Stealing account with mobile phone-based two-factor authentication

Attackers often entice users to become the weakest link.   Phishing and scams exploit the human weakness.  These attacks become even creepier if the attacker circumvents legitimate security mechanisms.   Two factor authentication offers better security than simple login/password.  The use of mobile phone as the second factor is becoming mainstream.  It is impossible to steal our account without stealing our phone.  We feel safer.  Should we?

Symantec reported a new used method to steal the account of users despite the use of a two-factor authentication.   Here is the scheme.

Mallory wants to gain access to Alice’s account.  He knows Alice email address and her mobile phone number as well as her account.  For a social engineer, this information is not difficult to collect.  It is part of the usual exploration phase before the actual hack.   Mallory contacts the service provider of Alice’s account and requests a password reset.  He selects the method that sends a digital code to Alice’s mobile phone.   The service provider sends an SMS to Alice’s mobile phone with this code. Simultaneously, Mallory sends an SMS to Alice impersonating the service provider.  Once more, this is not difficult as many providers do not use a specific number.  This SMS explains to Alice that there was some suspicious activity on her account.  To verify her account, she must reply to this SMS with the code that was sent previously to her.  Gullible Alice obeys.  Mallory has now the code that the service provider requests to reset Alice password.  Mallory gains entire access to Alice’s account with the involuntary help of Alice.

This type of attack can be used on most web services, e.g., webmails like gmail.  Obviously, Alice should not have replied to this SMS.  She should have followed the known procedure and not an unknown one.  She may have been cautious that the two phone numbers were different.

This is a perfect example of social engineering.   The only answer is education.  Therefore, spread this information around you,  The more people are aware, the less they will be prone to be hacked.  Never forget Law 6: You are the weakest link.

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