Brandjacking refers to the malicious act of using a brand’s identity to deceive or defraud customers. It usually involves impersonating a reputable brand to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information or exploit the trust associated with the brand. Attackers often leverage the reputation of well-known brands using social engineering techniques, phishing emails, fake websites, and malicious packages in open source repositories. Let’s look at how brandjacking works, the types of brandjacking attacks, the threat they pose to organizations’ and users’ security, notable examples of such attacks, and how application security tools and practices can help you overcome these risks.
How does brandjacking work?
Traditional brandjacking typically starts with the attacker creating a fraudulent website or social media account that mimics a legitimate brand. They may use similar domain names, logos, and content to deceive unsuspecting users. Then they use these means to collect personal information, distribute malware, or conduct phishing attacks by luring victims into sharing their credentials or financial details.
These attacks have also moved into open-source software repositories. Brandjacking is similar to typosquatting attacks, but in this method, threat actors name malicious packages in a way that fools people into thinking that they are associated with a well-known brand — in this case, a popular language library. This technique tricks developers into using fake packages, assuming they are the official ones. Once inside a code base the malware can spread their malicious payload, which can disrupt and disable systems and steal sensitive data.
Different types of brandjacking attacks
Domain spoofing: Domain names that resemble legitimate brands are used to host malicious content or trick users into providing sensitive information.
Social media impersonation: Fake social media accounts mimic a brand’s official accounts, to engage with followers to harvest their data or redirect them to malicious websites.
Phishing emails: Attackers send emails pretending to be from a trusted brand, requesting recipients click on malicious links, provide personal information, or download harmful attachments.
Impersonation with malicious packages: Malicious packages are designed and named to resemble reliable open source packages, to exploit developers’ trust. When they’re downloaded, they infect and damage your code.
Dependency attacks: Malicious code can be injected into existing, popular open-source packages by exploiting vulnerabilities or taking over abandoned packages. When other developers include these compromised packages as dependencies in their projects, they inadvertently introduce malware into their software.
What security threats does brandjacking pose?
Brandjacking poses three main security threats. The first is operational. The second is personal. The last is reputational. These threats are as follows:
Operational: Attackers use brandjacked websites or email attachments to distribute malware, such as malicious packages, that can compromise or even completely disable an organization’s systems or networks.
Personal/Financial: Brandjacking is an effective way of compromising users’ data. Attackers can steal sensitive user information such as login credentials, payment details, or personally identifiable information (PII), leading to financial theft and fraud.
Reputational: When organizations fall victim to brandjacking, their reputation as a secure and reliable vendor or partner gets tarnished. Customer trust gets eroded, which can result in financial loss.
Examples of significant brandjacking attacks
In 2020, several high-profile Twitter accounts were compromised in a brandjacking attack. Attackers posted fraudulent messages promising to double users’ Bitcoin investments, resulting in financial loss and reputational damage.
In 2021, a sophisticated phishing attack targeted PayPal users, impersonating the brand through convincing emails and websites. The attackers stole login credentials and gained unauthorized access to users’ accounts, potentially compromising personal and financial information.
How can you strengthen security against brandjacking attacks?
As with all types of security issues, protecting your organization and your users against brandjacking involves a combination of implementing best practices, establishing good procedures, and using the right tools to help identify and thwart them. Recommended procedures and best practices are:
Continuous vigilance for brandjacking attempts, so that you can promptly take action. This includes monitoring for brand mentions on social media platforms and proactively taking down fake accounts.
Conduct regular and frequent security audits to identify vulnerabilities in applications and networks, ensuring that all software is up to date and patched against known vulnerabilities.
Leverage application security capabilities to reinforce these efforts.
Education and training for employees regarding brandjacking attacks, emphasizing how to identify phishing attempts and suspicious websites.
Typically, the tools that you can employ to help you implement these procedures are:
Secure authentication mechanisms, including two-factor authentication (2FA), to add an extra layer of security and mitigate the risk of unauthorized access.
DNS monitoring identifies suspicious or fraudulent domain names.
Social media account verification for official brand accounts to mitigate the risk of impersonation.
Domain-based message authentication, reporting, and conformance (DMARC): Apply DMARC policies to prevent email spoofing and phishing attempts.
Application security tools, like software composition analysis, Mend SCA, Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Mend Supply Chain Defender, and Software Bill of Materials (SBOM). More on these below.
How can application security tools help protect you from brandjacking?
AppSec tools are deployed to apply security at a different level than brandjacking. They are focused on the development level — safeguarding components and dependencies in the software supply chain. Nevertheless, a beneficial “by-product” of these tools is that they can play a role in protecting your organization from brandjacking. They do this by:
Inculcating good practice. They promote a security-conscious culture that raises awareness of risks and ways to reduce them, by fostering vigilance for anomalous activity and encouraging organizations to take prompt action to mitigate any ill-effects. In particular, this manifests itself in the practice of continuous scanning undertaken by SCA and SAST, and keeping track of changes that can indicate vulnerabilities.
Improving visibility. This capability is primarily intended for identifying components used in a particular application or system. It includes details such as component names, versions, and sources. It helps organizations identify and validate trusted components, ensuring that only legitimate software is used. By maintaining control over the supply chain, you can reduce the risk of using fake, malicious software that may lead to brandjacking.
Finding vulnerabilities helps prevent brandjacking attacks that exploit weaknesses in third-party components.
Authenticating and authorizing issues and checking anomalies that may arise from brandjacking attempts could allow attackers to bypass authentication, gain unauthorized access, or manipulate user sessions. Mend SCA detects malicious packages in your projects and provides detailed information about the threats that they carry. Mend Supply Chain Defender prevents the installation of malicious packages from the earliest stages of the development cycle. These tools help reduce the chances of incorporating components from untrusted sources, thereby mitigating the risk of brandjacking. And authentication practices can also extend to SBOMs’ vendor/supplier verification capabilities that assess the trustworthiness of vendors and their software.
Detecting code injection vulnerabilities. Brandjacking attacks often involve injecting malicious code into legitimate applications to exploit them for malicious purposes. These tools scan the source code for potential code injection vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), or remote code execution, and they alert users to their presence.
Uncovering insecure data handling and security exploits that could lead to brandjacking, including improper storage, transmission, or encryption of sensitive data, such as user credentials or personal information.
Applying license compliance. SBOMs check and verify license compliance and keep an up-to-date inventory of all your company’s digital assets. Brandjacking may involve malicious actors distributing modified versions of your software that violate the licenses of the open source components you use. So, hand-in-hand with SCA, SBOMs help you document and monitor the licenses associated with the components used in your software. This way, you can avoid license violations and diminish the risk of brandjacking through license-related legal issues.
By employing these AppSec practices and tools, you demonstrate a commitment to transparency, security, compliance, and accountability that builds trust with customers, partners, and regulators. You reduce the risk of brandjacking by proactively managing your digital assets, and your strong supply chain management can deter potential brandjackers from targeting your organization.
Beat brandjacking with a comprehensive security strategy
Brandjacking attacks pose a significant cybersecurity threat, potentially resulting in compromised user data, reputational damage, and financial loss for organizations. Preventing brandjacking requires a comprehensive security strategy that includes trademark protection, online brand monitoring, and proactive security measures. Organizations that prioritize employee education, implement strong authentication mechanisms, conduct regular security audits, and leverage the capabilities of a full suite of security tools and practices, are best placed to avoid the damaging consequences of brandjacking attacks.
Adam Murray is a content writer at Mend. He began his career in corporate communications and PR, in London and New York, before moving to Tel Aviv. He’s spent the last ten years working with tech companies like Amdocs, Gilat Satellite Systems, Allot Communications, and Sisense. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature. When he’s not spending time with his wife and son, he’s preoccupied with his beloved football team, Tottenham Hotspur.