How to Rig an Online Contest

May 3, 2016

Ethics alert!
Note that I did not actually rig this contest. My number of submissions was strictly less than the allowed number over the course of the contest. What follows is an intellectual exercise in practical security with a discussion of better methods for detection and preventing this kind of attack in the future.
I also redacted all the identifying materials I could to preserve the relative anonymity of the company hosting this contest.

Last night, my Mom emailed me a link to a local garden center contest in which she had entered a cute photo. The photos with the most votes at the end of the week would receive a gift card to the garden center running the contest, and the winning photo would be featured on their Facebook page.

The voting form of the website.

After voting for my Mom's photo (you can tell which it is because it's the cutest), I did what virutally anyone would do and refreshed the page, then clicked "vote" again. Sadly, this time, I was met with a message that my vote could not be accepted because I already voted.


So, being the curious soul I am, I wanted to know exactly what mechanism they were using to detect duplicate votes and prevent cheating.

Attempt #1
Opened a Chrome incognito window to clear cookies. See if they're simply doing a cookie check (which, since the client can modify the cookies, could be easily bypassed). Nope. Still can't vote a second time.

Attempt #2
Maybe they're using a combination of IP address and user-agent or other request properties, so that multiple users at the same residence can vote once-per-day, each. Opened the page in Firefox (incognito, for good measure), still couldn't vote again. Just to be sure, I also borrowed my wife's computer (a mac), and couldn't vote from her computer either.

Attempt #3
Maybe they're filtering purely based on IP address. Set up a SSH SOCKS proxy to a machine at work and configured Firefox to use it. Boom. Vote accepted. So, it appears each IP address gets one vote per day. If, hypothetically, you had the ability to acquire lots of IP addresses (say, by spawning multiple VMs on Amazon EC2), you could vote as many times as you wanted.

First step, automate it.
curl is a nice command-line tool that allows us to make arbitrary web requests, so let's use curl to emulate a browser visiting the site. First, let's take a look at what Chrome does when it visits the site legitimately.

Looking at the request headers from Chrome's developer console (F12).

At least initially, Chrome makes a standard HTTP request to the /contests/ page.

Looking at the response headers from Chrome's developer console (F12).

Looks like the page sets some cookies when we visit it. Any future requests to the site will include those cookies, so we too should record and replay those cookies with any later requests.

Emulating a browser's first request of the page.

The above curl command will store any cookies in the HTTP Response into a new file called cookie.jar. We can then use them for later requests.

Next, let's see what happens when we click the "Vote" button.

A POST request gets sent to /wp-admin/admin-ajax.php with the content "action=contest_submit&contest=11841&contestant=<redacted>", where contest matches a field on the original page, and contestant matches the photo we're voting for (the cutest one).

We can probably safely hardcode the contestant value, but let's actually parse the resulting webpage from our first request to dynamically find the contest id. Who knows, maybe they change it every 24 hours and that's their mechanism for once-per-day.

Turning this into a bash script. I prefer python to awk.

In the above code, we're now taking our curl command, piping it into a python script that performs a regex search for the parameter 'data-contest-id="11841"' and storing the value 11841 into the variable contest.

All we have to do is submit the POST request with curl and we can vote from the command line.


Now, we have a way to submit votes, but because it's checking our IP address between subsequent votes, we need to make the request from another IP address.

Let's do it with a SOCKS proxy and SSH.

First, we set up our tunnel to another machine we own.

Next, we update the curl commands to use the new SOCKS proxy.


Finally, we rerun the script to vote. This time, it works!

This works great, but can we take it a step further? I can go on Amazon's EC2 cloud and provision a bunch of VMs with IP addresses, then route my traffic through each one once to vote, but this will cost me time and money, and is difficult to further automate.

What about using Tor? Tor is an anonymity service that bounces traffic around the globe before sending it on to its eventual destination.

We can use the handy torsocks utility to wrap our curl command and push our requests through Tor!

This works just as well, and we can run it over and over again simply by tearing down the Tor circuit and rebuilding it between votes.

This is where I stopped, but there's plenty of further work to do to turn this into a full-fledged rigging.

First, at the moment, my requests with curl all use curl's UserAgent string. This is a dead giveaway that the votes are scripted and aren't coming from a user clicking buttons in their browser. If I were to continue, I would use curl's -A argument to pass a random UserAgent string from a big list of UserAgent strings.

The next major issue is that currently, the script makes requests for the main page and the admin "cast vote" page. It doesn't retrieve any of the elements on the main page before casting a vote, such as the images of all the cute animals. A sysadmin that checks the web server's access logs will quickly notice a series of paired requests without accompanying retrievals of page elements (CSS, JavaScript, images, etc.). This is quite suspicious, and makes identifying our fradulent votes very easy. To make our requests more realistic, we could use wget instead of curl. wget's -r option recursively pulls down all page elements and so would better emulate real browser behavior.

So, how could we detect or mitigate this attack?
It probably won't be possible to get complete certainty about whether particular votes are fraudulent or not. However, there are some additional things we can do.

  • Blacklist Tor IP addresses. All Tor endpoints are public. We can simply blacklist them. The downside is that then people who are concerned about their privacy cannot vote on your site.
  • Identify heuristics of suspected fraudsters, then use those characteristics to identify more fraudulent votes. Even better, automate this using machine learning. This would be particularly effective against the current attack that does not use legitimate UserAgent strings or retrieve page elements.
  • Use an online account for authentication rather than the user's IP address. As shown in this post, it's relatively simple to redirect your network traffic from a variety of IP addresses. Fake accounts can also be created, but it is a much harder challenge to automate and scale. It also increases friction for your users who might not want to log into their account at the moment.
Ultimately, this is a tough problem, as these defenses all have drawbacks and take a not-insignificant amount of effort to implement. However, this would be a great exercise to practice the kinds of challenges that blue teams and incident responders face all the time.

A last word about ethics:
I performed this project for fun, and submitted, all-in-all, approximately 10 votes for my Mom's picture. This is fewer than the 14 or so I could have voted myself according to the rules, and should not affect the outcome of the contest.
I do not condone using the techniques presented here to undermine the intended security precautions of any systems. I present these techniques so that you and I can become better security practitioners.
As a final thought, in the course of this exercise I realized this would make a great project for a future security course. Both the offensive and defensive sides.