Learn about the methods cybercriminals use to exploit passive and active attack vectors so you can better protect your business or organization from cyberattacks.

Cybercriminals will use any means they can to penetrate your corporate IT assets and exploit any vulnerabilities they find. Your ability to predict and prepare for these incidents could mean the difference between preventing a data breach and recovering from one.

The pathways cybercriminals use to enter an IT system and execute advanced cyberattacks are called attack vectors. Attack vectors allow cybercriminals to exploit your system vulnerabilities and gain access to confidential data, personally identifiable information (PII), or other sensitive information you wouldn’t want disclosed to the public.

The total number of attack vectors available to a cybercriminal is called your attack surface. As a general rule, you should keep your attack surface as small as possible to safeguard your business from hackers. In practice, that means closing off possible attack vectors before outsiders use them.

A data breach is a security incident where your sensitive, protected, or confidential data is either accessed or stolen by an unauthorized party. Data breaches are expensive — the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. was $8.64 million in 2020 — and they can ruin your organization’s reputation.

The high cost of a data breach also demonstrates why reducing potential attack vectors and preventing data breaches is a valuable practice: your organization can end up spending a fortune if it doesn’t. Preventing a data breach is much easier and less expensive than recovering from one.

Before cybercriminals can breach your data, however, they need to locate and exploit the attack vectors that will allow them to execute a successful cyberattack. So the best way to prevent attacks is to identify your attack vectors before cybercriminals do, and then take action to remediate or mitigate those vulnerabilities.

Cybercriminals never stop looking for your attack vectors; neither should you. As the cyber threats to your business continue to proliferate, it’s more important than ever that you know the most common attack vectors that cybercriminals exploit to gain access to your data.

In this article, we will closely examine some of the most common attack vectors, and how cybercriminals exploit them. First we’ll distinguish between the two main types of attack vectors: passive or active.

Passive Attack Vectors

A passive attack vector is a pathway a cybercriminal exploits to gain access to, or use information from, your IT system without affecting your system resources.

Passive attack vector exploits typically involve an attacker monitoring your system for open ports or vulnerabilities. The goal is to gain or gather information about your business and employees. Most times, passive attack vector exploits are difficult to detect because they don’t involve altering data or system resources.

Passive attack vectors allow attackers to threaten the confidentiality of your data, rather than causing damage to your organization’s systems.

To gain access to your data via a passive attack vector, cybercriminals may use passive reconnaissance tools such as session capture to monitor your systems for vulnerabilities without interacting with them. They might also use active reconnaissance methods such as port scanning to engage with their target systems.

Other examples of passive attack vectors include sniffing or traffic analysis, eavesdropping, and supervision.

Active Attack Vectors

An active attack vector is a pathway that a cybercriminal exploits which does alter a system or affect its operation.

Active attack vector exploits try to disrupt your organization’s system resources or affect regular operations. Cybercriminals might launch attacks against system vulnerabilities, such as DDoS attacks and targeting weak credentials. Other examples of active attack vectors include malware, unpatched vulnerabilities, phishing, and ransomware.

Active attack vectors allow cybercriminals not only to gain access to your sensitive data, but also to cause damage to your organization’s systems.

How Do Hackers Exploit Attack Vectors?

As the number of cyber threats increase, so too does the number of ways that cybercriminals attempt to expose, alter, destroy, disable, steal, or gain unauthorized access to computer systems, infrastructure, networks, operating systems, and IoT devices.

While all attack vectors, active and passive alike, provide different pathways for cybercriminals to reach your data, most attack vector exploits share similarities in the way they are executed.

Here are the general steps cybercriminals take when exploiting an attack vector:

  • The attacker identifies a potential target.
  • The attacker gathers information about the target using various methods that might include social engineering, malware, phishing, or vulnerability scanning.
  • The attacker uses the information gathered to identify any possible attack vectors, and then creates or uses tools to exploit those vectors.
  • The attacker gains unauthorized access to the system and steals sensitive data or installs malicious code.
  • The attacker monitors the computer or network, steals information, or uses computing resources.

Most cybercriminals will use both active and passive attack vectors when they infiltrate their victims’ systems, and the end goal is usually the same: to exploit targeted devices or pilfer sensitive information. The best way to prevent cybercriminals from exploiting your attack vectors is to become familiar with the most common types and methods used to exploit them, as well as the counter-measures you can take to keep your data safe.

Common Attack Vectors

Between passive and active attack vector exploits, the number of methods cybercriminals will use to launch cyberattacks can seem endless. Several attack vectors, however, are common among businesses in all industries, and therefore deserve special attention.

Weak or Compromised Credentials

Weak or compromised credentials are the most common attack vector that cybercriminals exploit.

As long as people continue to use — and repeatedly use — weak passwords to protect their online accounts and profiles, this attack vector will be a high risk. Weak passwords give cybercriminals the opportunity to bypass other attack vectors that might be less successful, especially if users employ the same weak password for multiple accounts.

Compromised credentials are often the result of a successful phishing attempt, where a user accidentally reveals his or her login information to an attacker by entering those details on a spoofed website. When information such as usernames or passwords is exposed to cybercriminals, they can then use that information to access user accounts and corporate systems — and potentially escalate their access within the network to reach your most sensitive data.

Here are some things you can do to prevent cybercriminals from exploiting weak or compromised credentials:

  • Enforce a stringent password policy that requires users to create and use strong passwords that are different for each account.
  • Encourage employees to use a password manager.
  • Don’t rely on passwords alone. Deploy multi-factor authentication to verify your users’ identities.
  • Educate your employees to assure that they understand the security risks they face and the signs of a potential cyberattack.

Insider Threats

Some security attacks originate from inside an organization. Insider threats are attack vectors that cybercriminals can exploit when employees knowingly or unknowingly expose confidential information.

Although insider threats are sometimes accidental, at other times malicious insiders intentionally expose your corporate data or vulnerabilities to cybercriminals. Most often, these insiders are unhappy or disgruntled employees who have access to your sensitive information and networks.

It can be difficult for organizations to spot malicious insiders and insider threats, largely because they are authorized users that have legitimate access to your corporate networks and systems.

To prevent cybercriminals from exploiting insider threats, do the following:

  • Continuously monitor your network for unusual activity, including users accessing files or systems they would not normally access.
  • Employ the principle of least privilege to assure that employees only have access to information that’s essential to carrying out their duties.
  • Tag sensitive data so that you can be alerted whenever it’s transmitted.

Missing or Weak Encryption

Encryption is a technique used to hide the true meaning of a message and protect its digital data by converting it into a code or ciphertext. This assures that data within messages can’t be read by anyone without a decryption key.

Missing, poor, or weak encryption has the potential to lead to the transmission of sensitive data in plaintext, which risks exposure to unauthorized parties if the data is intercepted or obtained through a brute-force attack.

Here are some countermeasures you can take to prevent cybercriminals from exploiting any missing or weak encryption:

  • Use strong encryption methods.
  • Always assure your sensitive information is encrypted at rest, in processing, and in transit.
  • Make sure only the users with the most privilege have access to your decryption keys.

Unpatched Software

Cybercriminals always look for vulnerabilities in software and servers. Attackers can locate and exploit your vulnerabilities in several ways, including vulnerability scanning, or checking lists of CVEs on the dark web for any known software vulnerabilities they could exploit.

To prevent cybercriminals from exploiting any unpatched software, do the following:

  • Assure that your software, operating system, and servers are always patched as soon as possible.
  • Apply software updates or fix the code to a program or server to remove the vulnerability.
  • Regularly patch your software.
  • Assure automatic software updates are enabled.


Short for malicious software, the term “malware” refers to any intrusive program — script or code — that’s designed to exploit your devices. Because malware is easy to use and highly effective, it’s a favorite tool cybercriminals use to exploit attack vectors.

Cybercriminals can use a variety of methods to exploit vulnerabilities and insert malware into your system, but most methods typically involve a user clicking on a malicious link to open an attachment or download software.

Once inside your system, malware can wreak all sorts of havoc, such as monitoring your keystrokes, blocking access to essential files and components, altering confidential data on your computer, transmitting sensitive data, or even rendering your system completely inoperable.

Malware can be broadly categorized as ransomware, trojan horses, or spyware.

Ransomware is a specialized type of malware that encrypts your files or limits access to your data unless you pay the attackers a ransom. Ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly popular among cybercriminals, since these attacks are one of the most profitable that criminals can launch against you.

Trojan horses are ostensibly harmless programs that are hidden in email or file attachments that execute an assigned task once they get into your system. Trojan horses are primarily used to launch immediate attacks, but they can also create backdoors for future attacks.

Spyware consists of programs that monitor internet activity without the user’s knowledge. Using spyware, cybercriminals can spy on sensitive information and track your login credentials to gain access into your system. This type of malware is primarily used to obtain account passwords, credit card numbers, or banking information.

To prevent cybercriminals from using malware attacks to exploit your attack vectors, here are some things you can do:

  • Always keep your operating systems up-to-date.
  • Never open suspicious URLs or email attachments from unknown senders.
  • Don’t download plug-is or files from suspicious websites.


Phishing is a type of social engineering attack (including malicious emails, calls, or text messages) that tricks users into giving up their account credentials. Usually the sender poses as a reputable entity to dupe users into providing their sensitive information, such as credit card details, intellectual property, or passwords.

According to Verizon research, 30 percent of phishing emails are opened by users, and 12 percent of those users even click on the malicious attachment.

Spear-phishing attacks are more specific than phishing attacks; they target a particular individual or organization for financial gains, trade secrets, or intelligence. These types of phishing attacks are usually carried out by attackers who already have extensive knowledge about their victim.

Whale-phishing attacks target high-profile individuals within your organization such as CEOs and CFOs. These attacks are usually aimed at stealing sensitive data from individuals who have unlimited access to vital information.

Here are some ways you can prevent cybercriminals from using phishing to exploit your attack vectors:

  • Enforce two-factor authentication for all of your accounts.
  • Pay close attention to the details in an email, including spelling, syntax, and logos.
  • Never click on a link within an email that asks for login credentials.
  • Verify the email sender by calling the organization directly or using its website.
  • Train your employees to spot phishing emails before they open them.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks

The aim of a DDoS attack is to flood a server or website with bogus messages and traffic requests to exhaust its resources. Usually these attacks either crash or cripple the target’s website for a period of time (which means that legitimate messages and traffic requests can’t reach your servers).

To prevent cybercriminals from exploiting your attack vectors using DDoS attacks, here are some things you can do:

  • Never accept third-party cookies.
  • Be wary of user input on web pages.

Brute-Force Attacks

A brute-force attack is a cryptographic hack wherein cybercriminals use a trial-and-error method to guess your login information. In this type of attack, hackers try to guess the possible combinations of passwords or use words from the dictionary until they can log in successfully.

Most often, these attacks are launched using automated tools and botnets that enter thousands of password combinations within seconds.

Here are some countermeasures you can take to prevent cybercriminals from exploiting your attack vectors using brute-force attacks:

  • Use strong passwords.
  • Implement account lockout after multiple failed login attempts.
  • Use a reCAPTCHA to block automated submission.

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

“MitM” attacks occur when malicious actors place themselves in the middle of a two-party communication. Once the attacker intercepts the communication, they filter and steal sensitive information and return different responses to the user.

Sometimes cybercriminals will set up wake wi-fi networks or use public wi-fi networks to install malware on users’ computers or networks. These kinds of attacks are also called eavesdropping attacks, and their ultimate goal is to gain access to your data.

To prevent cybercriminals from exploiting your attack vectors with man-in-the-middle attacks, do the following:

  • Make sure your lines of communication are secure.
  • Only use secured networks and avoid using public wifi networks.
  • Tag sensitive data so you can track its transmission.
  • Encrypt your data so that even if it is intercepted, it’s indecipherable.

Protect Your Organization from Security Vulnerabilities

Unfortunately no single solution exists that can prevent every attack vector from being exploited. As cybercriminals continue to become more sophisticated, it’s no longer enough to rely on antivirus software or firewalls as your primary (or only) security system.

To stay ahead of cybercriminals, you need to understand your attack vectors and how cybercriminals can exploit them to breach your security. The surest way you’ll survive this never-ending battle against cyberattacks is with sound knowledge of the most common attack vectors and the ways you can combat them.

And, if you haven’t already, you should also consider using governance, risk management, and compliance (GRC) tools to help.

ZenGRC from Reciprocity is designed to combat today’s — and tomorrow’s — threats, with GRC capabilities that offer a variety of solutions to fit your organization’s needs.

Zen helps automate and facilitate the documentation and workflows involved in the assessment, mitigation, and documentation of cybersecurity controls. It can also trace your compliance stance across multiple frameworks, including HIPAA, CMMC, FedRAMP, and more.

ZenGRC provides real-time views into your cybersecurity gaps and vulnerabilities, and it even tells you how to resolve them. This enables a stronger and more efficient cybersecurity risk management posture, and helps compliance officers feel more effective at their jobs while keeping stakeholders informed.

Let us help answer today’s challenges with monitoring tools and risk assessment templates to address various elements from an information security perspective.

With clear, easy-to-use and effective frameworks to keep your company protected from threats to your IT systems and with integrated support from subject matter specialists, ZenGRC is the GRC solution your company needs.

To learn more about how ZenGRC can help protect your organization from security vulnerabilities, schedule a free demo today.