OTP Bots: The Achilles’ Heel of Your Digital Defense
Cyber Risks & Threats | December 18, 2023
From email and social media to banking accounts, almost every aspect of our lives nowadays has some kind of digital footprint. We even have digital accounts for our smart-home devices.
As we hold a lot of valuable information in digital format, the need for another level of security is increasingly important. An effective response to this need is one-time passwords (OTPs), which gained popularity, particularly during the 2010s, to serve as an extra layer of protection.
However, as with any technology, the rise of OTPs has led to a corresponding threat: OTP bots. These automated programs pose a significant danger to our online presence, weakening the security that OTPs are supposed to provide.
But how can you ensure that OTPs remain a reliable shield for your and your users’ data? Let’s explore the world of the OTP bots and find out.
What are OTP bots?
Short for one-time password bots, OTP bots are automated scripts programmed to steal one-time passwords from users of online services.
Fraudsters use them in order to bypass this additional step of authentication and gain access to user accounts. With the OTP code in their hands, they easily authenticate the targeted account, gaining access to its credentials as well.
And after that, they can easily complete their malicious activities. They can steal your money, purchase online with your credit card, access your confidential business secrets, or even sell personal information on the dark web from your or your users’ accounts.
As with any other type of bad bots, OPT bots also operate at scale, targeting thousands of accounts simultaneously. What this means is that even OTPs, which are considered an additional security step besides our credentials, can’t guarantee full protection of our online data.
But to understand OTP bots better, let’s first explore how one-time passwords work.
Understanding one-time passwords (OTPs)
One-time passwords, or OTPs, as the name suggests, are temporary codes. As such, they have short time lifespans, typically expiring within a few minutes after generation. This short lifespan makes them incredibly valuable as a key component of two-factor authentication (2FA).
What is two-factor authentication (2FA)?
2FA is a security measure used for an extra layer of protection beyond just our password. It’s like a double lock on our digital doors.
If, as a business, you also have an online platform where your users access your products or services, it’s highly possible that you also have some kind of 2FA. Who wouldn’t want to increase the security of their users and remain a reliable business, right?
2FA works like this: instead of relying solely on one password, which can be stolen or guessed, it requires a second factor to verify the user’s identity. This second factor can be a predefined PIN, an OTP code generated through a text message or an authentication app, biometrics like fingerprint, etc.
OTPs are the most convenient and widely used method for 2FA
OTPs are popular for 2FA because they’re readily available and convenient. For example, when a user logs in to their account from a new device, they are prompted for their password, and then an OTP is sent to their phone via text message. They need to enter the OTP within a few minutes and only then be granted access to their account.
This way, online services ensure that we, genuine users, are behind some action taken with our account and not someone who might have compromised our credentials.
How do OTP bots work?
The main task of an OTP bot is to steal these OTPs and, with this, bypass two-factor authentication. To do this, fraudsters have developed ‘creative tactics’ on how their bots operate.
Most often, OTP bots trick the user into sharing the generated OTP code with them. For example, they will impersonate legitimate service providers, like banks or online platforms, and ask the user for the code that they received from the actual provider. They often use fake caller IDs, logos, and email addresses to make users believe they’re interacting with a trusted source.
Other bots can use malware to infect the user’s device. For example, an OTP bot will send seemingly legitimate text messages or emails containing links that install malware. Once installed, the malware can access incoming OTPs from the user’s phone or authenticator app.
The common process of an OTP bot attack
In general, the operation of OTP bots largely depends on the specific vulnerabilities they are built to exploit. However, the common steps of an OTP bot attack are these:
- The fraudsters collect victim’s information about how to target them. This could be email addresses, phone numbers, or authentication apps.
- The fraudsters command the OTP bots to attack targets and provide their information.
- The OTP bot asks the victim to either share the received OTP code or to complete some action by clicking the malware link.
- Once the bot obtains the OTP, it gains unauthorized access to the user’s account.
- The fraudsters use the compromised accounts for various other fraudulent activities, including stealing users’ money or sensitive data or even getting access to business information about the service provider.
OTP bots are on the rise
In the ongoing battle against cyber attacks, OTP bots have emerged as a troubling new method for fraudsters. These bots make it easier for them to access accounts protected by 2FA, which used to be more resilient to other types of bot attacks, like credential stuffing, or phishing attacks.
What’s concerning is the public availability of OTP bot services; some are even offered for free. Malicious individuals don’t necessarily need engineering knowledge; they can simply search for specific types of OTP bots depending on the type of attack they want to do, locate a suitable bot, and copy its code.
As these OTP bots gain popularity among fraudsters, businesses must stay alert to identify ways to counteract them. It’s crucial to educate users on recognizing signs of OTP bot attacks, some of them include:
- Rapid and unusual OTP generation attempts
- Unusual notifications or alerts
- Requests for your OTP directly via email, phone call, or text
- Suspicious links or attachments with the generated OTP code
- The sender requests for an urgent verification of your account
The impact of OTP bots
The impact of OTP bots is profound and multifaceted, leaving its mark on both businesses and individual users.
How do they affect businesses?
For businesses, the threat of OTP bots translates into a direct assault on the security measures designed to protect sensitive information and user accounts.
The potential consequences include financial losses due to fraudulent activities, reputational damage, and compromised sensitive business information. As these bots operate at scale, targeting numerous accounts simultaneously, it becomes challenging for businesses to protect their own data and that of their users.
How do they affect users?
Individual users are equally vulnerable to the detrimental effects of OTP bots. They face the risk of unauthorized access to their personal accounts and potential exploitation of sensitive information.
The tactics employed by these bots, such as impersonating trusted service providers, create an environment where users may disclose their OTPs, leading to unauthorized access and misuse of their accounts.
Beyond financial implications, users may experience a breach of privacy and the emotional toll associated with being victims of cybercrime.
General impact on cybersecurity
In the bigger picture of cybersecurity, OTP bots show how cyber threats are constantly changing and getting smarter.
Even though many people use two-factor authentication to stay safe, these bots find clever ways to get around it. This affects both business and users’ confidence in the usual security methods and highlights the need for new and better ways to protect against these kinds of threats.
Businesses and individuals must adapt and be more careful to stay safe in the ever-evolving world of cybersecurity.
OTP bot mitigation strategies
Implementing effective bot mitigation strategies is crucial for both businesses and users to counter the threat of OTP bots.
Invest in user education
One key approach against OTP bots is to enhance user education, teaching them to recognize signs of phishing attempts and suspicious communications. Inform your users to be cautious with unexpected messages or calls. Even if they appear to be from trusted sources, they must double-check it and not share their OTPs if something seems suspicious.
Stay informed and keep your software up-to-date
Regularly updating and patching software, including security applications, is essential to address vulnerabilities that OTP bots may exploit. Also, by staying informed about the latest cybersecurity threats and continuously refining security protocols, businesses and users alike can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to OTP bot attacks.
Employ advanced tools for OTP bot detection and mitigation
While user education and vigilance are important protection measures, sophisticated bots require equally sophisticated defense strategies. Tools dedicated to bot detection and mitigation analyze user behavior and identify suspicious patterns associated with OTP bot attacks (and other bots as well).
CHEQ Essentials’ bot mitigation solution, for example, can be integrated with your websites or online advertising platforms such as Google Ads or Facebook Ads and add an extra layer of security.
Its primary goal is to ensure that only legitimate users access your website. As such, it blocks bad bots and any other form of invalid traffic, and by that, it also reduces the risks of OTP bots as well.