Most Common Tactics Used To Hack Passwords

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Bytes: 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?

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.

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 in a repository. Then, you can use a single, ridiculously strong password for every site. Here are our password management app choices.

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.

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.

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

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 (as well as vishing and smishing). Furthermore, increase your spam filter to its highest setting or, better still, use a proactive whitelist. Use a link checker to ascertain 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!).


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. 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, you could find all of your accounts compromised.

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.

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