The 7 Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords
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When you hear “security breach,” what springs to mind? A malevolent hacker sitting in front of screens with Matrix digital text streaming down? Or a basement dwelling teenager who hasn’t seen daylight in three weeks? How about a powerful supercomputer attempting to hack the entire world?

The reality is that all of those situations can come down to one simple facet: the humble — but vital — password. If someone has your password, it is essentially game over. If your password is too short, or easily guessed, it is game over. And when there is a security breach, you can guess what nefarious people search for on the dark net. That’s right. Your password.

There are seven common tactics used to hack passwords. Let’s take a look.

1. Dictionary

First up in the common password hacking tactics guide is the dictionary attack. Why is it called a dictionary attack? Because it automatically tries every word in a defined “dictionary” against the password. The dictionary isn’t strictly the one you used in school.

The 7 Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords Top 20 password 2016

No. This dictionary is actually a small file that will also contain the most commonly used password combinations, too. That includes 123456, qwerty, password, mynoob, princess, baseball, and all-time classic, hunter2.

Pros: fast, will usually unlock some woefully protected accounts.

Cons: even slightly stronger passwords will remain secure.

Stay safe by: use a strong single-use password for each account, in conjunction with a password management app. The password manager lets you store your other passwords How Password Managers Keep Your Passwords Safe How Password Managers Keep Your Passwords Safe Passwords that are hard to crack are also hard to remember. Want to be safe? You need a password manager. Here's how they work and how they keep you safe. Read More in a repository. Then, you can use a single, ridiculously strong password for every site. Here are our password management app choices Is Your Password Manager Secure? 5 Services Compared Is Your Password Manager Secure? 5 Services Compared Unless you have an incredible memory, there's no way you can possibly hope to remember all your usernames and passwords. The sensible option is to use a password manager -- but which is best? Read More .

2. Brute Force

Next, we consider a brute force attack, whereby an attacker tries every possible character combination. Attempted passwords will match the specifications for the complexity rules e.g. including one upper-case, one lower-case, decimals of Pi, your pizza order, and so on.

A brute force attack will also try the most commonly used alphanumeric character combinations first, too. These include the previously listed passwords, as well as 1q2w3e4r5t, zxcvbnm, and qwertyuiop.

Pros: theoretically will crack the password by way of trying every combination.

Cons: depending on password length and difficulty, could take an extremely long time. Throw in a few variables like $, &, {, or ], and the task becomes extremely difficult.

Stay safe by: always use a variable combination of characters, and where possible introduce extra symbols to increase complexity 6 Tips For Creating An Unbreakable Password That You Can Remember 6 Tips For Creating An Unbreakable Password That You Can Remember If your passwords are not unique and unbreakable, you might as well open the front door and invite the robbers in for lunch. Read More .

3. Phishing

This isn’t strictly a “hack,” but falling prey to a phishing or spear phishing attempt will usually end badly. General phishing emails send by the billions to all manner of internet users around the globe.

A phishing email generally works like this:

  1. Target user receives a spoofed email purporting to be from a major organization or business
  2. Spoofed email requires immediate attention, featuring a link to a website
  3. Link to the website actually links to a fake login portal, mocked up to appear exactly the same as the legitimate site
  4. The unsuspecting target user enters their login credentials, and is either redirected, or told to try again
  5. User credentials are stolen, sold, or used nefariously (or both!).

Despite some extremely large botnets going offline during 2016, by the end of the year spam distribution had increased fourfold [IBM X-Force PDF, Registration]. Furthermore, malicious attachments rose at an unparalleled rate, as per the image below.

The 7 Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords IBM XForce Spam INcrease Chart

And, according to the Symantec 2017 internet Threat Report, fake invoices are the #1 phishing lure.

The 7 Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords Symantec Most Common Phishing email type

Pros: the user literally hands over their login information, including password. Relatively high hit rate, easily tailored to specific services (Apple IDs are the #1 target).

Cons: spam emails are easily filtered, and spam domains blacklisted.

Stay safe by: we’ve covered how to spot a phishing email How to Spot a Phishing Email How to Spot a Phishing Email Catching a phishing email is tough! Scammers pose as PayPal or Amazon, trying to steal your password and credit card information, are their deception is almost perfect. We show you how to spot the fraud. Read More (as well as vishing and smishing New Phishing Techniques To Be Aware of: Vishing and Smishing New Phishing Techniques To Be Aware of: Vishing and Smishing Vishing and smishing are dangerous new phishing variants. What should you be looking out for? How will you know a vishing or smishing attempt when it arrives? And are you likely to be a target? Read More ). Furthermore, increase your spam filter to its highest setting or, better still, use a proactive whitelist. Use a link checker to ascertain 5 Quick Sites That Let You Check if Links Are Safe 5 Quick Sites That Let You Check if Links Are Safe When you receive a link, you should check to make sure it's not a source of malware or a front for phishing—and these links checkers can help. Read More if an email link is legitimate before clicking.

4. Social Engineering

Social engineering is somewhat akin to phishing in the real world, away from the screen. Read my short, basic example below (and here are some more to watch out for How To Protect Yourself From These 8 Social Engineering Attacks How To Protect Yourself From These 8 Social Engineering Attacks What social engineering techniques would a hacker use and how would you protect yourself from them? Let's take a look at some of the most common methods of attack. Read More !).

A core part of any security audit is gauging what the entire workforce understand. In this case, a security company will phone the business they are auditing. The “attacker” tells the person on the phone they are the new office tech support team, and they need the latest password for something specific. An unsuspecting individual may hand over the keys to the kingdom without a pause for thought.

The scary thing is how often this actually works. Social engineering has existed for centuries. Being duplicitous in order to gain entry to secure area is a common method of attack, and one that is only guarded against with education. This is because the attack won’t always ask directly for a password. It could be a fake plumber or electrician asking for entry to a secure building, and so on.

Pros: skilled social engineers can extract high value information from a range of targets. Can be deployed against almost anyone, anywhere. Extremely stealthy.

Cons: a failure can raise suspicions as to an impending attack, uncertainty as to whether the correct information is procured.

Stay safe by: this is a tricky one. A successful social engineering attack will be complete by the time you realize anything is wrong. Education and security awareness are a core mitigation tactic. Avoid posting personal information that could be later used against you.

5. Rainbow Table

A rainbow table is usually an offline password attack. For example, an attacker has acquired a list of user names and passwords, but they’re encrypted. The encrypted password is hashed Every Secure Website Does This With Your Password Every Secure Website Does This With Your Password Have you ever wondered how websites keep your password safe from data breaches? Read More . This means it looks completely different from the original password. For instance, your password is (hopefully not!) logmein. The known MD5 hash for this password is “8f4047e3233b39e4444e1aef240e80aa.”

Gibberish to you and I. But in certain cases, the attacker will run a list of plaintext passwords through a hashing algorithm, comparing the results against an encrypted password file. In other cases, the encryption algorithm is vulnerable, and a majority of passwords are already cracked, like MD5 (hence why we know the specific hash for “logmein.”

This where the rainbow table really comes into its own. Instead of having to process hundreds of thousands of potential passwords and matching their resulting hash, a rainbow table is a huge set of precomputed algorithm specific hash values. Using a rainbow table drastically decreases the time it takes to crack a hashed password — but it isn’t perfect. Hackers can purchase prefilled rainbow tables filled with millions of potential combinations.

Pros: can crack a large amount of difficult passwords in a short amount of time, grants hacker a lot of power over certain security scenarios.

Cons: requires a huge amount of space to store the enormous (sometimes terabytes) rainbow table. Also, attackers are limited to the values contained in the table (otherwise they have to add another entire table).

Stay safe by: this is a tricky one. Rainbow tables offer a wide range of attacking potential. Avoid any sites that use SHA1 or MD5 as their password hashing algorithm. Avoid any site that limits you to short passwords, or restricts the characters you can use. Always use a complex password.

6. Malware/Keylogger

Another sure way to lose your login credentials is to fall foul of malware. Malware is everywhere, with the potential to do massive damage. If the malware variant features a keylogger Your HP Laptop May Be Logging Your Every Keystroke Your HP Laptop May Be Logging Your Every Keystroke If you own an HP laptop or tablet you may have had every single thing you've typed on it logged and stored on your hard drive. Which is nice. Read More , you could find all of your accounts compromised.

The 7 Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords keylogger image
Image Credit: welcomia/Depositphotos

Alternatively, the malware could specifically target private data, or introduce a remote access Trojan to steal your credentials.

Pros: thousands of malware variants, some customizable, with several easy delivery methods. Good chance a high number of targets will succumb to at least one variant. Can go undetected, allowing further harvesting of private data and login credentials.

Cons: chance that the malware won’t work, or is quarantined before accessing data, no guarantee that data is useful

Stay safe by: installing and regularly updating your antivirus and antimalware software. Carefully considering download sources. Not clicking through installation packages containing bundleware, and more. Steer clear of nefarious sites (I know, easier said than done). Use script blocking tools to stop malicious scripts.

7. Spidering

Spidering ties into the dictionary attack we covered earlier. If a hacker is targeting a specific institution or business, they might try a series of passwords relating to the business itself. The hacker could read and collate a series of related terms — or use a search spider to do the work for them.

You might have heard the term “spider” before. These search spiders are extremely similar to those that crawl through the internet, indexing content for search engines. The custom word list is then used against user accounts in the hope of finding a match.

Pros: can potentially unlock accounts for high ranking individuals within an organization. Relatively easy to put together, and adds an extra dimension to a dictionary attack.

Cons: could very well end up fruitless if organizational network security is well configured.

Stay safe by: again, only use strong, single use passwords comprised of random strings — nothing linking to your persona, business, organization, and so on.

Strong, Unique, Single Use

So, how do you stop a hacker stealing your password? The really short answer is that you cannot truly be 100% safe. But you can mitigate your exposure to vulnerability.

One thing is for sure: using strong, unique single use passwords never hurt anyone — and they’ve definitely saved helped, on more than one occasion.

What is your password protection routine? Do you always use strong single use passwords? What’s your password manager of choice? Let us know your thoughts below!

Image Credit: SergeyNivens/Depositphotos

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  1. lucky gibson
    November 16, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    hey i'm a pretty good hacker i can hack any instagram account except from verified account message me on instagram @lucky_gib i charge a cheap price and to be safe you pay after service

  2. great helper
    November 5, 2017 at 8:21 am

    Wanna hack into your spouse's phone just to be sure where they are everytime?, wanna hack another person's SSN? wanna know what your kids are doing to keep themm away from danger or kidnappers even when you are at work then I know the right man for you. He helped me when i wanted to keep tabs on y daughter cos her boyfriend has weirdo tattoos on his body, so i thought he was in a gang , so I buzz up (eazihacker at GmaiL dot com) and allas, he was a gang member and I called the police immediately and he was arrested . The Police said he was caught while molesting my daughter. If i had not kept tab on my daughter's phone, She would have been raped.

  3. Kilroy
    October 30, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    If you're not using a password manager get one now and stop worrying about your passwords. My current web accounts are 25 random characters, less for sites that won't support longer or more complex passwords (normally financial sites). If a site is salting and hashing your password there is no legitimate reason for limiting your password. Since you only have to remember your master vault password, there is no reason to duplicate passwords or not have very strong passwords.

    With a password manager you only need to know your master password and it remembers the rest. I use LastPass (https://www.lastpass.com) recently acquired by LogMeIn. The free version of LastPass will work for most people and allow you to use your passwords on most of your devices.

    An additional feature is a password manager foils phishing attacks that route you to dummy websites that look like the real thing. http://www.amazon and http://www.amaz0n aren't the same, but may look that way to you. Your password manager won't have a password associated with the fake site. You would have to manually copy and paste and that is your clue to take a closer look.

    With today's online world what happens when you are no longer around? LastPass allows for the creation of one time use passwords that can be placed in an envelope to be opened if you aren't available to allow your heirs to access your accounts.

  4. Mor
    September 2, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Well im actualy someone to try to hack someone who i hate lol... this kinda helped

  5. qwame
    May 31, 2016 at 12:00 am

    my uncle used to work for a private cyber-security firm about ten years ago, sometimes he hacks us just for fun, smh

    • saurav
      June 1, 2016 at 9:24 pm

      can we meet somewhere else on internet?

    • Byul 08
      October 15, 2016 at 6:48 pm

      Can you ask him how he do it??

  6. ENILORAC
    March 14, 2016 at 1:48 am

    thanks

  7. Alaina
    February 23, 2016 at 2:43 am

    Or just dont hack pll

  8. Jeff Fabish
    December 21, 2011 at 1:27 am

    Good article, Matt!

    On open WiFi hotspots, you can also use a vpn to encrypt your traffic.

    Blackhats may use 'password lists' or 'dictionaries' which contain passwords that hackers have had success with. Anyone can download these lists (they can be quite large), I suggest everyone does so, then compare the password that they are using to that list. If it's on that list, your password is vulnerable to this attack. There are several tools that will run your password through this check.  

    I can't stress enough how important it is to limit the information you expose on your profile. Simple things like when someone you don't know messages you asking you what time it is. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well that can be used to pinpoint your location via your time zone. Remove 'friends' you don't speak with and applications you don't use.

    The easiest method to get someones password is by using a trojan. People are still too trusting when it comes to opening & running applications. Only download applications from websites you trust and scan all the files you download with your local anti-virus/anti-malware along with an online scanner, such as Virus Total or Jotti. If you run Windows default configuration, showing file extensions for known file-types is disabled. What this means for you is that Windows will show a file as being "Image.jpg" (not an executable) when in reality it may be "Image.jpg.exe" (executable).

  9. Matthew Ashman
    December 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Regarding keylogging, a good ploy is to type your password into a new plain text file (using Notepad/GEdit/Kate/whatever) when you start your session, then copy+paste each time you need it, and obviously not save the file when you exit your session...

    • Jeff Fabish
      December 21, 2011 at 1:09 am

      Either way, it will have been typed and the keylogger will have recorded it. More over, most keyloggers have a peak-clipboard ability, where it can view whats in the clipboard. 

    • Garfield Barnes
      September 20, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      Another good tip is to use an on-screen keyboard, therfore the keylogger will only detect you left-clicking on your trackpad/mouse. Easy bypass, i do this all the time

  10. Sheila Warner
    December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Always check for password strength before using them for your accounts. A combination of upper case, lower case letters including numbers and special characters is a must. other than that, use an anti-logger, personal keyscrambler and a browser protection plugin that prevents hijacking.

    • Jeff Fabish
      December 21, 2011 at 1:16 am

      Keyscrambler is a good utility, but highly fallible. KeyScrambler works by using a driver-intercept on the Windows kernel to encrypt keypresses just after the TranslateMessage() function is called. TranslateMessage is responsible for taking peripheral device input and assigning it an ID so that Windows knows what key the user pressed. If malware manipulates the message, keyscrambler is completely useless. 64 Bit Windows users are immune to this attack, as it doesn't allow the Windows kernel to be patched.

      Likely? Not unless the programmer had a detailed understanding of Win32 programming, which most don't. Most keyloggers are downloaded from underground forums, modified slightly (to offset anti-virus signatures) and binded to a trusted application. 

      You can detect a binded application several ways, the easiest of which is to download the software directly from the authors site and compare the file's hash with the original. If they don't match, something was modified.

    • Aaron Baker
      December 18, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      Actually, mixing character types is fairly minor. Password strength (against brute force hacking) is based on the number of characters available to the power of the length of the password. A length 15 password with only upper and lower case letters is 5.5 times 10^25 possibilities. A length 12 password with special characters and numbers is 1.9*10^22 possibilities. Length, not extra characters, is what makes a password more secure. Also a letters only password is easier to remember and harder for a keylogger to realize as a password. DoraIsMyExplorer is more secure than ANY 12 digit password. But don't take my word for it: https://xkcd.com/936/
      Oh, and just to rub it in, 1.38 (72/52) times as many possible characters only makes your password 1.38^length more difficult to hack, so for a 12 digit password, 47 times as hard, or less improvement than adding 1!!! letter to a all letters password!

      • dragonmouth
        October 22, 2017 at 12:21 pm

        " Length, not extra characters, is what makes a password more secure"
        Horse puckey!!!
        According to your logic a password consisting of 26 consecutive letters of the English alphabet is stronger than a 6 byte password consisting of lower & upper case letters, numbers & special characters. You and I both know that anybody can crack that 26 letter password in no time flat.

      • dragonmouth
        October 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

        When you think about it, all password managers do is help you remember your passwords. No matter how you shake and dance and squirm, you always wind up with just one password guarding the keys to all your accounts. If a hacker breaks you PM master password your entire password scheme falls apart like a cheap suit. No matter how complex and convoluted your account passwords are, the hacker does not need to crack them, he can use your PM password file to access the accounts. After all, do you remember the password for each account? No, that's what you have the password manager for, to supply the passwords when and where needed.