According to the 2023 State of Bot Mitigation survey, 83% of companies find that bad bots are increasingly sophisticated, evading their security tools, while only 15% feel their anti-bot solutions remain effective after a year. While accessing a website seems simple for users, the underlying web traffic is complex, with many unseen elements. Among these are bots, some beneficial and others harmful. This article will delve into the various aspects of bots, their threats, and the significance of bot detection software and bot mitigation, offering insights beyond basic guides.
What Are Bots?
Bots are software applications that execute automated tasks online. While the term suggests simplicity, they function faster and more efficiently than humans. Bots are simply a tool, their purpose, can be beneficial like search engine crawlers or malicious if used by attackers. The distinction between good and bad bots depends on how the humans behind bots use them, which we’ll further explore to help you recognize the difference between beneficial and malicious bots.
Types of Bots
As we said above, bots only carry out the intent of the human using them. In fact, many parts of the internet that people use everyday wouldn’t function without bots. But, alas, bad bots help carry out both frustrating and criminal actions on the internet. Highlighting the need for a solution that can not only identify humans vs bots, but also good vs bad bots. To get a clearer idea of a bot’s influence, let’s dive deeper into the good and bad kinds. We’ll start with the good, because you should always try to build someone up (before you knock them down, as we will).
The Good Bots
Not all bots have a bad reputation. Good bots can actually help your business. Here are just a few of the good bots out there:
One of the joys of using an internet application to purchase items is that you can usually get whatever it is you’re looking for at a lower price than you’d find in the real world. But sometimes, finding those deals can be difficult. Shopping comparison websites use bots to crawl the internet and give the best price for whatever item is being sought. Some online retailers also use bots to show the best price to the user based on their website use.
Websites don’t necessarily stick around forever. If the owner of the site has decided to move onto new projects, then the website — along with all the content — will die. But sometimes, that content is worth preserving. Web scraping crawlers, or web spiders, go around the web and record the data, which can then be accessed if the website goes offline. An example of this use would be Wayback Machine, the internet archive website. It should be noted that web scraping crawlers can be used for more sinister motives, too.
If you’ve ever used the ‘live chat’ feature of a website, then you’ll likely have been talking with a chatbot. These bots are designed to stimulate the conversation of a real human, giving responses based on the wording of the customer. Many of these bots identify themselves as non-human. They can be basic (gathering basic information before handing it over to a live agent) or sophisticated, providing information and service in much the same way a “real human” would.
In the digital age, the rapid dissemination of information is crucial for both organizations and individuals. Bots are increasingly used to get important information out into the world and it’s revolutionizing the way information is shared and spread. Bots can be programmed to deliver tailored information to individual users based on their preferences or past behaviors. Bots can also take over routine, repetitive tasks such as sending out daily weather forecasts, stock updates, or appointment reminders. This frees up human resources to focus on more complex tasks that require creativity and problem-solving skills. While these bots can be helpful, they can also be repurposed for nefarious acts like spreading misinformation at scale.
Just For Fun
Bots can be integrated into games or even create art. While these bots aren’t crucial to the function of the internet, they show just how versatile bots can be.
Search Engine Crawler Bots
Perhaps the most useful aspect of a bot software application: the search engine. It’s impossible to imagine what the internet would be like without a solid search engine by our sides (really: what would you do? Ask your friends if they know a site?). A big part of Google’s success has been the sophisticated nature of its crawler bots. What these bots look for is in the hands of the search engine, and they do change from time to time. Ultimately, they exist to deliver the best possible experience to the user.
The Bad Bots
After discussing good bots, let’s address the harmful ones. Bad bots, often used for illicit purposes, can impact everything from personal finances to elections. Many anti-bot solutions that used to work are rapidly becoming less effective as attackers are constantly evolving their tactics. Adversaries are even collaborating with each other in botting communities to hone their skills and share learnings. Static defensive approaches like IP blocking, digital fingerprinting, or deploying CAPTCHAs are now easily evaded by modern bots.
Hacker bots do exactly what they’re called: they hack. They’re there to deceive people, install malware, and attack websites. They find their way into people’s computers or networks by exposing security vulnerabilities and inserting a line of code into the engine. There’s nearly always a financial motive behind these bots, with the owners of compromised computers and networks having to pay to get the malicious code off.
Sneaker bots were originally designed to check out limited edition sneakers at speeds impossible for a human to match, while also flooding the target site with requests giving the botter an unfair advantage over real humans. Botters then resell the now sold out sneaker at a massive markup.
The application of sneaker bots has now spread across the entire eCommerce industry. Botters now buy anything that has high demand and limited quantity in order to resell those items for a profit.
We mentioned scraper bots in the ‘good bots’ list — but they can also lead to malicious bot traffic. Attackers love to repurpose tools that were built to be helpful for malicious purposes, and scraper bots are the perfect example. Scraper bots are designed to steal information from a website, including the content, images, design, and prices. With this information fraudsters can set up counterfeit sites. Tricking customers into thinking they are on a brand’s legitimate site and either selling counterfeit goods, accepting payments but never actually sending the product, or stealing a user’s payment information, all while damaging the real brand’s reputation.
Competitors can also steal your pricing information at scale in order to undercut your prices.
Freebie bots look to take advantage of human errors made by online businesses. They are a blend of scraper and sneaker bots. These bots monitor sites to find items that have been priced incorrectly, either for free or well under what the retailer meant to charge. When freebie bots find this pricing error they check out the product with lighting speed, before the retailer even knows an error was made. These bots lead to revenue losses, poor user experience, and increased operational costs.
Spam bots are notorious for posting unsolicited links online, often seen as replies on platforms like Facebook. While their visibility has decreased due to easier detection and preventive measures, they remain prevalent in emails. Many email services now filter such spam into separate folders. Businesses should remain vigilant about potential spam bot interference in various online spaces.
Malicious bots aiming to influence public discourse post politically motivated content on social media. Misinformation bots spread false information, often backed by political agendas. Such bots compromise the democratic process by disseminating disinformation, as confirmed by various studies.
Enterprising actors in the underground bot economy are creating and selling solver service APIs. These APIs provide bypasses to specific bot management technologies.
While solver services are not a bot per say, they have greatly lowered the barrier to entry for attackers looking to leverage bad bots. Rather than having to reverse engineer anti-bot solutions themselves, attackers can simply pay for bypasses to legacy bot management solutions for less than $2 per 1000 bypasses.
The Numbers Behind Bots
It’s estimated that around 30% of bot traffic is malicious, and 40% of login attempts are made by bad bots, not real humans. To get a sense of just how effective these malicious bots can be — they can be responsible for much of $25.6 billion in online fraud losses each year. That’s why a proper bot mitigation strategy is so critical.
Any non-human traffic to a website or web server is considered bot traffic. Unmanaged bot traffic can harm user experience, hoard inventory, increase costs, and commit fraud at scale. Bot mitigation and monitoring is essential to combat malicious bots. Indicators of bot traffic include high page views, bounce rates, low conversion rates, high failed login attempts, increase in credit cards being declined, and unexpected traffic spikes from specific locations. Bot management solutions can simplify the task of detecting bot traffic, ensuring accurate business analytics and preventing threats like account takeover, checkout fraud, fake account creation, and scraping. Mismanaged bot traffic can lead to issues like increases in operational costs, lost revenue, poor customer experience, and reputational damage. Implementing a modern and dynamic bot mitigation software solution is crucial to identify and block such malicious bot activity, safeguarding against financial and reputational risks.
The Risk of Bad Bots
Bad bots should be avoided at all costs, in large part because — true to their name — they’re up to no good. While many, such as all those spam comments that you’ll find on Facebook groups, are more annoying than anything, others are much more dangerous. And for businesses, they can be catastrophic. We already mentioned the ridiculously high figure from early about how much bad bots cost the business world each year. That’s money that’s flowing away from businesses and into the hands of the people behind the malicious bots. Below, we’ll look at various ways in which cybercriminals use bots to launch attacks.
Account Takeover (ATO)
ATO involves cybercriminals using bots for credential stuffing to access victims’ digital accounts. Since many users reuse login details across sites, criminals exploit lists of stolen username and password combinations to login to other accounts owned by the victim. Once in, attackers are able to make fraudulent purchases, steal stored payment information, or drain loyalty points earned by the victim. Successful ATO attacks can also significantly damage a business’s reputation. To counter this, businesses should adopt bot management solutions that detect and halt such attacks.
Carding involves bots testing massive lists of stolen credit card details on websites. These attacks result in an influx of traffic and in declined payments. Attackers will typically make small purchases to see if the stolen card information works, the fraudsters disregard the cards that failed and go on to make larger purchases with the ones that worked. Leaving businesses with a tarnished merchant history, leading to high charges from payment processors on future card authorizations or even a partnership termination with a payment processor if the problem is not addressed.
SQL injection lets attackers alter a web application’s SQL query by inserting harmful code, potentially causing unauthorized access and data breaches. Bots can exploit these vulnerabilities to access or modify database records maliciously.
Scraping attacks never sleep. Scraping is one of the few attacks that doesn’t come in waves or for a specific event (like the release of a limited edition item). Scarpers are constantly hitting their target’s site looking for any updates. This constant bot traffic can lead to increased operational cost and slow website performance. As mentioned above, scrapers are used by fraudsters to create identical counterfeit websites and competitors looking to undercut your prices.
E-Commerce sites only have a finite amount of stock for their products. When someone puts a product in their basket, the quantity goes down. If all the available numbers of the product were in people’s baskets, then the item would show as unavailable on the site. There are bots that add products to baskets with no intention of completing the purchase. This means that other people cannot make the purchase, resulting in loss of income for the business and frustrated customers.
Unlike inventory pileup, inventory hoarding attacks do check out, with the intention of reselling purchased goods at a markup, when the retailer is out of stock. Inventory hoarders target anything that is in high demand with a limited quantity, like limited edition sneakers, highly sought after holiday gifts, or concert tickets. Inventory hoarding leaves legitimate customers either empty handed or forces them to pay resellers’ inflated prices. Damaging the company’s reputation in the process.
How Bots Attack Specific Channels
There’s more than one way to deploy a bot. Malicious bot traffic occurs over many channels. The main channels cybercriminals target are:
- mobile apps
- web apps
However, these networks rarely exist in isolation, which means if you gain access to one, you usually have access to others. Bots will typically target all four, since the more you target, the more likely it is that you’ll get access. Below, we’ll look in more detail at each of these channels and the common vulnerabilities of each.
APIs enable system communication and are crucial for mobile apps and IoT products. Their machine-to-machine communication makes it challenging to distinguish genuine requests from malicious bots. Using third-party API services further complicates security. Implementing a bot management solution to monitor bad bot traffic can safeguard both your business and associated third parties.
Mobile apps, being relatively new, are more susceptible to bot attacks. Traditional website security measures often fall short for apps. Additionally, as anyone can create an app without rigorous security, vulnerabilities arise. If attackers link an app to a non-mobile virtual machine, they can rapidly execute scripts, and exploit vulnerabilities.
The most common deployment of bots is on websites. They’re everywhere: making comments, attempting to login to accounts, and scraping content. We mentioned earlier the sheer scale of bot activity on the web; the vast majority of bot attacks come through the web. They can be simple or sophisticated, but they’re everywhere — and that means that it’s something that all businesses need to be aware of as their first step to manage bot traffic.
Cross site scripting allows bots to exploit web applications, potentially seizing user accounts. This can be disastrous for users. A web application firewall filters web traffic to counteract these attacks. It checks HTTP conversations against set rules, intervening if discrepancies arise, but modern bots can easily evade WAF detection. For enhanced security, consider a modern bot mitigation solution, which offers broader protection than a firewall alone.
You can stop what you can’t see, bot detection is the crucial first step to stopping bots from attacking your site. Effective bot detection needs to accomplish two key goals:
- Looking for the immutable evidence of automation rather than analyzing behaviors.
- Bots look and act like humans more than ever before. If your anti-bot solution is detecting automation based on behavioral analysis, chances are its missing sophisticated bots
- Detection needs to be dynamic and highly obfuscated.
- Highly obfuscated code makes it incredibly difficult and expensive for attackers to reverse engineer your solution. Dynamic detection allows the signals collected to change per request, meaning that even if attackers can reverse engineer your defenses, their learning will be useless on future attacks.
Bot mitigation is the next step in the battle against bots after you have identified them. The key to long lasting protection against bots is to make your online channels too expensive to attack. Botters are motivated by money, if you are able to take that motivation away by making attacks too expensive you will force attackers to move on. Below are a few ways that you can mitigate bots and remove the incentive for the humans behind them.
Fake data can be a great way to waste an attacker’s time, and as the old saying goes time is money. Once a bot is identified in your system you can feed them fake data, tricking them into thinking their attack is working. By the time an attacker concludes their attack and realizes the data they gained is useless, they will have already wasted a significant amount of resources and time. They may also be deterred from launching more attackers as there is a chance the data they receive will be faked again.
An effective bot mitigation solution will be invisible to real humans. Rather than causing friction for customers with tools like CAPTCHA, which are harder for humans than they are for bots. Your challenges should only be presented to bots and make them incredibly costly to solve, wasting attackers’ resources by having their bots solve increasingly difficult challenges.
Rate limiting restricts how often a user or bot can perform a specific action within a set timeframe, helping prevent excessive bot activity, especially repeated login attempts. However, it’s not foolproof, as advanced bots can mimic human actions or use various IP addresses to avoid detection. For comprehensive bot management, combine rate limiting with other mitigation strategies.
Working With a Modern Bot Mitigation Company
Advanced problems call for advanced solutions. Kasada counters the tactics botters expolit in legacy solutions. Our highly obfuscated detection looks for the immutable evidence of automation and makes reverse engineering attempts difficult and time consuming.
While we make attacking our defenses incredibly difficult, we make using our platform easy. Organizations don’t have the time or resources to manage an anti-bot solution, nor should they be expected to. At Kasada we don’t just give you a tool, we act as a part of your team. We take ownership over our solution eliminating the need to pay for expensive professional services or constantly tune and update your defenses on your own.If you are ready to stop malicious automation before it has the chance to enter your systems, contact Kasada today.