School of Computing

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Six seconds to hack a credit card

New research reveals the ease with which criminals can hack an account without any of the card details.

Working out the card number, expiry date and security code of any Visa credit or debit card can take as little as six seconds and uses nothing more than guesswork, new research has shown.

Research published in the academic journal IEEE Security & Privacy (available via ePrints here) shows how the so-called Distributed Guessing Attack is able to circumvent all the security features put in place to protect online payments from fraud.

Exposing the flaws in the VISA payment system, the team from Newcastle University, UK, found neither the network nor the banks were able to detect attackers making multiple, invalid attempts to get payment card data.

By automatically and systematically generating different variations of the cards security data and firing it at multiple websites, within seconds hackers are able to get a ‘hit’ and verify all the necessary security data.

Investigators believe this guessing attack method is likely to have been used in the recent Tesco cyberattack which defrauded customers of £2.5m and which the Newcastle team describe as “frighteningly easy if you have a laptop and an internet connection.”

And they say the risk is greatest at this time of year when so many of us are purchasing Christmas presents online.

Unlimited guesses

“This sort of attack exploits two weaknesses that on their own are not too severe but when used together, present a serious risk to the whole payment system,” explains Mohammed Aamir Ali, a PhD student in Computing Science and lead author on the paper.

“Firstly, the current online payment system does not detect multiple invalid payment requests from different websites. This allows unlimited guesses on each card data field, using up to the allowed number of attempts - typically 10 or 20 guesses - on each website.

“Secondly, different websites ask for different variations in the card data fields to validate an online purchase. This means it’s quite easy to build up the information and piece it together like a jigsaw.

“The unlimited guesses, when combined with the variations in the payment data fields make it frighteningly easy for attackers to generate all the card details one field at a time.

“Each generated card field can be used in succession to generate the next field and so on. If the hits are spread across enough websites then a positive response to each question can be received within two seconds – just like any online payment.

“So even starting with no details at all other than the first six digits – which tell you the bank and card type and so are the same for every card from a single provider – a hacker can obtain the three essential pieces of information to make an online purchase within as little as six seconds.”

Read the full University press release here.

The news was reported in The IndependentiNewsThe TimesThe GuardianEurekAlertCTV News, Chronicle LiveEast Lothian CourierMail OnlineAOL UK, The Sun Online, Telegraph, ITV, SkyHuffington Post, Economic Times, MK London, India Times, PC World, The Inquirer, Computer Weekly, Tech World, Gulf News; and also in the following newspapers: The Sun (02/12/2016, p.9), The Daily Telegraph (02/12/2016, p.15),The Scotsman (02/12/2016, p.18), The Times (Scotland, 02/12/2016, p.6), The Times (Main, 02/12/2016, p.6), i (The paper for today, 02/12/2016, p.11), Daily Mail (Main, 02/12/2016, p.3). Also, listen to BBC Radio Newcastle (Alfie and Anna at Breakfast) and BBC Radio4 (Today) (listen from 02:49:55) and Radio4 (Money Box) (listen from 15:53).

News Cyber Security

published on: 2 December 2016