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Related tags: fraud, security.

Detecting fraudulent signups?

Monday, 21 November 2016

I run a couple of different sites that allow users to sign-up and use various services. In each of these sites I have some minimal rules in place to detect bad signups, but these are a little ad hoc, because the nature of "badness" varies on a per-site basis.

I've worked in a couple of places where there are in-house tests of bad signups, and these usually boil down to some naive, and overly-broad, rules:

  • Does the phone numbers' (international) prefix match the country of the user?
  • Does the postal address supplied even exist?

Some places penalise users based upon location too:

  • Does the IP address the user submitted from come from TOR?
  • Does the geo-IP country match the users' stated location?
  • Is the email address provided by a "free" provider?

At the moment I've got a simple HTTP-server which receives a JSON post of a new users' details, and returns "200 OK" or "403 Forbidden" based on some very very simple critereon. This is modeled on the spam detection service for blog-comments server I use - something that is itself becoming less useful over time. (Perhaps time to kill that? A decision for another day.)

Unfortunately this whole approach is very reactive, as it takes human eyeballs to detect new classes of problems. Code can't guess in advance that it should block usernames which could collide with official ones, for example allowing a username of "admin", "help", or "support".

I'm certain that these systems have been written a thousand times, as I've seen at least five such systems, and they're all very similar. The biggest flaw in all these systems is that they try to classify users in advance of them doing anything. We're trying to say "Block users who will use stolen credit cards", or "Block users who'll submit spam", by correlating that behaviour with other things. In an ideal world you'd judge users only by the actions they take, not how they signed up. And yet .. it is better than nothing.

For the moment I'm continuing to try to make the best of things, at least by centralising the rules for myself I cut down on duplicate code. I'll pretend I'm being cool, modern, and sexy, and call this a micro-service! (Ignore the lack of containers for the moment!)

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