Akamai Technologies said that cybercriminals are targeting applications programming interfaces (APIs) at financial services firms.

In the Akamai 2020 State of the Internet Security report, the company said up to 75% of all credential abuse attacks against the financial services industry targeted APIs directly.

API targeting means that criminals are targeting APIs directly, Akamai said in an email. They use bots and tools that allow threading, or multiple simultaneous connections, to attempt multiple logins at once. By targeting the APIs, they hope avoid some front-end defenses and speed-up their validation times.

The research findings reveal that from May 2019 and continuing on until the end of the year, there was a dramatic shift by criminals who started targeting APIs.

From December 2017 through November 2019, Akamai observed 85.42 billion credential abuse attacks. Nearly 20 percent, or 16.55 billion were against hostnames that were clearly identified as API endpoints. Of these, 473.5 million attacked organizations in the financial services industry.

Credential abuse attacks start when criminals take lists of usernames/passwords, called combo lists, and attempt to login to services and platforms of all kinds. The attacks are conducted via bot or all-in-one application, and are designed to mimic a person logging-in to a given service or platform – much like how a server would view you logging into your email account or bank. The goal of these attacks is fraud and account takeover. Sometimes they are used to steal information, other times they are used for financial fraud.

But not all attacks were exclusively API focused. On August 7, 2019, Akamai recorded the single largest credential stuffing attack against a financial services firm, based on Akamai’s records, consisting of 55.1 million malicious login attempts. This attack was a mix of API targeting, and other methodologies. On August 25, in a separate incident, the criminals targeted APIs directly, in a run that consisted of more than 19 million credential abuse attacks.

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Steve Ragan, Akamai security researcher and principal author of the State of the Internet / Security report, said in a statement that criminals are getting more creative and focused on how they go about obtaining access to the things they need to do their crimes. He said criminals targeting the financial services industry pay close attention to the defenses used by these organizations, and adjust their attack patterns accordingly.

Ragan said in an email that criminals are more creative and hyper-focused on how they go about obtaining access to the things they need in order to conduct crime. They’re willing to adapt, which is why API attacks have grown by 75% over recent months, why LFI became the top web attack method, and why more than 40% of the unique DDoS attacks observed in the report were against financial services.

Indicative of this fluid attack dynamic, the report shows that criminals continue to seek to expose data through a number of methods, in order to gain a stronger foothold on the server and ultimately achieve success in their attempts.

SQL Injection (SQLi) accounted for more than 72% of all attacks when looking at all verticals during the 24-month period observed by the report. That rate is halved to 36% when looking at financial services attacks alone. The top attack type against the financial services sector was Local File Inclusion (LFI), with 47% of observed traffic.

LFI attacks exploit various scripts running on servers, and as a consequence, these types of attacks can be used to force sensitive information disclosure. LFI attacks can also be leveraged for client-side command execution (such as a vulnerable JavaScript file), which could lead to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) and Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. XSS was the third-most common type of attack against financial services, with a recorded 50.7 million attacks, or 7.7% of the observed attack traffic.

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The report also shows that criminals continue to leverage Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks as a core component of their attack arsenal, particularly as it relates to targeting financial services organizations. Akamai’s observations from November 2017 until October 2019, show the financial services industry ranking third in attack volume, with gaming and high tech being the most common targets. However, more than 40% of the unique DDoS targets were in the financial services industry, which makes this sector the top target when considering unique victims.

“Security teams need to constantly consider policies, procedures, workflows, and business needs – all while fighting off attackers that are often well organized and well-funded,” Ragan said. “Our data shows that financial services organizations are constantly improving by adopting fluid security postures, forcing criminals to change their tactics.”



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