A Comprehensive Overview of In-App Chat Scams: Part 2

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In-app chat scams are a large, yet often overlooked, vector for cybersecurity attacks. In-app chat has become such a large and integral part of the online economy, that we can easily take it for granted. Social media platforms, messaging apps, and even online dating can be potential locations for this type of scam. The ultimate goal for bad actors is usually to obtain credit card information, bank account numbers, or other financial information from potential victims. In part one of our overview, we looked at the history, trends, and characteristics of chat application scams. 

In part two, we’ll be covering the most common chat security vulnerabilities, and how you can fix them. We’ll also look at the shortcomings of out-of-the-box security solutions, and some tools PubNub provides that can help you keep your mobile or website application safe from phishing attempts.

Common in-app chat security vulnerabilities

The prevalence of in-app chat functionality in everything from online dating apps to cryptocurrency processors brings along certain security vulnerabilities that developers and architects must be aware of. Here are some of the most common security vulnerabilities in in-app chat and how they can be mitigated.

Problem: Lack of end-to-end encryption

Sometimes, in-app chats may not be end-to-end encrypted, meaning unauthorized individuals can intercept and read the messages. 

Solution: Strong encryption protocols, such as secure communication channels like Transport Layer Security (TLS), are essential to protect user data in transit.

Problem: Inadequate authentication and authorization

Malicious actors may impersonate legitimate users or gain unauthorized access to sensitive information without strong authentication controls. 

Solution: Implementing secure authentication methods, like multi-factor authentication and access control lists, can help mitigate these risks.

Problem: Injection attacks

If proper input validation and sanitization are not in place, it can lead to injection attacks, such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS). 

Solution: Strict input validation, output encoding, content security policies, and parameterized queries can help prevent these attacks.

Problem: Malware or file-based attacks

Scammers can send infected files or embed malware within innocent-looking files, compromising user devices or the network. 

Solution: Implementing file type validation, scanning files for malware, and restricting file permissions can help mitigate these risks.

Problem: Denial of Service (DoS) attacks

In-app chat functionality can be exploited to launch Denial of Service attacks, where malicious actors overwhelm the system with high requests, causing it to become unresponsive or crash. 

Solution: Implementing rate limiting, session management, and monitoring for unusual traffic patterns can help detect and prevent DoS attacks.

Problem: Privacy concerns

If proper privacy controls are not in place, personal or sensitive information such as phone numbers may be at risk of unauthorized access or exposure. 

Solution: Message encryption, data anonymization, and user consent controls can help protect user privacy.

Problem: Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks

When an attacker intercepts the communication between two parties, they can eavesdrop on the conversations, modify the messages, or even impersonate one party. 

Solution: Secure communication protocols like TLS and certificate pinning can help prevent MITM attacks.

Problem: Lack of secure session management

Attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in the session management process to gain unauthorized access to user sessions or manipulate session identifiers. 

Solution: Implementing strong session management practices, such as using unique session identifiers, enforcing session expiration, and employing session encryption, can help mitigate these risks.

Problem: Account takeover attacks

Attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in the authentication process to gain unauthorized access to user accounts, leading to unauthorized activities, data breaches, or even impersonation of legitimate users like the family members of potential victims. 

Solution: Implementing secure authentication mechanisms, such as strong password policies, multi-factor authentication, and account lockouts after multiple failed login attempts, can help prevent account takeover attacks.

Problem: Integration vulnerabilities

In-app chat systems often integrate with third-party services or APIs that can introduce vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit to gain unauthorized access to the chat system or compromise the security of connected systems. 

Solution: Instituting secure authentication and authorization mechanisms, coding practices, conducting regular security assessments of third-party integrations and APIs, and monitoring security vulnerabilities can help mitigate integration risks.

Problem: Social engineering attacks

Attackers manipulate in-app chat users into divulging sensitive information or performing actions compromising security. This can include phishing scams, impersonation, or coercion tactics. 

Solution: Educating potential victims about common social engineering techniques and red flags, implementing multi-factor authentication, and regularly updating security policies can help mitigate the risk of social engineering attacks through the chat system.

Problem: Lack of user awareness and training

Users may inadvertently click on malicious links, share sensitive information, or fall victim to social engineering attacks or identity theft if they are not properly educated about security best practices. 

Solution: Regular security training, awareness about common threats, and user-friendly security measures can help mitigate the risk of human errors and improve overall system security.

Security shortfalls of out-of-the-box chat solutions

In-app chat solution providers each have their strengths and weaknesses, which has pros and cons for app development teams. Out-of-the-box solutions are good options for apps with fewer users and dev teams that prefer plug-and-play options that will get something up and running quickly.

But the problem with these is the lack of advanced features that enable teams to customize their app fully, including implementing features that protect their in-app chat from scammers. Despite attempts for improved security, many in-app chat platforms still lack robust, real-time solutions for scam detection and prevention, giving bad actors an unnerving advantage over unsuspecting users.

Here are some of the common vulnerabilities that plague out-of-the-box in-app chat solutions when it comes to detecting and blocking scams:

PubNub’s in-app chat security tools

PubNub offers robust chat security thanks to two powerful tools: Functions and Access Manager.

Functions: a powerful tool for scam detection & prevention

Functions provides a powerful serverless compute platform that enables developers to execute custom code in real-time as messages flow through the PubNub network. This functionality can be leveraged to screen chat messages and identify potential scams.

Besides immediate detection, Functions' true strength lies in its power to block potential scams preemptively. Honing in on specific patterns and markers creates a haven for users to engage in scam-free in-app chats.

Functions allows for real-time screening and flagging of suspicious messages, thus disrupting potential scams before they can do any harm. They can be customized extensively to suit your security requirements, making in-app chat environments safer and more trustworthy.

Customizing Functions for scam detection

Functions can be fine-tuned to detect even the most unconventional scams. This paves the way for adaptable security measures that can proficiently keep pace with evolving cyber threats. Functions can hone in on any suspicious dialogue by creating explicit parameters and neural keyword sequences. This gives a pivotal advantage to curtail and thwart increasingly elusive scam attempts.

A hallmark feature of Functions is its ability to gain advanced proficiency in scam detection. This is achieved through steady accumulative learning - as more messages are screened, Functions progressively refines its discernment.

Comprehensive scam detection

Functions can be used to implement a multi-layered approach to scam detection. Companies can create a comprehensive scam detection system by combining rule-based detection using Functions' K/V store with AI-powered detection. Rule-based detection allows for immediate blocking of known scams, while AI-powered detection can identify new and emerging scam patterns. This combination ensures that companies are equipped to detect and block a wide range of scams, providing a safer in-app chat experience for their users.

External API integration

Functions supports external API calls, allowing developers to integrate with any AI service capable of detecting scams and inappropriate content. By leveraging external APIs, companies can enhance their scam detection capabilities and stay up-to-date with the latest scamming techniques.

SMS message delivery

PubNub's Presence feature enables the detection of offline users. When a recipient is offline, companies can use Functions to determine if the message should be sent via SMS instead. This ensures that important messages reach users even when they are not actively using the app

Enforcing SHAFT compliance

Functions can also assist companies in enforcing SHAFT (Sex, Hate, Alcohol, Firearms, or Tobacco) or SHAFT-C (Sex, Hate, Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, or Cannabis) rules established by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) for SMS messages. 

By publishing all messages into PubNub and using Functions to screen and filter messages, companies can ensure that their SMS messages comply with the CTIA guidelines and that messages are only sent to the SMS gateway if they have appropriate content, reducing costs and ensuring user trust.

Increased efficiency in scam detection and prevention

Functions streamlines scam monitoring by allowing customizable logic deployment directly on data streams. This approach reduces latency and increases efficiency in real-time communication environments.

With PubNub's real-time capabilities (and even some help from OpenAI's ChatGPT integration), developers can intercept, analyze, and manipulate messages as they pass through the network. This immediate action prevents scams from reaching unsuspecting users. Developers can reduce the time spent analyzing messages after arrival, resulting in a swift response time to potential threats.

The Power of PubNub lies in its ability to make real-time detection not just possible but efficient. It empowers applications with a proactive defense mechanism, thereby heightening in-app chat security.

Access Manager: The gatekeeper for safeguarding in-app chat

Another tool in PubNub’s in-app chat security arsenal is the Access Manager. Access Manager provides a comprehensive and flexible security framework that enables fine-grained control over access to chat functionality, ensuring only authorized users can engage in conversations. Here's how it helps protect apps from chat scams:

  1. Authentication and Authorization

  2. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

  3. Channel-Level Access Control

  4. Time-Limited Access

  5. Revocation of Access

We’ll get into more detail on each feature below.

Authentication and authorization

PubNub's Access Manager provides a robust framework for managing authentication and authorization within an app's in-app chat system. Here's how Access Manager handles authentication and authorization:

Authentication

Authorization

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

PubNub's Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is crucial for protecting apps from in-app chat scams by providing granular control over user permissions and access within the chat system. Here's how RBAC works:

Channel-Level Access Control

Channel-Level Access Control is another Access Manager feature that helps keep in-app chat secure. Here's how it works to help safeguard against scams:

Time-Limited Access

Here's how Access Manager safeguards against scams with Time-Limited Access:

Revocation of Access

PubNub's Access Manager ensures the security of in-app chat systems by utilizing the powerful Revocation of Access feature. Here's how in-app chats are kept secure from scams with this feature:

With these two powerful tools, PubNub enables developers to secure their in-app chat in ways that other solutions can’t match.

Conclusion

PubNub's in-app chat solution offers a powerful and efficient way for companies to detect and block scams and inappropriate user behaviors. By leveraging Functions and its serverless compute platform, companies can implement real-time scam detection, adapt quickly to new scamming techniques, and scale their detection capabilities as their user base grows. 

Integrating AI services further enhances scam detection by leveraging advanced machine learning algorithms and staying up-to-date with the latest scamming techniques. With PubNub's comprehensive scam detection approach and compliance with SHAFT rules, companies can provide their users with a safer in-app chat experience while saving time and reducing infrastructure setup and maintenance costs.

Let PubNub help you protect your organization from the damage caused by scammers targeting in-app chat users. Contact us today to discuss your project, or sign up for a free trial to get up to 200 MAUs or 1M monthly transactions for free.