The Risk of Weak Online Banking Passwords

If you bank online and choose weak or re-used passwords, there’s a decent chance your account could be pilfered by cyberthieves — even if your bank offers multi-factor authentication as part of its login process. This story is about how crooks increasingly are abusing third-party financial aggregation services like Mint, Plaid, Yodlee, YNAB and others to surveil and drain consumer accounts online. Crooks are constantly probing bank Web sites for customer accounts protected by weak or recycled passwords. Most often, the attacker will use lists of email addresses and passwords stolen en masse from hacked sites and then try those same credentials to see if they permit online access to accounts at a range of banks.

From there, thieves can take the list of successful logins and feed them into apps that rely on application programming interfaces (API)s from one of several personal financial data aggregators which help users track their balances, budgets and spending across multiple banks. A number of banks that do offer customers multi-factor authentication — such as a one-time code sent via text message or an app — have chosen to allow these aggregators the ability to view balances and recent transactions without requiring that the aggregator service supply that second factor. That’s according to Brian Costello, vice president of data strategy at Yodlee, one of the largest financial aggregator platforms. Costello said while some banks have implemented processes which pass through multi-factor authentication (MFA) prompts when consumers wish to link aggregation services, many have not. “Because we have become something of a known quantity with the banks, we’ve set up turning off MFA with many of them,” Costello said. “Many of them are substituting coming from a Yodlee IP or agent as a factor because banks have historically been relying on our security posture to help them out.” Such reconnaissance helps lay the groundwork for further attacks: If the thieves are able to access a bank account via an aggregator service or API, they can view the customer’s balance(s) and decide which customers are worthy of further targeting. This targeting can occur in at least one of two ways. The first involves spear phishing attacks to gain access to that second authentication factor, which can be made much more convincing once the attackers have access to specific details about the customer’s account — such as recent transactions or account numbers (even partial account numbers). The second is through an unauthorized SIM swap, a form of fraud in which scammers bribe or trick employees at mobile phone stores into seizing control of the target’s phone number and diverting all texts and phone calls to the attacker’s mobile device. But beyond targeting customers for outright account takeovers, the data available via financial aggregators enables a far more insidious type of fraud: The ability to link the target’s bank account(s) to other accounts that the attackers control.