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Valid Accounts

Adversaries may steal the credentials of a specific user or service account using Credential Access techniques or capture credentials earlier in their reconnaissance process through social engineering for means of gaining Initial Access.

Accounts that an adversary may use can fall into three categories: default, local, and domain accounts. Default accounts are those that are built-into an OS such as Guest or Administrator account on Windows systems or default factory/provider set accounts on other types of systems, software, or devices. Local accounts are those configured by an organization for use by users, remote support, services, or for administration on a single system or service. [1] Domain accounts are those managed by Active Directory Domain Services where access and permissions are configured across systems and services that are part of that domain. Domain accounts can cover users, administrators, and services.

Compromised credentials may be used to bypass access controls placed on various resources on systems within the network and may even be used for persistent access to remote systems and externally available services, such as VPNs, Outlook Web Access and remote desktop. Compromised credentials may also grant an adversary increased privilege to specific systems or access to restricted areas of the network. Adversaries may choose not to use malware or tools in conjunction with the legitimate access those credentials provide to make it harder to detect their presence.

Default accounts are also not limited to Guest and Administrator on client machines, they also include accounts that are preset for equipment such as network devices and computer applications whether they are internal, open source, or COTS. Appliances that come preset with a username and password combination pose a serious threat to organizations that do not change it post installation, as they are easy targets for an adversary. Similarly, adversaries may also utilize publicly disclosed private keys, or stolen private keys, to legitimately connect to remote environments via Remote Services [2]

The overlap of account access, credentials, and permissions across a network of systems is of concern because the adversary may be able to pivot across accounts and systems to reach a high level of access (i.e., domain or enterprise administrator) to bypass access controls set within the enterprise. [3]

ID: T1078
Tactic: Defense Evasion, Persistence, Privilege Escalation, Initial Access
Platform: Linux, macOS, Windows, AWS, GCP, Azure, SaaS, Office 365
Permissions Required: User, Administrator
Effective Permissions: User, Administrator
Data Sources: AWS CloudTrail logs, Stackdriver logs, Authentication logs, Process monitoring
Defense Bypassed: Firewall, Host intrusion prevention systems, Network intrusion detection system, Process whitelisting, System access controls, Anti-virus
Contributors: Netskope; Mark Wee; Praetorian
Version: 2.0
Created: 31 May 2017
Last Modified: 23 October 2019

Procedure Examples

Name Description

APT18 actors leverage legitimate credentials to log into external remote services.[39]


APT28 has used legitimate credentials to gain initial access, maintain access, and exfiltrate data from a victim network. The group has specifically used credentials stolen through a spearphishing email to login to the DCCC network. The group has also leveraged default manufacturer's passwords to gain initial access to corporate networks via IoT devices such as a VOIP phone, printer, and video decoder.[31][32][33]


APT3 leverages valid accounts after gaining credentials for use within the victim domain.[21]


APT32 has used legitimate local admin account credentials.[41]


APT33 has used valid accounts for initial access and privilege escalation.[26][27]


APT39 has used stolen credentials to compromise Outlook Web Access (OWA).[46]


APT41 used compromised credentials to log on to other systems.[49]


Carbanak actors used legitimate credentials of banking employees to perform operations that sent them millions of dollars.[18]

Cobalt Strike

Cobalt Strike can use known credentials to run commands and spawn processes as another user.[7][8]

Dragonfly 2.0

Dragonfly 2.0 compromised user credentials and used valid accounts for operations.[22]


Adversaries can instruct Duqu to spread laterally by copying itself to shares it has enumerated and for which it has obtained legitimate credentials (via keylogging or other means). The remote host is then infected by using the compromised credentials to schedule a task on remote machines that executes the malware.[12]


Emotet can brute force a local admin password, then use it to facilitate lateral movement.[15]


FIN10 has used stolen credentials to connect remotely to victim networks using VPNs protected with only a single factor. The group has also moved laterally using the Local Administrator account.[34]


FIN4 has used legitimate credentials to hijack email communications.[23][24]


FIN5 has used legitimate VPN, RDP, Citrix, or VNC credentials to maintain access to a victim environment.[28][29][30]


To move laterally on a victim network, FIN6 has used credentials stolen from various systems on which it gathered usernames and password hashes.[36][37]


FIN8 has utilized Valid Accounts during and Persistence and Lateral Movement.[19]


Leviathan has used valid, compromised email accounts for defense evasion, including to send malicious emails to other victim organizations.[25]

Linux Rabbit

Linux Rabbit acquires valid SSH accounts through brute force.[16]


menuPass has used valid accounts shared between Managed Service Providers and clients to move between the two environments.[20]

Night Dragon

Night Dragon has used compromised VPN accounts to gain access to victim systems.[40]


NotPetya can use valid credentials with PsExec or wmic to spread itself to remote systems.[13][14]


OilRig has used compromised credentials to access other systems on a victim network.[43][44]


PittyTiger attempts to obtain legitimate credentials during operations.[17]


Some SeaDuke samples have a module to extract email from Microsoft Exchange servers using compromised credentials.[11]


If Shamoon cannot access shares using current privileges, it attempts access using hard coded, domain-specific credentials gathered earlier in the intrusion.[9]

Soft Cell

Soft Cell leveraged valid accounts to maintain access to a victim network.[48]

Stolen Pencil

Stolen Pencil has a tool to add a Windows admin account in order to allow them to ensure continued access via RDP.[45]


Suckfly used legitimate account credentials that they dumped to navigate the internal victim network as though they were the legitimate account owner.[35]


TEMP.Veles has used compromised VPN accounts. [47]

Threat Group-1314

Threat Group-1314 actors used compromised credentials for the victim's endpoint management platform, Altiris, to move laterally.[42]

Threat Group-3390

Threat Group-3390 actors obtain legitimate credentials using a variety of methods and use them to further lateral movement on victim networks.[38]


Umbreon creates valid users to provide access to the system.[10]


Mitigation Description
Application Developer Guidance

Ensure that applications do not store sensitive data or credentials insecurely. (e.g. plaintext credentials in code, published credentials in repositories, or credentials in public cloud storage).


Routinely audit source code, application configuration files, open repositories, and public cloud storage for insecure use and storage of credentials.

Filter Network Traffic

Cloud service providers support IP-based restrictions when accessing cloud resources. Consider using IP whitelisting on cloud-based systems along with user account management to ensure that data access is restricted not only to valid users but only from expected IP ranges to mitigate the use of stolen credentials to access data.

Multi-factor Authentication

Integrating multi-factor authentication (MFA) as part of organizational policy can greatly reduce the risk of an adversary gaining control of valid credentials that may be used for additional tactics such as initial access, lateral movement, and collecting information. MFA can also be used to restrict access to cloud resources and APIs.

Password Policies

Applications and appliances that utilize default username and password should be changed immediately after the installation, and before deployment to a production environment. When possible, applications that use SSH keys should be updated periodically and properly secured. Ensure that local administrator accounts have complex, unique passwords across all systems on the network.

In cloud environments, consider rotating access keys within a certain number of days for reducing the effectiveness of stolen credentials.[6]

Privileged Account Management

Audit domain and local accounts as well as their permission levels routinely to look for situations that could allow an adversary to gain wide access by obtaining credentials of a privileged account. These audits should also include if default accounts have been enabled, or if new local accounts are created that have not be authorized. Do not put user or admin domain accounts in the local administrator groups across systems unless they are tightly controlled and use of accounts is segmented, as this is often equivalent to having a local administrator account with the same password on all systems. Follow best practices for design and administration of an enterprise network to limit privileged account use across administrative tiers. Limit credential overlap across systems to prevent access if account credentials are obtained.[3][4][5]

User Account Management

Ensure users and user groups have appropriate permissions for their roles through Identity and Access Management (IAM) controls. Configure user permissions, groups, and roles for access to cloud-based systems as well. Implement strict IAM controls to prevent access to systems except for the applications, users, and services that require access. Consider using temporary credentials that are only good for a certain period of time in cloud environments to reduce the effectiveness of compromised accounts.


Configure robust, consistent account activity audit policies across the enterprise and with externally accessible services. [50] Look for suspicious account behavior across systems that share accounts, either user, admin, or service accounts. Examples: one account logged into multiple systems simultaneously; multiple accounts logged into the same machine simultaneously; accounts logged in at odd times or outside of business hours. Activity may be from interactive login sessions or process ownership from accounts being used to execute binaries on a remote system as a particular account. Correlate other security systems with login information (e.g., a user has an active login session but has not entered the building or does not have VPN access).

Perform regular audits of domain and local system accounts to detect accounts that may have been created by an adversary for persistence. Checks on these accounts could also include whether default accounts such as Guest have been activated. These audits should also include checks on any appliances and applications for default credentials or SSH keys, and if any are discovered, they should be updated immediately.


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