The Different Forms of Online Abuse

Fighting fraud is serious business for companies, even when they have clear rules and steps to follow. However, its evil twin abuse can show up in different ways - from out-and-out illegal actions to things that just go against a website's rules or standards. We're going to talk about the less obvious use cases that don’t exactly count as a crime but can still mess with how a website works. Often, this kind of abuse slips under the radar until it's already caused a bunch of problems, as it doesn't get the same kind of focused attention that fraud does.

In this article, we'll look at the different types of abuse and how to stop them. This way, we can protect users' accounts, keep websites safe, and make sure businesses that run online keep a good reputation.

Abuse can make it tough for a company to offer things like free trials, credits, or discounts. These are really important for bringing in new customers and keeping people engaged, but they can turn into a problem if they're taken advantage of.

When it comes to stopping this kind of abuse, often the same tools and strategies you would use for fighting fraud are not sufficient. While stopping fraud can often be done using off-the-shelf fraud prevention software, abuse is often more subtle and specific to an application's terms of services, so it needs solutions that can be tweaked and adjusted with greater flexibility. These solutions often include functionality such as bot detection, device fingerprinting, an advanced rules engine, as well as a suite of analytics functionality that can help spot very specific abuse patterns in a large set of user data.

The different categories of online abuse

Account Integrity

Account integrity abuses encompass activities where bad actors manipulate or misuse identities, attempting to operate behind a facade through fabricated or stolen data. Such deceptions include;

  • Fake Accounts – creating false accounts to troll or harass other users.
  • Account Sharing – sharing a single use subscription to a video streaming service
  • Multi Accounting – users create multiple accounts to upvote their own posts
  • Identity Theft – using someone else's personal information to create a new account

Spotting these accounts early on can be really tough--people use sneaky tactics, and those fakes can be pretty convincing, often slipping through checks designed to catch them. Hence, businesses must adopt a multi-tiered approach to combat this form of abuse, as outlined in A Guide to Account Verification.

The first steps are pretty straightforward--you follow Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures and make sure emails are legit. That said, there will always be someone crafty enough to slip through these early checks. That's where monitoring of user behavior and how they navigate your site or app comes into play. Keeping a close eye on this can help catch those sneaky actors who manage to side-step your initial safeguards.

When we built Castle, in contrast to existing solutions on the market, we made sure to cover both the early verification at signup, as well as in-app monitoring that'll spot abuse as it happens in real-time.

Unauthorized Access

Unauthorized access represents an increasingly sophisticated form of online abuse, as it involves the exploitation of existing user accounts. This technique requires a deeper level of deceit, leveraging the data and history of legitimate accounts, which often makes detection extremely challenging. Practices that fall under this category include;

  • Credential Stuffing – using leaked credentials to gain access to accounts
  • Account Takeover – gaining unauthorized access to a user's account and making unauthorized transactions

The stealthy nature of unauthorized access abuse lies in the misuse of an account with a proven track record of content, payments, and other activities. These existing footprints can often trick traditional checks and balances into identifying this behavior as usual, thereby bypassing alerts and allowing nefarious activity to proceed undetected.

In an ideal scenario, unauthorized access would be intercepted at the login stage. However, as the abusers utilize legitimate credentials, distinguishing between an authentic user and an abuser can prove incredibly difficult, especially when there is insufficient behavior data collected at the login point.

Therefore, companies must deploy a combination of proactive and reactive measures to address unauthorized access. Initial preventive actions, such as multi-factor authentication and CAPTCHA software, can provide a vital first line of defense. However, due to the nature of this abuse, in-app monitoring becomes extremely important. Observing user behavior in real-time, especially during key events such as password updates or transactions, can help detect anomalous patterns and block the action before it happens.

Financial Abuse

Financial abuse constitutes a direct and immediate threat to a business's revenue, but it's crucial to understand that such instances are often the downstream consequence of either account integrity abuse or unauthorized access. In these scenarios, the bad actor has either created a fake account or gained unauthorized access to a legitimate one and proceeds to manipulate the platform's financial logic to their advantage, for example;

  • Referral, Coupon & Promo Abuse – creating multiple accounts to take advantage of a referral bonus
  • Subscription Abuse - repeatedly signing up for free trials with new accounts
  • Card Testing – using a stolen credit card to make purchases

Financial abuse tactics often include exploiting app logic to gain financial benefits, taking advantage of payment functionality, and testing stolen credit cards or bank accounts. These actions differentiate financial abuse from more traditional e-commerce payment fraud and credit card chargebacks, as they specifically exploit the unique aspects of a platform's payment system.

To prevent such fraudulent activities, businesses must demonstrate a profound understanding of their platform's specific features, their possible vulnerabilities, and how they can be manipulated. Mitigation measures can include implementing robust fraud detection systems, restricting one-time use per customer, requiring payment information for trials, or limiting the number of trials per user.

Recognize that such measures, while effective, need to complement broader efforts in ensuring account integrity and preventing unauthorized access. By ensuring the security of the initial point of access, companies can significantly reduce the subsequent risk of financial abuse.

Content Abuse

Content abuse is a significant concern for any platform that enables user interaction and communication. While it might initially seem less harmful compared to financial fraud, the fallout from unchecked content abuse can be just as damaging. This type of abuse usually materializes once a bad actor has managed to maintain a low-integrity account or access an existing one unauthorized. The abuse that follows can take many forms;

  • Cyberbullying – consistently harassing another user with offensive messages
  • Hate Speech– posting discriminatory content targeting a specific group
  • Spam – receiving unsolicited promotional messages from another user
  • Scams – posting a deceptive sales offer targeting other users

The challenge with content abuse is that it often escapes standard detection measures. This is because the abusive behavior appears within the regular user activity, like posting comments, sharing content, or sending messages. The fact that an already established account is involved often means the checks that would typically flag unusual behavior may not be effective.

Effective strategies for tackling content abuse need to be multifaceted, often involving both automated and manual moderation systems. Customized algorithms can be employed to detect and classify spammy or harmful content, such as text, photo, video, or file sharing. Additionally, monitoring user behavior patterns can help identify when a legitimate account is being used abnormally, potentially indicating unauthorized access.

Above all, fostering a safe and respectful platform environment is crucial. This involves not just the technical measures to identify and remove inappropriate content, but also cultivating a community culture that understands and respects the platform's guidelines and is encouraged to report violations.

Platform Abuse

Platform abuse is a potent form of online abuse that takes advantage of the infrastructural components of a digital platform. Some examples include;

  • SMS Pumping – a.k.a. SMS Toll Fraud – use automated attacks to trigger SMS OTP that results in per-transaction payouts.
  • API Abuse – overloading an API endpoint with requests, causing it to slow down or crash
  • Resource Exhaustion – A script hammers the login endpoint during a flash sale in order to slow down access for other users
  • Exploits – exploiting a flaw in a video game to gain an unfair advantage

Stemming primarily from breaches in account integrity or instances of unauthorized access, platform abuse seeks to exploit system vulnerabilities, over-consume resources, disrupt service, or repurpose platform functionalities for unintended uses. The results of these activities often manifest as a degraded user experience and can potentially cause severe harm.

Platform abuse, like the other forms of abuse, is often difficult to detect. Because it takes place within the framework of the platform, it often blends in with the expected operations. The actor may have access to an account with a history of legitimate transactions, content sharing, and interactions, which makes the abusive behavior less detectable and more damaging.

Countering platform abuse is a complex endeavor that requires consistent monitoring, quick response, and a deep understanding of the platform's functionalities and potential loopholes. Regular system updates and patches, vulnerability scanning, rate limiting, secure API keys, and employing DDoS prevention techniques are common measures that can be employed. These strategies, however, should not just be reactive but also proactive. Part of addressing platform abuse involves designing systems that are resistant to such behavior from the ground up.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a secure and robust platform that protects its users and operates efficiently. Maintaining this environment requires ongoing vigilance, innovation, and the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders.

Data Abuse

Data abuse is a unique and pernicious form of online abuse that capitalizes on the open nature of the internet. It often stems from an initial infringement of account integrity or unauthorized access, which subsequently allows the actor to exploit publicly available data on the platform.

This type of abuse is also called Content Scraping, which leads to the loss of exclusive content and potential copyright infringements. The long-term implications can be far-reaching, impacting brand reputation, business competitiveness, and user trust.

Detecting data abuse can be particularly challenging as it often happens under the guise of regular user behavior. The account involved may have a legitimate history of content sharing, payments, and user interactions, which makes the abusive actions less likely to raise immediate flags. Moreover, data scraping can be disguised as typical browsing or reading activity, making it harder to detect without specific measures.

To counter data abuse, platform operators need to deploy a variety of strategies that span multiple levels. At the most basic level, Web Application Firewalls (WAF) can be used to monitor and restrict potentially malicious traffic. This can prevent a significant portion of automated scraping attempts. However, for content that is behind authentication, detection needs to be implemented at the app level. Techniques such as monitoring and limiting the number of page views or events per user can help identify unusual patterns that might indicate data abuse.

In the long run, building an environment that respects user data and content is of utmost importance. This involves clear communication of data protection measures, user education, and swift response to detected instances of data abuse.

A continuous approach to abuse prevention

With the advancement of AI, sophisticated tools, and evolving types of abuse, crafting believable counterfeit information or hijacking a legitimate account is a walk in the park for malicious actors. As a result, the need for comprehensive and continuous visibility into your users' behavior has become paramount. It's no longer sufficient to just guard the entry point with a robust identity check; you need to ensure the security of a user's journey from start to finish within the application.

It was specifically in response to these problems that Castle was designed. Castle provides a seamless experience for users throughout your app, from the moment they sign up or log in. We continuously monitor each action taken beyond authentication, be it updating a password, making a transaction, or simply navigating within your app. In real-time, we run rules and risk scoring against each event, scrutinizing and measuring its potential impact. Our thorough analysis ensures that every user action is evaluated for risks, so that you can be confident that your app and users are safe.

Castle is the first solution to deliver a holistic approach to abuse prevention. We offer a super simple integration through Segment or a JavaScript snippet, and it's free to try.