Friday, 20 November 2020 11:13

Shopping season threats – a survival guide for online retailers

Pasacal Geenens, Pasacal Geenens,

GUEST OPINION by Pasacal Geenens, Radware:   Knowing  and understanding the most important cyber threats that an e-commerce business will face is crucial this busy holiday shopping season.

Availability is key. When online shopping is sluggish, not accessible, or critical components such as checkout and payment processing fail repeatedly, shopping cart abandonment rates increase and visitors will bounce.

An online brand and reputation will be undermined if a website falls victim to fraudulent bots that take over customers' accounts and use  their credit cards, gift cards  or premium discounts. The very measures that businesses implemented  to generate customer loyalty and stickiness increase the risk from fraudsters.

For those who fall victim to a data breach and their customers' sensitive data leaks, digital trust and reputation can be damaged for years.

Account takeover attacks (ATs) are among the most harmful types of bot attacks in terms of financial and reputational damage for e-commerce business. They result is user accounts being compromised to execute theft of account balances, including money,  store credits, gift cards and loyalty points. ATs rely on lists of breached or stolen account credentials to take over user accounts on websites and applications.

The two main AT attack types are credential stuffing (multiple log-in attempts to verify the validity of stolen username and password combinations), and credential cracking (trying out different usernames and password combinations to identify valid login credentials).

During the shopping season, many e-commerce shops have special sales or deals  reserved for premium customers. The holiday season is also the season of gifts, so many  personal accounts will have new credit via recently redeemed gift cards. For this reason, Radware is seeing increased AT activity in e-commerce customers during the holiday season.

Impacted by massive changes in consumer behaviour that began due to the pandemic, the growth of digital gift cards is expected to accelerate this holiday season. Further impacting e-commerce are malicious actors that leverage breached accounts and bots for tokens or gift card cracking.

An AT attacker’s objective is testing credentials, either generated or based on a purchased list of recently leaked accounts, as fast and efficiently as  possible. AT campaigns typically concentrate around the login page and can easily reach levels  of activity similar to DDoS attacks.

In some cases, AT might not be distinguishable from a DDoS attack. It is in the attacker's best interest to keep the server going and not disrupt it so the attacker can  continue their malicious activity.

Even if AT does not impact infrastructure performance, it severely impacts customers who will experience long login times, failed logins caused by timeouts, etc. Even if AT, low and slow DDoS attacks, and content scraping activity from bad bots do not immediately disrupt services and customer experience, they tax resources and result in inflated charges from the cloud hosting provider to the e-commerce company.

Data breaches

E-commerce operations require personal and sensitive data to operate, including mailing addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, payment details stored for convenient checkout, etc. These operations are a target for malicious actors that like to leverage sensitive data for extortion or sell account lists on underground forums. The  latter in turn will be used  to perform credential  stuffing and AT attacks.

Data breaches in e-commerce can take many forms:

  • Data can leak from a vulnerable API or web service
  • Accounts can be compromised via AT
  • The organisation or cloud infrastructure could have been compromised, either through its remote access infrastructure using known vulnerabilities in remote access solutions, from a successful phishing attempt, or through AT in enterprise remote access or cloud infrastructure management 
  • A ransomware could be at the origin, when the attackers were not successful extorting victims for a decryption key they might fall back to blackmailing and threatening to publish sensitive customer information acquired during the encryption phase of their attack
  • The  application  stack  can fall victim to supply  chain attacks that exfiltrate sensitive information through compromised application  modules running on the server  or in the client's browser.

The  attack surface for a data breach is considerable and securing against it impacts  the whole of the organisation and third parties. Regular patching,  web application and API protection, third-party audits, penetration testing, and employee education  and awareness campaigns are all critical.

Supply chain attacks

Protecting online applications requires increased attention to the supply chains that make up a modern web application. Following a string of fraudsters, such as Magecart, pilfering payment details in payment skimming attacks, the Payment Card  Industry (PCI) has highlighted this emerging threat that requires urgent awareness and attention.

Threat actors use various methods, from exploiting vulnerable plugins, credential  stuffing, phishing and other social engineering techniques to gain access to e-commerce sites and inject malicious code. 

These attacks can target an e-commerce site directly or can target a third-party application and service such as advertising scripts, live chat functions, customer review and rating features, etc.

Once compromised, the third-party services are used to inject malicious JavaScript code  into the target websites. Because these third-party functions are typically used  by many  e-commerce sites, the compromise of one of these functions can allow an attacker to compromise many websites at the same time through mass distribution of the malicious JavaScript.

The  malicious code is often triggered when a victim submits payment in the target website. Data entered by users through their browser are directly exfiltrated from the client and can include billing address, name, email, phone number, credit card details,  username and even  clear-text password.

Price scraping and skewed analytics

Price scraping is the process of using bots for illegal competitive price monitoring and tracking other valuable information related to pricing intelligence from e-commerce and travel sites.

Competitors employ this strategy to copy dynamic pricing information (an important strategy used by e-commerce portals to influence consumer-buying decisions and optimise revenue) in real-time, so that they can attract price-sensitive buyers by setting their prices lower than baseline prices in the marketplace.

While pricing information is generally available to consumers, price scrapers try to undercut competitors’ pricing and growth strategies. Price scraping also results in skewed analytics, cart abandonment and degraded website performance.

Bots are not only used to scrape content and pricing, but also contribute to skewed site analytics. Both good and bad bots contribute to skewed analytics. If there are unexpected spikes in a business’s analytics  reports, chances are that these are from bot activities or it be a legitimate spike in website performance.

Cart abandonment

Cart abandonment happens when bots are used by competitors and fraudsters to add items to shopping carts on e-commerce sites, but instead of buying them, are left unpurchased. Cart abandonment is also called ‘Denial of Inventory’ (OAT-021 ─ ‘Deplete goods or services stock without ever completing the purchase or committing to the transaction’) by the Automated Threats to Web Applications Project, and ranks  among  the most serious  bot threats to e-commerce websites and applications.


Carding is an automated form of payment fraud in which fraudsters test a bulk list of credit/debit card data against a merchant’s payment processing system to verify the stolen card details. Such card details are stolen from different payment channels, another application, or purchased from dark web  marketplaces. Hackers also apply card cracking practices to obtain credit card details.

The  primary reason behind carding attacks is to illegally purchase goods or cash out the cards. Hackers deploy bots on payment processing pages to verify the validity of stolen card details. The authenticity of stolen card details is often unknown to the carders, so bots are deployed on payment processing pages to compose the correct set of card details.  After identifying the right set of card details, hackers can sell them on dark web marketplaces or simply cash out the cards.

Service degradation and disruption

An inaccessible website cannot generate revenue. When a service is unavailable, sluggish and has failing components such as checkout and payment processing, even  loyal customers will leave. During times of heightened promotions and privileges, the result is increased customer churn and lasting reputation/credibility loss.

Service degradation and disruption can be the result from aggressive AT campaigns but can also come from targeted DDoS attacks, illegally leveraged by a competitor to gain an edge and take a share  of revenue.

The  DDoS-for-hire threat landscape has been growing despite global efforts by researchers and law enforcement. Criminals will not find it difficult to gain access to a DDoS-as-a-Service portal or an attacker for rent. Booter and stresser services provide the convenience of a cloud application  with prices starting as low as $10 per month to perform an unlimited number  of attacks with an attack power of 15Gbps. Competitors leverage DDoS attacks too.

Protecting an online business

To secure their revenue, retailers should ensure the availability, efficiency and security of their online applications with solutions that enable them to manage automated  threats, defend against  disruptive DDoS attacks and protect web applications and APIs  against vulnerabilities and intrusions.

Manage automated threats

The major automated threats for e-commerce are AT, price scraping, skewed analytics, cart abandonment and carding attacks. These threats can be detected and managed or mitigated using a bot management software solution.

Besides the traditional browser clients, increasing numbers of e-commerce sites use mobile applications. The backend of these is provided by Web Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

A bot management solution should provide protection for both websites and APIs, support traditional browsers but also native mobile applications. Mobile applications use the same protocol (HTTPS) but with different content and in different behavioural patterns compared to websites. Traditional device identification, client behaviour and CAPTCHA are mostly useless and will reduce the accuracy of bot detection solutions. Mobile applications require a native SDK solution that integrates with the app.

DDoS attacks

An adequate DDoS protection will ensure online business availability. DDoS protection comes in different forms and factors. Consider that a retailer needs to protect against all potential threats, including those that are not all revealing and completely disrupting, but are insidious and impacting enough to cause failures and annoy visitors or significantly increase cloud hosting expenses.

Web applications and APIs

Retailers must protect against known vulnerabilities, web application attacks, and API manipulations in online applications. Ensure not to fall victim to massive exploit campaigns run by malicious actors seeking to steal sensitive information or leverage a trusted site to deliver malware or skim for credit card information. And do not forget: protect web APIs.

Online skimming

Web-based or online skimming attacks infect e-commerce websites with malicious  JavaScript code and are very difficult to detect as they do not generate server-side events. Once a website is infected, the sensitive information is ‘skimmed’ from a JavaScript function that runs from the context of the client browser, triggered by a transaction in that webpage. The backend (web server or API) does not take part in the extraction or exfiltration or even execute the code.

Regular reviews and audits of third-party services and products should be performed,  ensuring they adhere to industry best practices, standards or regulatory compliance. The ability to detect these threats before they cause damage is significant.

Controls provided by the Payment Card Industry Standards PCI DSS Requirements enable retailers to detect and minimise the attacker surface for code injection and online skimming attacks:

  • Reviewing code  in order to identify potential coding vulnerabilities (Req. 6)
  • Use  of vulnerability security assessment tools to test web applications for vulnerabilities (Req. 6).
  • Audit logging and reviewing  logs and security events  for all system  components to identify anomalies or suspicious activity (Req. 10).
  • Use  of file-integrity monitoring or change-detection software (Req. 11).
  • Performing  internal and external  network vulnerability scans (Req. 11).
  • Performing  period penetration testing to identify security weaknesses (Req. 11).

DDoS protection essentials

  1. Hybrid DDoS Protection - On-premise and cloud DDoS protection for real-time DDoS attack prevention  that also  addresses high volume attacks and protects from pipe saturation.
  2. Behavioural-Based Detection - Quickly and accurately identify and block anomalies while allowing legitimate traffic through.
  3.   Real-Time Signature Creation - Promptly protect from unknown threats and zero-day attacks.
  4. A Cybersecurity Emergency Response Plan - A dedicated emergency team of experts who have experience with Internet of Things security and handling  IoT outbreaks.
  5. Intelligence on Active Threat Actors – high fidelity, correlated  and analysed date for pre-emptive protection against currently active known attackers.
  6. For further network and application protection measures, Radware urges  companies to inspect and patch their network in order to defend  against  risks and threats.

Web application security essentials

  • Full OWASP Top-10 coverage against defacements, injections, etc.
  • Low false positive rate  – using negative and positive security models for maximum accuracy.
  • Auto  policy generation capabilities for the widest coverage with the lowest operational effort.
  • Bot protection and  device fingerprinting capabilities to overcome dynamic  IP attacks and achieving improved bot detection and blocking.
  • Securing APIs by filtering paths, understanding XML and JSON schemas for enforcement, and activity tracking mechanisms to trace bots and guard internal resources.
  • Flexible deployment options - on-premise, out-of-path, virtual or cloud-based.

Where to learn more

To know more about today’s attack vector landscape, understand the business impact of cyber-attacks or learn more about emerging  attack types and tools visit here - the comprehensive resource for everything security professionals need to know about DDoS attacks and cyber  security.

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