What is Account Takeover? How Can You Protect from This Cyber Threat?

Account takeovers or account hijacking poses a significant threat to online security, especially for businesses handling sensitive transactions. Discover how understanding and mitigating this risk can protect your organization from financial loss and reputational damage.

We’ve all seen Hollywood movies where the bad guys steal a vehicle or a plane to carry out a nefarious plan. Now, apply that concept to the online world. Instead of hijacking a car or aircraft, cybercriminals take over online accounts to steal data, money, or identities.

Imagine waking up one morning to find your bank account emptied, your social media accounts posting spam, and your email flooded with password reset requests. Takeovers like this are cybercrimes that have become alarmingly common in our digital age.

Account hijacking involves the unauthorized takeover of user accounts, leading to the theft of personal data, financial loss, and significant damage to one’s online reputation.

For businesses, the stakes are even higher. A single compromised account can serve as a gateway for larger breaches, jeopardizing sensitive customer data and inflicting severe financial and reputational damage.

In this article, we’ll delve into what account takeover is, explore the standard methods cybercriminals use, and discuss effective strategies to protect accounts on your platform. Understanding these threats is crucial for any business aiming to safeguard its assets and maintain user and customer trust. Keep reading to learn how to fortify your defenses against this pervasive threat and secure your digital presence.

What is an account takeover?

Account takeover refers to the unauthorized takeover of a user account on a computer system or online service. When cybercriminals take over or hijack an account, they gain access to sensitive user data and the ability to carry out fraudulent activities under the victim’s identity. This can include stealing personal information, financial data, or even using the account for malicious purposes like spreading malware or conducting further attacks.

The consequences of account takeover can be severe. For individuals, it often means the loss of personal information, financial loss, and damage to their online reputation. For businesses, the impacts are even more significant. A single hijacked account can serve as a gateway for larger breaches, leading to compromised customer data, financial losses, and damage to the company’s reputation.

From a payouts point of view, understanding account takeover is particularly critical. If a recipient’s account is taken over, their details could be altered to allow an illegitimate payment of legitimate funds to a third person. This not only results in financial loss for the recipient but also undermines trust and can lead to complex legal and operational challenges in recovering the stolen funds and compensating any affected customers.

Understanding this threat is vital for businesses. According to a recent report, 81% of data breaches are caused by stolen or compromised credentials. Protecting accounts must be a top priority for any company with an online presence.

Common account takeover methods

As the saying goes, you need to know your enemy to defeat them. Since the early days of the Internet, cyber security has been a cat-and-mouse game, with criminals constantly finding new ways to outsmart security defenses. Some methods require sophisticated hacking skills, while others can be automated to target thousands of accounts through brute force.

Either way, understanding the most prevalent account-takeover techniques will help you identify the weak spots in your armor.


When going fishing, you put some bait on a hook and try to trick the fish into biting. Phishing is a lot like that, but instead of a worm on a hook, it’s accomplished through a fake website or email. The bad actor tricks the user into entering their login info so they can steal it. The underlying goal is always the same—to trick users into handing over login credentials or sensitive data.

Typical phishing techniques include:

  • Spoofed emails pretending to be from legitimate companies
  • Fake login pages mimicking real websites
  • Malicious links or attachments that download malware
  • Phone calls from imposters posing as tech support or colleagues

Among account takeover methods, phishing may be the most ubiquitous. Recent statistics show that targeted users open 30% of phishing messages, and many of them click on malicious links or attachments.

Credential stuffing

In the digital underground, stolen passwords can end up for sale on the dark web to the highest bidder. Using lists of compromised usernames and passwords, attackers use automated tools to stuff those credentials into login forms across the web and mobile apps. If the same password grants them access to your other accounts, they’re in.

They usually find leaked passwords from data breaches, where a company’s records are stolen. Back in October and November 2016, this is how bad actors infiltrated Uber’s private GitHub repository. Employees’ usernames and passwords compromised in previous breaches were reused elsewhere. The attackers claimed that they hijacked 12 employee accounts with credential stuffing and gained access to sensitive codes and data.


As the name suggests, malware refers to “malicious software.” It is designed to infect devices and systems to spy, steal, encrypt files for ransom, or cause other types of harm.

For instance, keyloggers record keystrokes to steal passwords and other confidential data. Hackers see exactly what you typed and simply copy what you wrote. 

Spyware, likewise, is software that tracks online activity. Hackers can use these malicious apps to gather personal information, like login info, without consent.

Malware employs many cunning tricks to avoid detection, escalate privileges, and pursue its malicious intentions under the radar.

Man-in-the-middle attacks

Rather than directly targeting accounts, man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks infiltrate communication between two parties. The attacker secretly relays and possibly alters the communication between them. In an MITM attack, a bad actor can spy on information like login details or even edit messages to trick you.

For example, an MITM attack could intercept a funds transfer request between a customer and a bank. They would then change the account details and forward the modified request to send the money to the attacker’s account instead.

Social engineering

As clever as some automated hacking tools have become, sometimes low-tech social engineering hacks still get the job done. Unlike malware and hacking, social engineering plays on human psychology rather than technical vulnerabilities. You can have the fanciest locks in the world, but they won’t help if someone tricks you into handing over the key.

Technically speaking, phishing is one form of social engineering. However, attackers manipulate users into handing over credentials or sensitive data in other ways.

  • Impersonating IT staff or authority figures over the phone
  • Sending USB drives infected with malware and hoping you plug them in
  • Piggybacking into secure areas by tagging along behind someone else

Impacts of account takeovers on businesses

These account takeover methods demonstrate no shortage of creativity from cyber criminals. However, if you still need convincing why businesses should take this threat seriously, consider the potential impacts of falling victim.

Financial losses

The most direct consequence is often financial loss. If your internal teams are affected, criminals could get access to your company credit cards, client payment info, or even your main business bank account.

Many account takeover schemes aim to siphon money directly from users. By accessing seller/recipient accounts, bad actors may redirect legitimate payments into their own accounts. 

There can also be substantial indirect costs. You might have to repair damaged systems or conduct forensics investigations. In some cases, customer reimbursements for losses might also incur. At the end of the ordeal, you’ll surely want to implement more robust security measures, which is another expense.

Recent statistics show that the average cost of a corporate data breach now exceeds $4.4 million. For small businesses, a breach can be catastrophic.

Reputational damage

Many companies rely on customer trust and loyalty. Reputational damage can be just as devastating as direct financial loss. 

An account takeover means that customers’ personal or financial data is now compromised. When customers look for someone to blame, they point the finger at the company with poor security practices.

Unsurprisingly, this causes many customers to lose faith in the breached organization. One study found that 66% of Americans say they won’t do business with a company that had a big hack. The fallout typically involves decreased sales, loss of partnerships, lower stock valuation, and difficulty attracting top talent.

Businesses have a legal duty to safeguard user data. Most jurisdictions now have stringent data protection and privacy regulations. These dictate how companies must protect customer data.

Examples include:

  • Europe’s GDPR
  • Australia’s Privacy Act
  • Canada’s PIPEDA
  • PCI DSS for companies handling credit card data
  • HIPAA for healthcare firms with medical records
  • GLBA for financial institutions

Violating these regulations through negligent security practices can trigger hefty fines. Under GDPR rules, the maximum financial penalty is the greater of €20 million or 4% of a company’s global turnover.

Other possible legal consequences include class-action lawsuits from customers, shareholders, or business partners impacted by the breach. Serious negligence could even lead to criminal charges for executives! The legal fees and settlement costs quickly add up, not to mention the executive time diverted away from business operations.

Disruption to operations

The damage often goes deeper than what first meets the eye. If criminals get into your employees’ accounts, they can access and delete important files, emails, and assets. Critical data could be lost or leaked. It might take days or weeks to untangle the mess.

As operations teams scramble to contain breaches, assess damage, and restore compromised accounts, significant business disruption ensues. Productivity slows to a crawl. Customer service teams become overwhelmed addressing concerns. And digital projects or services can grind to a halt for days or weeks.

Account takeover prevention and mitigation strategies

No matter how scary that sounds, businesses and their users aren’t helpless against account takeover threats. Many intelligent tactics exist to prevent unauthorized access from putting your data and money at risk.

Enforce strong passwords

Having a solid password policy is crucial. You’ll want to encourage best practices like:

  • Requiring complex passwords with upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
  • Blocking common phrases and dictionary words
  • Making users choose a unique password for your site
  • Forcing a reset every few months
  • Not allowing passwords from known data breaches
  • Suggesting the use of a password manager tool

Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Even a great password isn’t always enough. If it gets stolen, hacked, or guessed, criminals have a free pass into the account. MFA eliminates that weakness.

Multi-factor authentication adds extra login steps beyond the password. It checks multiple types of proof:

  • Something you know, like a password or PIN
  • Something you have, like your phone or a security key
  • Something you are, like a fingerprint or face scan

So even with the password, a hacker would face additional hoops to jump through (requiring a physical device), and hopefully be barred from accessing the account. This small addition goes far to stop unauthorized logins.

Monitor activity

Don’t let hackers sneak around unnoticed. Monitor for any strange behavior that could be a sign of an account takeover.

Watch for things like logins from odd places, password reset requests, or drastic payment detail adjustments—like into a different country. By keeping watch, you can identify attack patterns and prevent account hijacking quickly.

Continuous monitoring is one way to automate the process of catching attacks before they escalate. You can freeze a hacked account, stop unauthorized access, and notify the real user immediately.

Educate users

You can’t control every user’s actions. To get full security adoption throughout your company and platform, educate staff, users, and customers on best practices.

Quick monthly emails with security tips, short lunch talks on new threats, and reminders to use strong passwords can make a difference. Informed users are your best defense against attacks. They’ll know how to spot phishing links, create safer passwords, and avoid dangerous websites.

Trolley’s role in securing user accounts

Trolley’s global payments platform has excellent tools to prevent takeover and fraud. We continuously monitor for shady activity in real time.

Our unique algorithm reviews transaction patterns across our network for signs of unauthorized access. We look at the location, device, login history, amount, recipient name, and more to catch sketchy behavior.

We’re also compliant with strict data security standards like PCI-DSS to protect financial and customer information. As platforms grow, maintaining user trust and safety is crucial. Trolley uses various methods to confirm real identities and transaction integrity.

Two-step ID verification

Trolley’s two-step ID verification has recipients submit government IDs and address documents to prove who they claim to be. We see if the documents are real by checking licenses, passports, utility bills, and more. This extra step gives assurance that funds go to the intended person only.

Our system also lets businesses validate recipient IDs, business certificates, phone numbers, addresses, and tax IDs in many countries, reducing mixups or fake transactions.

Continual activity screening

Trolley also screens network activity to catch anything suspicious in real time. We track things like:

  • Login locations and IP addresses
  • Changes to payment or tax details
  • Unusual transaction amounts or recipients
  • Sketchy third-party service connections

By monitoring accounts this way, we can flag unauthorized access to businesses ASAP. Ongoing screening means we stay ahead of emerging fraud moves.

Screening out bad actors

Along with activity reviews, Trolley checks backgrounds to catch scammers targeting our network. We screen names against global watchlists, sanctions, and anti-money laundering (AML) lists, and fraud databases. Our algorithms also spot signs of fake or taken-over accounts.

This multilayered screening keeps criminals off our platform and protects businesses from unknowingly paying them.

Defining trust-based workflows

Every business has unique security needs for different users. Trolley enables customized workflows based on trust factors.

For example, businesses can set up:

  • Extra screening for new customers
  • More identity checks before raising sending limits
  • Automated transaction blocks over specific $ amounts per user role
  • Added authentication for financial transactions

According to user history, tenure, location, and more, businesses can define granular workflows to optimize security.

Ensure accurate payouts

Most importantly, Trolley lets businesses send accurate payments to the right people quickly and safely. Sending money always carries some risk. But Trolley keeps a sharp eye on every stage of the payout process to limit exposure. All our verification and monitoring ultimately serves to guarantee transaction integrity.

By cross-checking recipient details, screening identities, and securing account access, we provide assurance around payout accuracy across our global network. Businesses can pay others knowing Trolley has measures in place to confirm legitimate payees.


Account takeover is a severe danger to all internet-connected businesses. As hackers get sneakier, companies need multilayered strategies to reduce breach risks.

Being proactive with strong access controls, activity monitoring, updated security software, and user education prevents most takeover tries. Now you know what to watch out for and how to defend your accounts!

Plus, the experts at Trolley are always here to provide an extra safety net for your payments and transactions.Protect your platform and reinforce trust with Trolley’s comprehensive security solutions. Learn how we can help you verify the authenticity of your recipients, continually screen activity, and ensure payouts are secure and accurate.

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