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Main types of password attacks and vulnerabilities and how to prevent them

Password attacks are some of the most common ways cyberattackers can gain access to sensitive accounts and personal data. What makes password attacks in cybersecurity so troublesome to deal with is that all it takes is one weak link for malicious actors to gain access to sensitive data. Here’s what you need to be aware of with password attacks in 2024.

Main types of password attacks and vulnerabilities and how to prevent them

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is a password attack?

Password attacks are any attempt of an attacker to steal or generate passwords so they can gain access to sensitive data and other user accounts. Approaches range from simple methods like guessing passwords based on commonly used phrases to sophisticated attacks that generate thousands of common passwords.

Because of its many attack vectors, a password attack is still a primary concern for many cybersecurity experts and accounts for the majority of data breaches. Fortunately, innovations like access management and biometric authentication can somewhat mitigate these risks — but like most cybersecurity threats, they’re never enough to guarantee 100% security by themselves.

Whatever the case, you should have an awareness of the different types of password attacks and vulnerabilities to make sure that your data and other sensitive information don’t get compromised.

7 types of password attacks explained

The first step to preventing password attacks is to be aware of the different ways attackers can exploit a vulnerability in your password and account management practices. Here are examples of different types of password attacks that hackers use to crack passwords.

1. Brute force attack

Brute force attacks refer to any method of generating or guessing passwords and then attempting to use them until attackers eventually gain access. An example of this type of attack is hackers generating possible passwords from public details about a user like their birthday and generating unique passwords based on that data.

2. Dictionary attack

Dictionary attacks are a method of generating passwords from commonly used words or passphrases, most of which can be found in cracking dictionaries that attackers sometimes use. These dictionaries contain commonly used phrases or words that may be included in passwords, which attackers then use as a stepping stone to guess the rest of the password itself.

3. Rainbow table attack

A rainbow table attack is a more complex method of brute forcing passwords, usually by generating hashes. A hash is how your computer stores passwords without simply typing them out in its memory in plaintext — an encrypted version of your password. An attacker would then reverse search the corresponding hash of the target system or network. Once they match a hash in your network, they can then reverse-engineer the plaintext password you use for access.

4. Credential stuffing

Credential stuffing is a method of password attack where attackers use compromised passwords to access multiple accounts using the same credentials. For example, a user who’s already suffered a security breach (and who uses the same passwords on different accounts or devices) is an easy target for credential stuffing attacks.

5. Keylogging

Keylogging attacks use software designed to record keyboard inputs on a compromised device, which attackers can extract information like passwords and other security credentials from. An example of this is malware or computer viruses infecting a user’s device and transmitting all of their keyboard activity to the attacker.

6. Password sniffing

Password sniffing is another type of software attack where the attacker eavesdrops on a network’s incoming and outgoing traffic, fishing for packets that contain passwords that they can then crack and use. An example of this type of attack is software spying on a public Wi-Fi connection, taking advantage of the low security and high use rate to steal confidential information like banking credentials.

7. Social engineering attacks

One specific subset of password attacks is social engineering attacks, which rely on psychological approaches to manipulate you into giving up sensitive information. Hackers often target these types of attacks at specific individuals or groups with the intent of using their stolen credentials to access more significant accounts.

  • Credential phishing attacks are carried out by attackers impersonating people or entities that have legitimate reasons to ask for user passwords. If these attackers aren’t verified by their targets, this approach allows them to gain sensitive data aside from passwords that can be used in other attacks.
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks are when an attacker eavesdrops on the communication between two parties exchanging private information, such as passwords. These attacks don’t always involve social engineering, though social engineering tactics can be used to convince a user to connect to a compromised network, where a MITM attack can be executed.
  • Password reset attacks exploit a user’s ability to reset their password without having to log in to the account itself. These approaches are extremely effective if users often lock themselves out of their accounts because any attacker can pose as a trusted entity who can volunteer to reset their passwords on their behalf.

How to prevent password attacks

Despite the myriad of ways passwords can be stolen from you, there are some tried-and-tested methods of helping you keep your passwords secure. Three of the most common security measures you can try include:

Creating strong passwords

The simplest way to keep a password secure is to create strong passwords to begin with. Complex passwords generally have a mixture of capitalization and special characters and can’t be easily guessed or cracked by an attacker with access to your public information. If your account offers more secure ways to log in like using passphrases rather than passwords, use that instead.

Using password managers

If you find yourself using multiple complex passwords for different accounts, consider investing in a password manager to store all your passwords in one place. This prevents you from having to reuse passwords, which helps you avoid specific password attacks like credential stuffing.

Using multi-factor authentication and security

Multi-factor authentication methods can provide an additional layer of security to make your passwords harder to steal while also preventing issues like password entropy. Take advantage of these features to better secure your logins.

Optimizing your account security

Alternatives to passwords like one-time passwords give your password management an extra layer of security. Using good security questions that attackers can’t easily guess is another way to provide more security to your passwords. When you implement extra security measures available through the service or site you are using, attackers will have a harder time accessing your accounts.

Adopting good cybersecurity practices

Another way you can protect your passwords is simply to practice good online habits, like not downloading unverified files, staying away from suspicious websites, or avoiding spammy links. You can take it one step further and use specific privacy tools like VPN software, which can mitigate the risks of more advanced security attacks.

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Better passwords vs. password attacks

The threat of password attacks is a risk that everyone needs to be aware of — not just system administrators or other people in cybersecurity. By consciously patching the holes in your password management system, you’ll be able to add additional security layers to the passwords you use.

It’s also important to keep ahead of developments in password encryption and to take advantage of new techniques to keep your accounts safe, such as passkeys. By being consistent and proactive with your passwords, you’ll be able to keep your accounts secure without too much trouble.

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