collaboration with Cybersecurity Experts: Collaborate with cybersecurity experts and engage in threat intelligence sharing to stay informed about emerging ATO threats and tactics. Stay proactive in adjusting security measures accordingly.

By adopting a multi-layered security approach and fostering a security-aware culture, enterprises can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to ATO attacks and enhance their overall cybersecurity posture.

What to Do if Your Account Has Been Hacked

Detecting whether your account has been hacked requires a combination of proactive monitoring and awareness of unusual activities. Here are some signs that may indicate your account has been compromised:

  • Unauthorized Access Notifications: Many online platforms and services provide notifications when there is a login from an unfamiliar device or location. If you receive such notifications and haven’t recently logged in from the reported location, it could be a sign of unauthorized access.
  • Unusual Account Activity: Keep an eye on your account activity, such as recent logins, changes to account settings, or unusual actions you didn’t perform. Reviewing account logs or activity history can help identify suspicious behavior.
  • Password Changes You Didn’t Make: If you receive notifications about password changes that you didn’t initiate, it’s a strong indicator of unauthorized access. In such cases, it’s crucial to act quickly to regain control of your account.
  • Unexpected Emails or Messages: Phishing attempts often follow a successful account compromise. Be cautious of unexpected emails or messages asking for sensitive information, password resets, or prompting you to click on suspicious links.
  • Locked Out of Your Account: If you find yourself suddenly unable to access your account, it could be due to an unauthorized person changing your password or other account details.
  • Unusual Financial Activity: For accounts linked to financial transactions, monitor your statements for any unauthorized or suspicious activity. Be sure to inform your financial institution immediately about anything concerning.
  • Unfamiliar Devices or IP Addresses: Check the list of devices or IP addresses that have accessed your account. If you notice unfamiliar devices or locations, it could be a sign of unauthorized access.
  • Friends Reporting Suspicious Activity: In the case of social media accounts, friends or contacts might notify you if they receive suspicious messages or friend requests from your account.

If you suspect your account has been hacked, take immediate action to change your password, secure your account settings, and contact the platform’s support for further assistance.

Protect Yourself Against Account Takeover with Perimeter 81

Elevate your enterprise security with Perimeter 81—a cutting-edge solution that can safeguard against ATO attacks and fortify your digital perimeters. Our advanced multi-factor authentication, secure device management, and real-time monitoring capabilities provide a robust defense against unauthorized access. 

Don’t wait until your organization falls victim to ATO before investing in a comprehensive cybersecurity solution. Empower your security strategy today with Perimeter 81 and ensure a resilient defense against evolving cyber threats. Schedule your 15-minute demo today.

Protect Your Business from Account Takeover


What is an example of account takeover?
In 2023, Spotify account holders found out they were victims of ATO attacks when their passwords stopped working, email addresses were changed, and music started playing without their control. Cybercriminals targeted accounts with weak passwords and used credential-stuffing techniques to gain access. 

The Spotify attack is just one example and a relatively innocuous one. Cybercriminals can take over any online accounts to steal money or loyalty rewards, make unauthorized purchases, intercept government benefits, and use or sell credentials for other malicious activities — and the consequences can be devastating.

Account takeovers of business or enterprise accounts can also be dangerous, opening the door to the impersonation of high-level executives, breach of sensitive information, financial loss, and reputation damage.
How common is account takeover? 
According to Sift’s 2023 Digital Trust & Safety Index, generative AI has played a role in a dramatic 354% jump in account takeover attacks between 2022 and 2023, and 18% of those surveyed reported being a victim of an ATO.

As many takeovers were caused by poor password hygiene, it’s more important than ever to educate consumers to create stronger passwords that are unique to each account and enable multifactor authentication when possible.
What are the warning signs of account takeover? 
If you want to stop an ATO attack in its tracks, you need to be vigilant and spot signs early. Here are some indications your account has been hacked:

– Account login notifications you don’t recognize
– Unexpected password resets or other changes to account settings
– Phishing attempts asking for sensitive information
– Inability to log in to your account
– Unexpected financial transactions
– Account access from unfamiliar locations or IP addresses 
– Notifications about suspicious activity from your contacts

If you see signs of unauthorized access, take immediate action to secure your account. Change your password and report the attack to the company’s support department.
What is the difference between account takeover and identity theft? 
Account takeover and identity theft are related concepts but refer to different aspects of cybercrime.

ATO involves unauthorized access and control of an individual’s or organization’s existing online account. In an ATO scenario, the attacker gains control of an existing account by obtaining login credentials through various means. Typically, strategies like phishing, malware, or password guessing are used. They can then use the account for fraudulent activity.

Identify theft also involves impersonating a victim, but it typically involves using stolen information to create new accounts. The new accounts can then be used for a range of activities, including financial fraud and creating false identities.

The impact of an ATO attack is limited to the compromised account and any associated data or privileges. Identity theft, however, may lead to more extensive consequences, including financial loss, damage to credit scores and reputation, and legal complications.
What is account takeover prevention? 
A comprehensive security solution like Perimeter 81 includes features that protect against unauthorized logins. ATO attacks can be prevented by:

– Brute-force protection and suspicious IP throttling to detect when malicious actors and bots attempt to log in too many times
– Breached password detection that stops employees from using passwords that have been compromised in the past
– Bot detection that asks for further authentication when login attempts seem suspicious

Looking for a Top-Notch Cyber Security Solution?

Supercharge your Business Security today with Perimeter 81.