What is Credential Theft ?

Credential theft refers to stealing someone’s login credentials, such as usernames and passwords. Cybercriminals use the compromised credentials to gain access to valuable data and accounts, enabling identity theft and financial fraud.

Once cybercriminals have access to compromised credentials, they can log into accounts and try to move laterally across an organization’s environment.  For organizations, credential theft can lead to compromised business accounts, stolen intellectual property, and damaged reputations.

There are a few common ways for thieves to steal credentials:

  • Phishing emails and malicious websites: Malicious actors trick victims into entering their credentials on spoofed login pages or by installing malware.
  • Keylogging software: Malware tracks the keys victims press and captures their usernames and passwords.
  • Brute force attacks: Software automates guessing passwords to access accounts.
  • Database breaches: When companies’ databases are hacked, thieves access and steal customers’ credentials.
  • Wi-Fi snooping: Thieves access public Wi-Fi networks to view the credentials victims enter on websites and apps.

To reduce the threat of credential theft, individuals should enable multi-factor authentication on accounts when available, use unique complex passwords, and be cautious of phishing attempts. Organizations should enforce strong password policies, limit access to sensitive data, monitor for database breaches, and provide regular employee cybersecurity training.

Methods Cybercriminals Use for Credential Theft

Credential theft refers to the act of stealing and compromising a user’s login credentials, like usernames and passwords, to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data and accounts. Malicious actors use various methods to steal credentials, including:

Phishing and Spear-Phishing

Phishing attacks involve sending fraudulent emails posing as a legitimate company to trick victims into entering their login credentials on a fake website. Spear-phishing targets specific individuals or groups with personalized messages which tend to be from the person’s friends or colleagues. These techniques are commonly used to steal credentials.

Keylogging and Malware

Keylogging software and malware discreetly monitor and record the keys pressed on a keyboard, capturing login credentials and other sensitive data. Cybercriminals then access the captured information to gain access to accounts and networks.

Social Engineering

Social engineering attacks rely on manipulating people into divulging confidential information like passwords. Cyber attackers may call, email or text posing as tech support or a colleague to trick victims into sharing credentials under false pretenses.

Brute Force Attacks

Brute force attacks work by entering numerous password combinations in an attempt to guess the correct login credentials. While time-consuming, with powerful computers and algorithms, criminals can crack weak passwords. Using strong, unique passwords helps prevent these attacks.

Database Theft

Some criminals hack into databases containing usernames, passwords and other private records. The stolen database is then used to access associated accounts and profiles. Data breaches have exposed billions of credentials, so password reuse poses serious risks.

Types of Credentials Targeted

Credential theft refers to the stealing of login credentials like usernames, passwords, and account numbers. These sensitive data points allow access to online accounts and systems. Cybercriminals who obtain stolen credentials can compromise accounts to steal money and personal information or install malware.


Passwords are a common target of credential theft. Hacking techniques like phishing, keylogging, and brute force attacks are used to obtain passwords. Once passwords are stolen, criminals try them on other accounts belonging to the victim like email, banking, and social media. Password reuse and weak, easy-to-guess passwords make this type of credential theft more likely to succeed.

Account Numbers

Bank accounts, credit cards, and insurance policy numbers are also valuable targets. These numbers provide direct access to funds and accounts. Account numbers are often obtained through database breaches, skimming devices at ATMs and gas stations, or by stealing financial statements and documents from the physical or digital mailbox.

Security Questions

The answers to account security questions like “What is your mother’s maiden name?” or “What was your first pet’s name?” are credentials that are frequently targeted. These questions are meant to verify someone’s identity over the phone or online, so the answers can be used to break into accounts. Criminals obtain the answers through phishing, social engineering, and scouring people’s social media profiles.

Biometric Data

Biometric credentials such as fingerprints, facial recognition data, and retina scans are becoming more commonly used to authenticate identity and access accounts. However, biometric credentials can also be stolen and used by criminals to impersonate victims. Photos and fingerprint images have been leaked in data breaches, and researchers have demonstrated how facial recognition systems can be fooled using photos and 3D printed masks. Although biometric authentication is convenient, no credential is foolproof if stolen.

Impacts of Credential Theft

Credential theft has serious consequences for both individuals and organizations. Once cybercriminals have stolen login credentials, they gain unauthorized access that can be used for various malicious purposes.

Data Breaches

With stolen credentials, attackers can access sensitive data stored on networks and systems. They may be able to view or steal trade secrets, customer information, employee records, and other confidential data. These types of breaches can damage a company’s reputation, violate privacy laws, and undermine customer trust.

Lateral Movement

Access to one set of compromised credentials gives hackers a foothold to move laterally within the network in search of additional access and control. They can use credential theft to hop from user to user or system to system, eventually gaining admin-level access. From there, they have control over the entire network’s resources.

Ransomware Attacks

Hackers frequently deploy ransomware attacks after first gaining network access through stolen credentials (using credential stuffing, for example). Once they have admin access, they can encrypt files and systems across the network and demand a ransom payment to decrypt them. These attacks can cripple operations for days or weeks and result in significant financial losses.

Account Takeover

With someone’s username and password in hand, cybercriminals can access online accounts and impersonate the legitimate account owner. They may conduct fraudulent transactions, steal money or data, send malicious messages, or damage the reputation of the account owner. Account takeover has become a major problem, impacting both consumers and businesses.

Best Practices to Prevent Credential Theft

To effectively prevent credential theft, organizations should implement several best practices.

Privileged Access Management

Managing and monitoring privileged accounts, especially those with administrative access, is crucial. These accounts should be limited to specific users and closely audited. Multi-factor authentication should be required for all privileged accounts to verify the identity of anyone accessing them.

Application Whitelisting

Limiting corporate credentials to only approved applications and services reduces the risk of theft. Whitelisting specifies which programs are authorized to run on a network, blocking all others. This prevents malicious software from accessing credentials.

Regular Updates and Patch Management

Keeping all systems and software up-to-date with the latest patches ensures that any vulnerabilities that could be exploited to steal credentials are addressed. Updates should be installed promptly across operating systems, applications, network devices and any other technologies.

User Access Reviews

Conducting frequent reviews of user access rights and privileges verifies that only authorized individuals have access to systems and accounts. Any accounts that are no longer needed should be deactivated. This limits the potential attack surface for credential theft.

Security Awareness Training

Educating end users about the risks of credential theft and the best practices they can follow is one of the most effective defenses. Phishing simulations and refresher training should be conducted regularly. Users should be taught never to share account credentials or click suspicious links.

Password Rotation

Changing account passwords, keys and other credentials on a routine basis minimize the window of opportunity for theft. The more frequently credentials are rotated, the less useful any stolen credentials become. However, rotation policies should balance security and usability.

Detecting Credential Theft

To detect credential theft, organizations should monitor for signs of unauthorized access or account misuse. Some indicators of compromised credentials include:

  • Login attempts from unknown devices or locations. If a user suddenly logs in from an unfamiliar IP address or device, their account may have been compromised.
  • Multiple failed login attempts. Repeated failed login attempts could indicate that an attacker is trying to guess or brute force a user’s password.
  • New unauthorized access roles or permissions. If a user account is given elevated access rights that the legitimate owner did not request, this could signal an account takeover.
  • Strange account activity times. Account access during unusual hours, especially late at night or early morning, could indicate that an attacker is using the stolen credentials.
  • Impossible travel activity. If a user’s account is accessed from multiple distant locations within a short period, this could indicate that the credentials have been stolen, as physical travel between those locations would be impossible.
  • Data exfiltration. Unusual downloads, uploads, or file transfers from an account could indicate that an attacker is stealing data using stolen login information.
  • Password changes by unknown users. If a user’s password is changed without their knowledge or request, this is a sign that the account has likely been hijacked by an unauthorized individual.

Organizations should monitor user accounts for these suspicious activities and configure automated alerts to detect potential credential theft events as soon as possible. Promptly notifying users about detected compromise and requiring password resets can help minimize damage from stolen login information. Frequent employee education and phishing simulation campaigns also help strengthen credential security and reduce the risk of theft.

Staying vigilant for signs of unauthorized access and taking swift action in response to detected events is key to protecting against the damages of credential theft. With constant monitoring and proactive defense, organizations can guard their systems and sensitive data from compromise via stolen login details.

Responding to Credential Theft Incidents

Responding to credential theft incidents requires prompt action to limit damage. Once an organization discovers compromised credentials, the following steps should be taken:

Identify the compromised accounts.

Determine which user accounts have had their login credentials compromised. This may require analyzing account activity logs to find unauthorized logins or access. Identify both internal employee accounts as well as any external accounts, like social media profiles.

Lock down the affected accounts.

Immediately disable or lock the compromised accounts to prevent further unauthorized access. This includes disabling accounts on the organization’s network and systems as well as any linked external accounts like social media profiles.

Reset account passwords.

Require all users with stolen credentials to reset their passwords. This includes accounts used to access the organization’s network and systems as well as personal accounts like email, social media, and banking accounts. Reset passwords for any accounts that used the same or similar login credentials.

Enable MFA if available.

Accounts that support MFA, like email, social media, and VPN access, require users to enable this additional layer of security. MFAadds an extra layer of protection for accounts in the event credentials are stolen again in the future.

Monitor accounts for suspicious activity.

Closely monitor the compromised accounts over the following weeks and months for any signs of further unauthorized access or suspicious logins. This can help detect if the credentials have been stolen again or if the cybercriminals still have access.

Provide additional cybersecurity training.

Reinforce good cybersecurity practices with additional education and training for all staff. This includes training on creating strong, unique passwords, identifying phishing emails, and other best practices for account security. Ongoing education and training help strengthen an organization’s security posture against future credential theft attacks.

Following these steps can help limit the damage from credential theft incidents and reduce the likelihood of future attacks. With prompt response and action, organizations can contain security incidents, strengthen their defenses, and build staff awareness about account security risks.


By understanding the methods and motivations behind credential theft, cyber security professionals can implement controls and safeguards to help detect and mitigate these types of attacks

While no defense is foolproof, maintaining awareness of the latest threats and taking a multi-layered approach to access control and identity management will help reduce risk and build resilience. By working together, security teams and individuals can stay ahead of the curve and protect their organizations’ data, accounts, and networks.