A silhouette of a padlock in front of a Zoom logo.
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A total of 500 million Zoom accounts are for sale on the dark web thanks to “credential stuffing.” It’s a common way for criminals to break into accounts online. Here’s what that term actually means and how you can protect yourself.

It Starts With Leaked Password Databases

Attacks against online services are common. Criminals often exploit security flaws in systems to acquire databases of usernames and passwords. Databases of stolen login credentials are often sold online on the dark web, with criminals paying in Bitcoin for the privilege of accessing the database.

Let’s say you had an account on the Avast forum, which was breached back in 2014. That account was breached, and criminals may have your username and password on the Avast forum. Avast contacted you and had you change your forum password, so what’s the problem?

Unfortunately, the problem is that many people reuse the same passwords on different websites. Let’s say your Avast forum login details were “you@example.com” and “AmazingPassword.” If you logged into other websites with the same username (your email address) and password, any criminal who acquires your leaked passwords can gain access to those other accounts.

RELATED: What Is the Dark Web?

Credential Stuffing in Action

“Credential stuffing” involves using these databases of leaked login details and trying to log in with them on other online services.

Criminals take large databases of leaked username and password combinations—often millions of login credentials—and try to sign in with them on other websites. Some people reuse the same password on multiple websites, so some will match. This can generally be automated with software, quickly trying many login combinations.

For something so dangerous that sounds so technical, that’s all it is—trying already leaked credentials on other services and seeing what works. In other words, “hackers” stuff all those login credentials into the login form and see what happens. Some of them are sure to work.

This is one of the most common ways that attackers “hack” online accounts these days. In 2018 alone, the content delivery network Akamai logged nearly 30 billion credential-stuffing attacks.

RELATED: How Attackers Actually "Hack Accounts" Online and How to Protect Yourself

How to Protect Yourself

Multiple keys next to an open padlock.
Ruslan Grumble/Shutterstock.com

Protecting yourself from credential stuffing is pretty simple and involves following the same password security practices security experts have been recommending for years. There’s no magic solution—just good password hygiene. Here’s the advice:

  • Avoid Reusing Passwords: Use a unique password for each account you use online. That way, even if your password leaks, it can’t be used to sign in to other websites. Attackers can try to stuff your credentials into other login forms, but they won’t work.
  • Use a Password Manager: Remembering strong unique passwords is a nearly impossible task if you have accounts on quite a few websites, and almost everyone does. We recommend using a password manager like 1Password (paid) or Bitwarden (free and open-source) to remember your passwords for you. It can even generate those strong passwords from scratch.
  • Enable Two-Factor Authentication: With two-step authentication, you have to provide something else—like a code generated by an app or sent to you via SMS—each time you log in to a website. Even if an attacker has your username and password, they won’t be able to sign in to your account if they don’t have that code.
  • Get Leaked Password Notifications: With a service like Have I Been Pwned?, you can get a notification when your credentials appear in a leak.

RELATED: How to Check if Your Password Has Been Stolen

How Services Can Protect Against Credential Stuffing

While individuals need to take responsibility for securing their accounts, there are many ways for online services to protect against credential-stuffing attacks.

  • Scan Leaked Databases for User Passwords: Facebook and Netflix have scanned leaked databases for passwords, cross-referencing them against login credentials on their own services. If there’s a match, Facebook or Netflix can prompt their own user to change their password. This is a way of beating credential-stuffers to the punch.
  • Offer Two-Factor Authentication: Users should be able to enable two-factor authentication to secure their online accounts. Particularly sensitive services can make this mandatory. They can also have a user click a login verification link in an email to confirm the login request.
  • Require a CAPTCHA: If a login attempt looks strange, a service can require entering a CAPTCHA code displayed in an image or clicking through another form to verify a human—and not a bot—is attempting to sign in.
  • Limit Repeated Login Attempts: Services should attempt to block bots from attempting a large number of sign-in attempts in a short period of time. Modern sophisticated bots may attempt to sign in from multiple IP addresses at once to disguise their credential-stuffing attempts.

Poor password practices—and, to be fair, poorly secured online systems that are often too easy to compromise—make credential stuffing a serious danger to online account security. It’s no wonder many companies in the tech industry want to build a more secure world without passwords.

RELATED: The Tech Industry Wants to Kill the Password. Or Does It?

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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