Who needs to steal credit cards when you can get airfare and luxury items for free?

Sara Peters, Senior Editor

March 30, 2015

4 Min Read

Travel industry loyalty programs have become a popular target recently -- because rewards points offer hackers some of the benefits of real money, with none of the security protections. The latest victim is British Airways, which reports that tens of thousands of its BA Executive Club member accounts were broken into via credentials stolen from a third party, and that attackers are making merry with members' Avios reward points. 

United Airlines and American Airlines made similar reports in January. Accounts were cracked into using credentials stolen from a third party, and the frequent flier miles were used to book free trips, upgrade flights, and make discounted purchases at the airlines' partners.

In November, the Hilton hotel chain had its rewards program attacked directly. A simple brute-force attack was used to siphon off points from the accounts, which were only protected by a four-digit PIN. The points were then sold online and used to purchase gift cards and other goods.

"These programs have become easy targets because they lack many of the security controls you would see guarding traditional forms of currency, such as credit card transactions," says Ken Westin, senior security analyst with Tripwire. "This paired with the fact that criminals have identified methods to monetize these points and miles and convert them to currency, gives them means, motive and opportunity."

In none of these cases was payment card data or personally identifiable information exposed.

However, if the stolen login credentials happen to get an attacker access into a British Airways frequent flyer account for someone with an enormous of miles who has earned them by jetting around the world on luxurious excursions to exotic destinations most people have never heard of...well then, that's a person with real money to spend. Or real money to steal. 

And that makes that particular username and password combination more valuable, if there's a chance it is used on a banking website, for example, or perhaps a luxury retailer, like those that airline might partner with. 

“The increasingly partner-driven economy present on the Internet expands the ways in which programs like British Airways Executive Club can be attacked," says Tim Erlin, director of product management and security and IT risk strategist for Tripwire. "They must cultivate a large, interconnected network of partners to survive, but that business model also creates opportunity for data leakage, and subsequent attack and compromise."

"The third party data that was compromised from another source, could very well be one of the other loyalty programs that have been hit in the past few months," says Westin, "with the attackers well aware that passwords and logins will be shared by users across these systems. In addition to weak controls to block brute force attacks, many of these systems do not enforce good password policies as well, making it that much easier for attackers to get into these accounts.”

Not only do customers re-use passwords, but companies continue to reject CAPTCHAS, two-factor authentication, session timeouts after failed login attempts and other controls against these sort of attacks, Westin says. 

“We cannot really blame the customers for poor security practices, although service providers are often doing just that," says Igor Baikalov, chief scientist at Securonix and former senior VP of global information security at Bank of America. "How can one possibly maintain separate identities for each website, when even my local newspaper requires a login? Our online interactions grow exponentially, and juggling scores of different passwords is just not practical. Password managers help somewhat, but putting all eggs in one basket is not for the faint of heart." 

Baikalov's suggestion is to use a second factor of authentication that doesn't require any effort on the part of the user -- verifying the user's identity based upon their geographic location, their device, their navigation habits, their passive biometrics. In the event that that user behavior deviates from the norm -- a new device, a new city, a broken arm -- an additional "step-up" authentication would be requested.

"It significantly reduces the risk of account hijacking with a minimal impact on user experience," says Baikalov. "Step-up authentication can range from silly challenge questions to a verification token sent to your phone."

The misuse of loyalty programs are just another reason for all organizations, not just financial services firms, to take security more seriously. Even if it isn't real money, it has value, and it can be stolen.  

"One silver lining for British Airways in this incident," says Erlin, "is that it’s a sign of success for their program. ... Avios, the ‘currency’ of the Executive Club, are clearly valuable enough to be worth stealing.”


About the Author(s)

Sara Peters

Senior Editor

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad of other topics. She authored the 2009 CSI Computer Crime and Security Survey and founded the CSI Working Group on Web Security Research Law -- a collaborative project that investigated the dichotomy between laws regulating software vulnerability disclosure and those regulating Web vulnerability disclosure.

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