How MFA Fatigue Attacks Work: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

August 15, 2023

Dan Sharp

President & CEO

MFA, or multi-factor authentication, is a cornerstone of modern cybersecurity. Yet, there's a growing concern known as the MFA fatigue attack. As you dive deeper into the intricacies of MFA fatigue, understanding its significance and the importance of preventing these attacks is paramount, especially for the modern business owner.

What is multi-factor authentication (MFA)?

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a security method where users need more than just a password to access their accounts. Unlike traditional password-only systems, MFA combines at least two independent credentials. These credentials can be passwords, mobile notifications, or fingerprints.

This approach prevents hackers from compromising an account with a stolen password. As a result, MFA reduces the risk of unauthorized access and potential data breaches. MFA has now become a standard security practice for many organizations to protect sensitive data and user accounts.

What is MFA

Different types of MFA methods

From SMS-based push notifications to physical tokens, biometrics, and authenticator apps, MFA protects users in myriad ways. Each type has pros and cons, and you can choose one that best fits your needs. 

1. SMS-based push notifications

This method sends a code to your mobile phone through a text message. You then enter this code to gain access to your account. But, if attackers gain control of your phone or its number, this method can be easily bypassed.

2. Physical tokens

These are small devices, often resembling key fobs, displaying a continually changing code. You use this code along with your password for access. The downside is that if you lose this device or get stolen, unauthorized users might access your account.

3. Biometrics

Biometrics uses unique features like your fingerprint, face, or voice for verification. This approach seems highly secure, but issues can arise if scanners malfunction or if there's a change in your biometric data, like a facial injury.

4. Authenticator apps

These are apps on devices that generate a unique code for you. Once generated, you combine this code with your password to sign in. But, if your device gets stolen or the app fails, it could hinder your account access.

5. Smart cards

Smart cards look like credit cards but have an embedded chip. You insert or tap them on a reader, combined with a PIN or password. Like physical tokens, there could be security risks if you lose the card.

6. Email-based verification

Some systems send a code or link to your registered email. You need to click the link or enter the code for access. But, if your email gets compromised, attackers can bypass this method.

7. Location-based authentication

This method checks if you're logging in from a known or usual location, like your home or office. If the login is from an unfamiliar place, it can block or flag the access. It's functional, but if hackers fake your location or if you travel often, it can cause issues.

8. Time-based authentication

It provides a narrow time window for users to enter the second factor. It's secure as the code changes quickly, but if you're too slow or if there's a time mismatch, it could lock you out.

Types of MFA methods

Debunking the common misconception about MFA

Many believe that once MFA is in place, their data becomes invincible. However, no security measure is entirely foolproof, and MFA is no exception. While it significantly bolsters account protection, it's not impenetrable. Vulnerabilities can still be present, especially with new threats and techniques emerging. 

The rise of sophisticated cyber-attacks, such as MFA fatigue attacks, is a testament to this fact. These attacks exploit mechanisms to keep data safe, highlighting that even the most secure systems can have weak points. 

Common misconception about MFA

Understanding MFA fatigue attacks

MFA fatigue attack, also known as MFA bombing, is a new form of social engineering attack that targets users' patience and attention. The strategy revolves around the idea that a user's vigilance might wane when flooded with a cascade of MFA push notifications. Users can become frustrated, exhausted, or careless as these notifications flood in. In their desire to clear the persistent alerts, they might inadvertently approve a malicious request.

What makes this tactic particularly insidious is that it exploits a system designed for added security. By turning the strength of MFA—its persistent verification requests—into a vulnerability, cybercriminals can slip through the very barriers put in place to stop them. The end goal is always the same—trick a weary user into granting sensitive data or systems access. Awareness of this tactic is the first step in ensuring one doesn't fall victim to such an attack.

Understanding MFA fatigue attacks

Causes of MFA fatigue attacks

The effectiveness of MFA can be compromised by a phenomenon called "MFA fatigue." This condition arises from various causes, ranging from over-reliance on MFA to the frequent disruptions it can introduce into daily digital routines. This fatigue can unintentionally diminish the effectiveness of this security measure and give rise to MFA fatigue attacks.

1. Over-reliance on MFA

Many believe that an active MFA guarantees digital safety. This sole reliance can foster a false sense of security, making users less cautious about other potential threats. While MFA is an essential layer of protection, it should be a part of a broader cybersecurity strategy. Depending solely on it can lead to neglect of other vital security practices and invite MFA fatigue attackers.

2. Security fatigue due to repetitive authentication processes

Constant push notifications and authentication prompts can wear users down. When individuals are bombarded with these alerts multiple times daily, they can become desensitized. This desensitization means they might pay less attention to each request than they should. Over time, this could lead to carelessness, increasing the risk of approving a malicious access attempt.

3. Inconvenient authentication methods

If the chosen MFA method is not user-friendly or interrupts workflow, it can cause frustration. For instance, if users have to input a code from a physical token every time they wish to access their email, they might view it as a hindrance rather than protection. This negative perception can lead to a desire for less secure but more convenient alternatives.

4. Lack of understanding of MFA importance

Some users might not fully grasp why MFA is vital for digital safety. They might view it as another pesky hurdle to accessing their accounts without comprehending its significance. This mindset can cause them to seek ways around MFA or become more susceptible to fatigue.

5. Infrequent MFA education and training

Regular training on the evolving nature of cyber threats and the importance of security measures like MFA is crucial. When organizations neglect this training, users might not be updated on newer attack methods. The lack of awareness can lead to complacency, making users more vulnerable to these newer threats.

Causes of MFA fatigue attacks

Symptoms of MFA fatigue

While designed to bolster security, over-implementation can sometimes lead to user fatigue. Recognizing this fatigue's symptoms can help users and organizations better navigate the balance between security and usability. Here are some signs to look out for to avoid MFA fatigue attacks. 

• Frequently mistaken approvals: Users often mistakenly approve a malicious login attempt when overwhelmed with numerous MFA requests.

• Delayed response to authentication requests: Due to the constant spamming of MFA prompts, users might delay or even ignore authenticating for a while.

• Increase in user complaints: There might be a noticeable uptick in grievances related to excessive MFA request prompts, pointing towards fatigue.

• Bypassing MFA procedures: When users start looking for ways to skip or avoid the MFA process, it's a clear sign they're getting tired of the bombardment.

• Desensitization to login attempt warnings: If users receive too many notifications, they might ignore even legitimate warnings about unauthorized login attempts, leaving the door open for potential hacks.

• Reluctance to authenticate: Users, wary of constant authentication requests, might delay their response, compromising the security MFA seeks to establish.

While MFA bombing is an attack, the term 'bombing' also aptly describes the overwhelming feeling users get from too many prompts. Recognizing these symptoms is the first step in ensuring a balance between necessary security measures and user comfort.

Symptoms of MFA fatigue

Prevention and mitigation strategies

In the digital landscape, prevention is always better than cure. The following strategies help lessen MFA fatigue attacks and help prevent user fatigue.

1. Educating users about MFA fatigue 

Users get many MFA alerts daily. It's vital they know why these alerts matter and the risks of ignoring them. Every alert, even if it seems small, is a step to keep data safe.

2. Implementing alternative authentication methods 

Instead of always getting a code, why not use a fingerprint or face scan? These are quick fixes and can cut down many alerts. Some new methods don't even need a usual password, making things simpler.

3. Reducing authentication friction 

If signing in is straightforward and fast, users won't feel bothered. If you adjust MFA to the user's habits, you can reduce unnecessary alerts. This means users only get an MFA alert when it's really needed, which is less tiring and still safe.

4. Offering user choice

Empowering users by offering them a choice in how they wish to authenticate can instill a sense of control. By providing varied options – through an app, a text message, or a physical key, you can cater to diverse user preferences.

Prevention and mitigation strategies

Striking the balance with MFA

Mitigating MFA fatigue attacks isn't just about implementing sophisticated tech solutions. It also involves understanding the human element. You can effectively combat this growing threat by recognizing the causes and symptoms, implementing best practices, and ensuring that everyone remains informed. 

And while the path to absolute cybersecurity is elusive, Infoware IT has championed measures to quell the surge of MFA fatigue attacks, offering businesses like yours a sanctuary in the turbulent seas of the digital realm. Ask us how you can increase your security against these attacks here. 

For more insights into IT security, you can visit our website! 

Striking the balance with MFA

Frequently asked questions

1. Why do attackers use MFA bombing attacks? 

Attackers, or threat actors, rely on these attacks to trick users into letting them into their accounts. If a user accidentally approves a fake MFA notification, the attacker can get access to the account.

2. Is using MFA still safe with these MFA attacks? 

Yes, using MFA is a great security feature! While MFA fatigue attacks are a concern, the benefits of MFA security far outweigh the risks. It's just essential to be aware and careful.

3. How can I recognize an MFA bombing or MFA spamming? 

If you notice a sudden spike in MFA notifications, especially when you're not trying to log in, it could be a sign of MFA bombing. Always check before approving any MFA notification.

4. How do attackers get my username and password for these attacks? 

Attackers might get login credentials from the dark web, where stolen information is sometimes sold. They might also use other cyberattack methods to trick people into revealing their details.

5. What's the difference between 2FA and MFA? 

2FA stands for "two-factor authentication," meaning it uses two methods to check who you are. MFA, or "multi-factor authentication," can use two or more methods.