What Is Account Takeover Fraud?

Account takeovers happen when cybercriminals steal login credentials to access an email account. If a malicious actor successfully compromises an account, they can use it to commit fraud, send phishing emails, steal data, and beyond.

Account takeovers are one of the biggest threats facing organizations of all sizes. They happen when cybercriminals gain legitimate login credentials and then use those credentials to send more attacks, acting like the person they're impersonating. Sometimes these account takeovers can deal with financial information, but they also work to steal sensitive data.

Companies can protect their infrastructure from credential phishing and BEC (business email compromise) attacks that often lead to these email account takeovers. By implementing cybersecurity practices, it's also possible to teach employees tips regarding the usage of credentials as well as training focused on the creation of strong passwords and two-factor authentication.

But achieving complete security from account takeover fraud can seem virtually impossible. That's especially true when you consider that the corporate account takeover can sometimes occur through third-party vendors with which a business might have a long-standing relationship.

The good news is that even though fraudulent account schemes are a significant threat, it's possible to prepare for them and mitigate most of the risks.

With that in mind, let's look at the email account takeover fraud definition, how they typically happen, and what steps you can take to prevent account takeover for your company.

What is an Account Takeover?

Account takeover is a term that describes business identity theft that occurs when a bad actor uses employee credentials for a malicious purpose.

One of the main reasons why email account takeovers are hard to eliminate is that they take many forms. Attackers constantly look for vulnerabilities in enterprise companies, as even a single successful account fraud instance provides significant rewards. They do this through credential phishing, brute force attacks, password spraying, and various other methods. Even though the approaches are different, they can all successfully compromise an account.

Let's explore two different types of account takeovers, and why they're both dangerous to your organization.

Third-Party Account Takeover

The third-party email account takeover, also known as vendor email compromise, is one of the hardest to prevent. Since it begins outside of the company, there's no way to eliminate the risk at its source. Companies have to rely on their internal security and risk mitigation processes to ensure that these types of account takeover fraud attempts fail.

In this type of attack, attackers don't attack the target business directly but instead attack a vendor or partner with whom the company works on a regular basis. The trust factor in long-term business relationships can make the typical security measures weaker, allowing invoices or other types of fraud to get through and go unnoticed until it's too late.

When an attacker gains control of a vendor's email account, they often impersonate the vendor to steal money from the target company, typically through invoicing and billing fraud. And because the relationship between the companies is established, it's much harder to expect the one person responsible for invoicing to catch the fraud taking place.

Here's how a typical attack can occur:

  1. The victim receives a typical email from a vendor that uses the same format and language as their previous interactions.
  2. The email states that payment details have been updated and that future transfers should be made into a different account.
  3. The victim makes a payment into the fraudulent account.

Since the victim is accustomed to working with the vendor and does not think to verify the information, it's easy to quickly approve the change and let account fraud to occur.

In another instance, the victim may receive a fraudulent invoice that looks similar or even identical to an invoice they’re expecting from the vendor. Because the cybercriminals have access to the full vendor account, they can create believable invoices, send them as part of an existing email chain, and steal money from their target company before the victims even think to check legitimacy.

Internal Account Takeover

Internal account takeovers involve a compromised account within the targeted company or organization. It's easier to protect against compared to a compromised vendor, but still requires a strong security strategy to identify and resolve any vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

One of the most common ways attackers can execute an internal email account takeover is through an employee. The overall security systems in large companies are usually robust, so attackers typically rely on the human element and try to get into the company using an employee’s credentials. For instance, if someone clicks on a phishing email or goes to a fraudulent key-logging website, their entire account can be compromised. Attackers can essentially take over the entire account using stolen credentials, gaining full access to sensitive information and other company accounts.

This presents a significant financial danger to the company, as attackers can divert payroll information to a fraud account and execute various financial operations resulting in massive losses. Luckily, with employee preparation and implementation of best practices, it's possible to prevent internal account takeovers, identity theft, and other attacks from occurring.

How Does an Email Account Takeover Happen?

Keeping up with the multitude of ways that account takeover can happen can seem all but impossible. Attackers are constantly finding new ways to exploit vulnerabilities, and sound security measures of today may become obsolete tomorrow.

The good news is that even though the methods are changing, they can typically be grouped into a few key categories.


Phishing is one of the oldest methods for gaining unauthorized access to personal information online. It's known for consumer scams such as credit card account takeover, but it can be very devastating for enterprises too. In essence, phishing emails attempt to trick people into transferring money, providing credentials, or sending sensitive information. In corporate communications, phishing emails will mimic vendors, partners, or even fraud notices from financial institutions.

Using urgency and other manipulative methods, these emails encourage users to click through and enter sensitive business information. They can also contain malware that infects the corporate systems and grants access to attackers.

Social engineering attacks are another term used to describe phishing. Attackers typically try to identify the person they could use to gain access and trust through various incentives. Once the trust is earned, they can leverage the relationship to get the user to make a mistake or ignore security measures, which can grant access to the attackers. The biggest issue with social engineering attacks is that they can be impervious to most security measures because they rely on human error.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is an even more dangerous form of the same strategy, as it's usually more personalized and targets a specific individual or department. These emails can be very hard to distinguish from real ones, which is why they can be so effective if protection systems are not in place. It’s important to note that psychological manipulation through human interaction is used to trick users into making security mistakes or overriding current protocols.

How Can You Prevent Account Takeovers?

Even though account takeover is very hard to protect against, it's not impossible. With the right strategies and a willingness to consistently improve, any enterprise company can minimize the risk of an account and protect their email accounts from falling into the wrong hands.

The first step to a successful prevention strategy is preparation. You need to:

  • Work with all users who have access

  • Train them to use the security systems in place

  • Educate them on the most critical practices

  • Teach them to spot some of the most common account takeover techniques, especially those involving phishing and social engineering

You should also be willing to invest in the implementation of the current industry-leading best practices and solutions. Whether it's leading software that protects against email account takeover or expertise from leading consultants, sometimes the best solution is to embrace today's technology and use it to its full extent against external threats. For example, the Abnormal Security platform offers comprehensive protection against third-party and internal email account takeover, using behavioral data science-based AI technology to spot suspicious emails and offering robust protection against even the most advanced email attacks.

Having the right system in place doesn’t just minimize the risk of an account takeover taking place. It can also provide your team with peace of mind, knowing that there's an additional barrier of protection that will block potential threats before they can cause damage.

To learn more about how Abnormal can protect you from email account takeovers, schedule a demo today.

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