Pre-hijacked accounts: An Empirical Study of Security Failures in User Account Creation on the Web


Avinash Sudhodanan, Independent Researcher; Andrew Paverd, Microsoft Security Response Center


The ubiquity of user accounts in websites and online services makes account hijacking a serious security concern. Although previous research has studied various techniques through which an attacker can gain access to a victim's account, relatively little attention has been directed towards the process of account creation. The current trend towards federated authentication (e.g., Single Sign-On) adds an additional layer of complexity because many services now support both the classic approach in which the user directly sets a password, and the federated approach in which the user authenticates via an identity provider.

Inspired by previous work on preemptive account hijacking [Ghasemisharif et al., USENIX SEC 2018], we show that there exists a whole class of account pre-hijacking attacks. The distinctive feature of these attacks is that the attacker performs some action before the victim creates an account, which makes it trivial for the attacker to gain access after the victim has created/recovered the account. Assuming a realistic attacker who knows only the victim's email address, we identify and discuss five different types of account pre-hijacking attacks.

To ascertain the prevalence of such vulnerabilities in the wild, we analyzed 75 popular services and found that at least 35 of these were vulnerable to one or more account pre-hijacking attacks. Whilst some of these may be noticed by attentive users, others were completely undetectable from the victim's perspective. Finally, we investigated the root cause of these vulnerabilities and present a set of security requirements to prevent such vulnerabilities arising in future.

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@inproceedings {281384,
author = {Avinash Sudhodanan and Andrew Paverd},
title = {Pre-hijacked accounts: An Empirical Study of Security Failures in User Account Creation on the Web},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-31-1},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {1795--1812},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,