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Credential Stuffing vs. Password Spraying: What's the Difference?

StrongDM Team
Written by
Dynamic Access Management platform
Fazila Malik
Reviewed by
Product Marketing Manager
Last updated on: June 28, 2023

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Online security risks are a constantly evolving concern. As we increasingly rely on digital platforms for everything from communication to banking and personal file storage, hackers are constantly seeking new ways to gain access to sensitive information. Two common types of attacks are 'credential stuffing' and 'password spraying', both of which can result in significant damage if not detected and prevented in a timely manner.

Understanding Credential Stuffing and Password Spraying

Although the two terms may sound similar, there are important differences between credential stuffing and password spraying. Understanding these differences is critical to implementing effective security measures to protect your personal and professional information online.

With the increasing number of data breaches in recent years, hackers have access to a vast amount of stolen usernames and passwords. They can use this information to launch credential stuffing and password spraying attacks, which can have devastating consequences for individuals and businesses alike.

Defining Credential Stuffing

Credential stuffing can be thought of as a large-scale automated guessing game. In this type of attack, hackers use automated scripts to try hundreds or even thousands of stolen usernames and passwords on different websites and applications. The goal is to find a match between the stolen credentials and a valid account on the targeted website or application. Once the hackers gain access to an account, they can use it to steal sensitive information or launch further attacks.

Credential stuffing attacks are successful because many people reuse the same username and password across multiple websites and applications. This means that if a hacker obtains a person's credentials from one website, they can try those same credentials on other websites and potentially gain access to additional accounts.

Defining Password Spraying

Password spraying, on the other hand, is a more targeted type of attack. In this scenario, hackers focus on a specific application or network and launch a brute-force attack against a small number of high-value accounts. The goal is to guess the password for these accounts by trying a small number of commonly used passwords, such as "password" or "123456".

Password spraying attacks are successful because many people use weak and easily guessable passwords. In addition, hackers can use information obtained from social engineering attacks, such as phishing emails, to guess the password for a specific account.

It is important to note that both credential stuffing and password spraying attacks can be prevented by implementing strong security measures, such as multi-factor authentication and password policies that require complex and unique passwords. In addition, individuals should avoid reusing the same password across multiple websites and applications, and should be cautious of phishing emails and other social engineering attacks.

The Mechanics of Credential Stuffing

How does credential stuffing work, and why is it so effective?

Credential stuffing is a type of cyber attack that relies on the fact that many people tend to use the same username and password across multiple platforms. This means that if hackers gain access to login credentials for one site or application, they can then use those same credentials to gain access to other websites and services.

For example, if a user has the same login credentials for their email account and their online banking account, a hacker who gains access to the email account could potentially use those same credentials to access the banking account.

Credential stuffing attacks are often successful because many users do not follow best practices when it comes to password security. They may use simple, easy-to-guess passwords, or reuse the same password across multiple accounts. This makes it easy for attackers to gain access to multiple accounts with a single set of stolen credentials.

How Credential Stuffing Works

Credential stuffing attacks typically begin with a data breach. Hackers may obtain login credentials for a large number of users through a variety of means, such as phishing attacks, malware, or social engineering tactics. Once they have access to these credentials, they can use specialized software tools to automate the process of logging in to numerous sites with stolen credentials.

These tools work by inputting a list of stolen usernames and passwords into a login page, and then automatically submitting the form. If the login is successful, the tool will typically save the account information for later use. If the login is not successful, the tool will move on to the next set of credentials in the list.

Credential stuffing attacks can be carried out on a massive scale, with attackers attempting to log in to tens of thousands or even millions of accounts in a short period of time. This makes it a highly effective method for stealing sensitive information or taking control of user accounts.

Tools Used in Credential Stuffing Attacks

Attackers use specialized software tools that allow them to automate the process of logging in to numerous sites with stolen credentials. These tools may be custom-built or purchased on the dark web. They typically include features such as proxy support, CAPTCHA-solving capabilities, and the ability to import and export lists of stolen credentials.

Attackers may also use IP-masking tools to avoid detection and prevent being blocked by sites. These tools allow them to hide their true location and appear to be logging in from a different IP address each time, making it more difficult for site administrators to detect and block their activity.

Common Targets of Credential Stuffing

Typical targets of credential stuffing attacks include high-volume websites such as social media platforms, e-commerce sites, and file-sharing applications. These sites are attractive targets because they often have large user bases and may contain valuable personal or financial information.

In addition to targeting individual users, attackers may also use credential stuffing to gain access to corporate networks. By using stolen credentials to log in to employee accounts, they can potentially gain access to sensitive company data or systems.

The Mechanics of Password Spraying

How does password spraying work, and what makes it different from credential stuffing?

Password spraying is a type of cyber attack that involves using a small number of commonly-used or weak passwords against a large number of user accounts. The goal of this attack is to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or systems. Unlike credential stuffing, which involves using a large number of stolen credentials against a single target, password spraying is a more targeted approach that is often used against high-value targets.

How Password Spraying Works

In a password spraying attack, hackers try commonly-used or weak passwords against a small number of high-value targets. This is often done to gain access to specific data, such as financial or medical information. The attackers will typically start by identifying a list of potential targets, such as employees of a specific company or members of a particular organization. They will then use a small number of commonly-used or weak passwords, such as "password123" or "qwerty", and attempt to log in to each target's account.

If the attackers are successful in logging in to one or more accounts, they can then use that access to steal sensitive data, install malware, or launch additional attacks. Because password spraying attacks are often targeted at high-value targets, they can be very effective at compromising sensitive data or systems.

Tools Used in Password Spraying Attacks

Password spraying attacks often utilize brute-force hacking tools, which try every possible combination of words or numbers until the correct password is found. These tools can be very effective at cracking weak passwords, but they can also be very time-consuming and resource-intensive. In addition to brute-force tools, attackers may also use social engineering tactics, such as phishing emails or phone calls, to trick users into revealing their passwords or other sensitive information.

Common Targets of Password Spraying

Password spraying attacks are often used against specific industries, such as healthcare, finance, and government organizations. These industries are often targeted because they store large amounts of sensitive data, such as financial records, medical records, or government secrets. In addition, these industries may have weaker security controls or less sophisticated IT infrastructure, making them easier targets for attackers.

It is important for organizations in these industries, as well as any organization that stores sensitive data, to implement strong security controls to protect against password spraying attacks. This may include requiring strong passwords, implementing multi-factor authentication, and monitoring user accounts for suspicious activity.

Comparing Credential Stuffing and Password Spraying

Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving, and two of the most common types of attacks are credential stuffing and password spraying. While these two types of attacks differ in their methods and targets, there are some similarities and overlaps.

Credential stuffing is a type of cyber attack where attackers use stolen login credentials to gain unauthorized access to user accounts. Attackers use automated scripts to test large numbers of username and password combinations on different websites and services. If a username and password combination is successful, the attacker gains access to the user's account. This type of attack is often large-scale and indiscriminate, aiming to compromise many different sites and services.

Password spraying, on the other hand, is a more targeted approach where attackers use a small number of commonly used passwords to attempt to gain access to a specific high-value account. This method is often used in conjunction with a list of known usernames or email addresses to increase the likelihood of success.

Key Differences Between the Two Techniques

The main difference between credential stuffing and password spraying is the number of targets. Credential stuffing attacks are often large-scale and indiscriminate, aiming to compromise many different sites and services. Password spraying, on the other hand, is usually more targeted and focused on a small number of high-value accounts.

Another key difference between the two techniques is the level of sophistication required to carry out the attack. Credential stuffing attacks can be automated and require minimal technical knowledge, making them a popular choice for cybercriminals. Password spraying, on the other hand, requires more manual effort and knowledge of the target to be successful.

Similarities and Overlaps in Both Methods

Both methods rely on weaknesses in password security and can be prevented through tighter security measures. Preventative measures such as two-factor authentication and strong passwords can help to mitigate risks for both types of attacks. Two-factor authentication requires users to provide two forms of identification to gain access to their account, making it more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access. Strong passwords that are unique and complex can also make it more difficult for attackers to guess or crack passwords.

It is also important for organizations to monitor their systems for suspicious activity and to educate their employees on the risks of credential stuffing and password spraying attacks. By implementing these measures and staying vigilant, organizations can help to protect themselves and their users from these types of cyber threats.

Mitigating the Risks of Credential Stuffing and Password Spraying

While it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of cyberattacks, there are steps that individuals and organizations can take to mitigate the risk of credential stuffing and password spraying.

Best Practices for Password Security

Implementing strong passwords that are unique for each site and service can significantly reduce the risk of attacks. Consider using password managers or other tools to manage multiple passwords.

Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication adds an additional layer of login security, making it more difficult for hackers to gain access to accounts.

Monitoring and Responding to Suspicious Activity

Regular monitoring and quick response to any suspicious activity can help to prevent cyberattacks before they cause significant damage. Be vigilant in checking account activity and report any suspicious activity to the appropriate authorities.

By understanding the differences between credential stuffing and password spraying, and taking proactive measures to prevent attacks, it is possible to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals and protect your digital information from harm.


About the Author

, Dynamic Access Management platform, StrongDM puts people first by giving technical staff a direct route to the critical infrastructure they need to be their most productive.

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What Is a Policy Enforcement Point (PEP)?

A Policy Enforcement Point (PEP) is a component in a security framework that enforces access control policies. It regulates and monitors access to...

What Is a Policy Engine?

A policy engine is a software component that allows an organization to manage, enforce, and audit rules across their system. It is designed to provide a...

What Is a Policy Information Point (PIP)?

A Policy Enforcement Point (PEP) is a component in a security framework that enforces access control policies. It regulates and monitors access to...

What is Access Discovery?

Access Discovery is the process of identifying and verifying available pathways to digital resources or information within a system or network. It...

What Is Active Directory (AD) Bridging?

Active Directory (AD) bridging lets users log into non-Windows systems with their Microsoft Active Directory account credentials. This extends AD benefits...

What Is an Open Policy Agent (OPA)?

Open Policy Agent (OPA) is an open-source, general-purpose policy engine that enables policy-as-code across diverse software stacks. It provides a unified...

What Is Continuous Authorization?

Continuous Authorization is a security concept ensuring ongoing validation of users' access rights within a system. Employing real-time session monitoring...

What is Continuous Monitoring?

What is Continuous Monitoring? Continuous monitoring is a systematic and ongoing process that uses automated tools and technologies to monitor the...

What is Customer Identity Access Management (CIAM)?

Customer Identity Access Management (CIAM) is a specialized branch of identity and access management designed to facilitate secure and seamless customer...

What is Cyber Threat Hunting?

Threat hunting is the cyber defense practice of proactively searching for threats within a network. Threat hunters look for threats that may have evaded...

What Is Disaster Recovery Policy (DRP)?

Disaster Recovery Policy is a strategic framework outlining procedures and resources to swiftly restore essential business functions after a disruptive...

What Is eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML)?

eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML) is a standard for specifying and exchanging access control policies in computer systems. It provides a...

What Is Fine-Grain Access Controls?

Fine-grain access controls are a type of access control that enables granular access to systems, applications, and data. Access is based on specific...

What Is Group-Based Access Control (GBAC)?

Group-Based Access Control (GBAC) is a security model that regulates access to resources by assigning permissions based on user group membership. It...

What Is Identity Fabric?

Identity Fabric refers to an integrated set of identity and access management services that provide seamless and secure user access across a diverse range...

What Is NoSQL Injection? Examples, Prevention, and More

What is NoSQL Injection? NoSQL Injection is a type of injection attack that exploits vulnerabilities in NoSQL databases by injecting malicious code into...

What Is Policy-as-Code? Tools, Examples, Implementation

Policy-as-Code refers to the practice of managing and implementing policy decisions through code, making them enforceable and verifiable within IT...

What Is Privileged Identity Management (PIM)?

Privileged identity management is the process companies use to manage which privileged users—including human users and machine users—have access to which...

What is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)?

What is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)? Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that allows users to remotely...

What Is Segregation of Duties (SoD)?

Segregation of Duties (SoD) is a risk management principle that ensures critical tasks are divided among different individuals to prevent conflicts of...

What is Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM)?

Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM) is a cybersecurity strategy that focuses on controlling and securing third-party access to an organization's...

What Is Zero Trust Data Protection?

Zero Trust Data Protection is a security framework that assumes no inherent trust, requiring verification from anyone trying to access data, regardless of...

When to Use SQL vs. NoSQL Databases

Understanding SQL and NoSQL Databases When it comes to managing data, there are two main types of databases: SQL and NoSQL. While both types of databases...

Z
Zero Trust

Zero Trust is a modern security model founded on the design principle “Never trust, always verify.” It requires all devices and users, regardless of...

Zero Trust vs. the Principle of Least Privilege: What's the Differences?

As cyber attacks become more advanced and frequent, organizations are realizing the importance of enhancing their cybersecurity strategies. Two approaches...

Zombie Accounts

Zombie accounts: forgotten accounts that open the door to bad actors looking to insert malware, steal data, and damage your internal systems.

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