Lessons Learned from 2018 Holiday Attacks: No Rest for the Wicked

Scrooge would approve—attackers work on Christmas Eve, and now on New Year’s Eve, too

We at Shape Security defend the world’s top banking, retail, and travel websites. And while you might be just getting back to work this first full week of January, our attack forensics teams are finally getting a break, because this holiday season was a busy one. Now that the dust has settled, we’ve analyzed our data to determine how 2018’s online holiday-season shenanigans differ from 2017’s.

During this festive Holiday season, attackers worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But in a striking change from the previous year, the most sophisticated attackers no longer took a New Year’s Eve (NYE) off. In fact, this year, we saw several intense campaigns that started or peaked on NYE.

The Best Time to Rob a Bank is Christmas Day

No matter what institution they use, most online banking customers have one thing in common: they stop checking their online balances during the December holidays. Turning a blind eye to one’s finances is optimistic human nature; our customers report that legitimate online banking activity often drops as much as 30 to 40 percent during this period.

Financial institutions may not observe the full extent of this change, however, because the drop in legitimate banking activity is overshadowed by an increase in malicious activity. According to our data, in both 2017 and 2018, malicious actors took advantage of the holiday, launching new attacks on or right around Christmas.


Figure 1: A malicious actor waited to launch their attack until Christmas Day itself.

Shape’s Christmas present to the Top 5 US bank, the target in the above graph, was the fact that we didn’t take Christmas Day off, either.

New Year’s Eve is Cancelled (for Professional Criminals)

With some notable exceptions, nearly all attackers took New Year’s Eve off. On that night, attacks aimed at Shape’s customers dropped over 65% overall – and in one case over 99%, We observed this trend across all industries, including retail, travel, financial services, and tech. Perhaps tired from their exertions over Christmas, nearly all attackers put their keyboards away and joined the poor furloughed federal workers on a break for the New Year’s holiday.

“The holiday season now separates the hobbyists from the dedicated professional cybercriminals.”


Figure 2: Reductions in both legitimate consumer traffic and automated attack traffic.

But the sophisticated attackers, the ones who do this for a living, actually used the global holiday for surgical strikes, particularly against banks .

The attack graph below illustrates the trend. The tiny, tiny red bars on the left (they look like a dotted line) show the normal level of traffic on a financial institution’s website.

Figure 3: Attacker launches failed campaign, retools on NYE, gives up on Jan 1

On December 29, malicious actors launched a large attack against the site. Even by spoofing dozens of signals at all levels – network, client and behavioral, they still couldn’t penetrate Shape’s defenses. On New Year’s Eve they retooled, doubling the number of signals that they were spoofing, but that too, failed, and they gave up towards the end of the day.

Why Launch Attacks During the Holidays?

Sophisticated attackers, the ones for whom crime is their day job, know they are playing a chess game that requires human intervention. So they plan their moves according to when organizations are most vulnerable, i.e., when a security team is most likely to be distracted or short-staffed. What are the days that a security operations team is most likely to be away from their desks? Christmas and New Year’s.

Furthermore, because professional criminals are relying on their ill-gotten gains, they are loath to waste resources. Everyone knows that the top banks are the most lucrative targets, yet hardest to crack. So we suspect that’s why FSIs in particular are targeted during the holidays.

The clearest example of this theory comes from the most sophisticated attack group Shape saw in 2018—a bot that mimicked iOS clients (see our 2018 Credential Spill Report, in which we talk about this attack group). They’d previously targeted a top Canadian retailer, a top global food and beverage company, and a Top 10 North American bank, and we had successfully held them off across our entire customer network.

Figure 4: Sophisticated attacker activity on NYE

This group had been lying low for a couple of months, but on NYE they came back with a sneaky, retooled attack when they thought we weren’t watching. But Shape detected the new attack and quickly blocked it. The attacker gave up on New Year’s Day.

It is not clear why only sophisticated attackers worked on New Year’s Eve this year. We suspect they are getting desperate as more and more organizations harden their application defenses against automated fraud and are looking for any type of vulnerability to exploit. In that case, it’s possible we will see this behavioral trend extend to other major holidays in which companies effectively shut down, such as Chinese New Year and Labor Day.

About Shape Security

Shape Security is defining a new future in which excellent cybersecurity not only stops attackers, but also reduces friction for good customers. Shape disrupts the economics of cybercrime by making it too expensive for attackers to commit online fraud, while also enabling enterprises to more easily transact with genuine customers. The Shape platform, covered by 55 patents, was designed to stop the most dangerous application attacks enabled by bots and cybercriminal tools, including credential stuffing (account takeover), fake account creation, and unauthorized aggregation. The world’s leading organizations rely on Shape as their primary line of defense against attacks on their web and mobile applications, including three of the Top 5 US banks, five of the Top 10 global airlines, two of the Top 5 global hotels, and two of the Top 5 US government agencies. Today, the Shape Network defends 1.7 billion user accounts from account takeover and protects 40% of the consumer banking industry. Shape was recognized by the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 as the fastest-growing company in Silicon Valley and was recently inducted into J.P. Morgan Chase’s Hall of Innovation.


Author: David Holmes

David Holmes is a Cybersecurity advisor, researcher and evangelist. He has spoken at over 50 conferences such as RSA, RSA Europe, InfoSec and Gartner Data Center. Holmes researches and writes on global cryptography trends, DDoS, IoT and blockchain. He has also written for industry magazines such as SCMagazine and the Network World. Holmes writes regularly about cryptography, the Internet of Things, malware, policy, vulnerabilities, technical solutions, and the security industry in general for Shape Security SecurityWeek.com