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Social Engineering: A Complete Guide

Humans make mistakes. It’s one of the most significant struggles cybersecurity experts face worldwide. Even with sophisticated security tools in place, humans are a weak link. Cyberactors exploit this vulnerability, manipulating people to reveal credential details and other confidential data. 

While it’s true that we all make errors, we can put in efforts to stay ahead of these attackers to identify and negate various scams and tricks they might have up their sleeves. The best way to prevent being a target of social engineering is to understand how it works. 

Before we go on to how social engineering works, let’s talk about the social engineering definition

Definition

In cybersecurity, social engineering is the art of gaining access to sensitive data by manipulating human psychology rather than using sophisticated hacking techniques. Instead of exploiting a system vulnerability, the attacker calls an employee or sends a phishing email, posing as a legitimate source. 

The term “Social Engineering” was coined in the 90s with the help of Kelvin Mitnick—the world’s most famous hacker, as described by CNN and Fox News. Still, the concept has been around for many decades. 

How Social Engineering Works

Like other cyberthreats, social engineering attacks come in various forms. Understanding how they work is the best way to mitigate their risks. There are several ways a social engineer can exploit human weakness. 

A cyberactor can trick you into leaving a door open or downloading malicious content that exposes your network resources. There are four steps to a successful social engineering attack:

  • Preparation: At this stage, social engineers gather information about their target. Social media, calls, email, and text messages are all common avenues.
  • Infiltration: During the infiltration stage, cybercriminals approach their targets, posing as legitimate sources using the data gathered about the victims to authenticate themselves. 
  • Exploitation: Here,  attackers manipulate the users to reveal sensitive information like credential logins, account details, contact information, payment methods, and more that they can use to execute their attacks.
  • Disengagement: At this final stage, the social engineer or cyberactor ceases communication with the victim, carries out the attack, and disappears.

The time it takes to carry out such a plot depends on the level of the social engineering attack—it could span days or even months. Regardless, knowing what social engineers want and the tactics they use is an excellent social engineering prevention method.

What Social Engineers Want

Now that we know what social engineering attack is, let’s dive deeper into the mind of a social engineer. These hackers aim to obtain critical information they can use for identity theft, financial gains, or even in preparation for a more targeted attack. Installing malicious programs to access systems, accounts, or personal data is a common tactic. 

Information that is valuable to social engineer hackers include:

  • Account numbers
  • Login details
  • Personal Identifiable Informations (PII)
  • Access cards and identity badges
  • Computer system information
  • Server and network information

How Does Social Engineering Affect an Organization?

The impact of social engineering attacks on an organization can be devastating. It can tarnish your reputation, harm professional relationships, and reduce client trust. 

Besides that, social engineering assaults can cause severe financial loss, disruption in operations, and diminished business productivity. Because of these potentially catastrophic effects on business continuity, knowing how to identify, prevent, and counteract social engineering is vital. Implementing good inbound and outbound security can help monitor traffic for suspicious user activity, unusual domains and emails, and massive movement of confidential data. 

Social Engineering Tactics to Look Out For

There are several manipulation tactics social engineers use to achieve their devious goals. Identifying these techniques is critical to prevent your sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. Below are some tactics used by social engineer attackers:

  • Connecting on the Emotional Level – Humans are emotional beings and they feel pity when people tell touching stories. Social engineers often create stories or scenarios to convince victims to reveal valuable information. 
  • Using Reasoning that Could Fool You – “I need to enter the building because I need to meet Jon.” This sounds like a valid reason at first, right? But think about it: It means nothing—if the person isn’t allowed into the building the explanation of them meeting Jon is a fraudulent one. The word “because” makes it sound like the reason is valid, though.
  • Gifting and Favors – Everyone loves gifts, and it’s human nature to try to reciprocate kindness. Attackers can leverage this to access sensitive information or enter the office building. Remember: free stuff is always part of baiting.
  • Reciprocity and Liking Social engineers do all in their power to appear likable. Once they’ve covered this aspect with the victim, it’s a lot easier getting their target to reciprocate their “kindness.”
  • Commitment and Consistency People always want to show commitment to relationships. Social engineers can take advantage of this human nature by creating small commitments (not necessarily romantic). Even giving out your name could be perceived as a trigger to consistency.
  • Authority and Social Proof Everyone has someone that they look up to. If a beauty blogger says an eye cream helps, you’ll buy it, right? On the other hand, many people on the internet seek a sense of belonging. Once cybercriminals recognize these vulnerabilities, they can leverage both to establish themselves in the eyes of the victim.
  • Scarcity and Urgency – Social engineers create a sense of urgency so that victims won’t have time to think things through. If you receive an email requesting you to perform an urgent action, it’s best to analyze the situation carefully. You can confirm from the proper authority before performing any actions.

Social Engineering Attack Types

Several social engineering tactics are available depending on the medium of the attack. To avoid a social engineering attack, organizations must understand what it is and how it targets them. Below are some common social engineering attack types:

Phishing

Phishing is the most famous social engineering tactic used by attackers. The cyberactor designs a fake support portal or website of a reputable company and sends the links to their targets via email to trick them into revealing sensitive information. 

Angler Phishing

Angler Phishing is a subset of phishing that targets social media accounts. The attackers spoof customer support accounts of top companies to deceive and convince users to give out credential logins and other critical data. 

Spear-phishing

A spear-phishing attack is a social engineering assault that targets specific companies or individuals. The attacker takes extra time gathering information about their target to make the scam genuine. The end goal is to steal sensitive data.  

Whaling/CEO Fraud

Whaling or CEO fraud is a phishing attack that targets top executives or senior-level employees of companies and government agencies. The attacker can spoof the email of a company’s CEO and then send a mail to an employee requesting an urgent transfer or sensitive information.  

419/Nigerian Prince/Advance Fee Scams

The 419/Nigerian Prince/Advance-fee scam is a social engineering tactic used by attackers to trick victims into sending an advance payment. In exchange, the attacker promises the victim a massive payout or percentage of funds.  

Scareware

Scareware is malicious deception software that tricks computer users into visiting infected websites. The attack can take the form of ads or pop-ups from legitimate antivirus companies telling you that your computer is infected with a virus. It scares users into paying a fee to solve the security issue. 

Tabnabbing/Reverse Tabnabbing

Tabnabbing is a social engineering tactic that attackers use to manipulate inactive web pages. It allows a malicious webpage to redirect a legitimate site to the attacker’s page. Like other social engineering tactics, the aim is to trick users into submitting their credential details. 

Spam

Spam refers to unwanted messages sent to users in bulk, typically for advertisement purposes. However, cybercriminals leverage this to send messages containing fraudulent links, incentives, or offers. Opening such an email can infect your system or cause the download of ransomware onto your computer.

Honey Trap

A honey trap is a scam tactic that uses romantic or intimate relationships for personal or monetary gain. In most cases, this attack involves using fraudulent dating sites to find victims, steal their money, and gain or access their sensitive information. 

BEC (Business Email Compromise)

Business Email Compromise (BEC) is a phishing scheme where cybercriminals use real or spoofed business accounts to defraud a company. The attacker poses as a trusted source— such as the CEO—to trick employees into making huge transfers or providing critical data they can use for further attacks. 

Pharming

Pharming, a combination of phishing and farming, is a social engineering tactic that redirects users of a particular website to a fake malicious version. The aim is to lure them into submitting login credentials. 

Email Hacking

Email hacking or email hijacking is a cyberthreat used by hackers to gain unauthorized access to email accounts. The aim is to steal your information to commit fraud. The attackers can then send malicious emails to all your contacts. This is usually the starting point for impersonation and account takeover.

Access Tailgating

Online social engineering tactics are pretty diverse, but what about social engineering in person? Access tailgating is a tactic attackers use to access a building or the restricted areas inside a building. Attackers utilize different tactics to execute this attack, such as asking someone to hold the door or using pretexting to gain access. 

Baiting

Baiting is a tactic where scammers trick users into revealing personal and financial information in exchange for something in return. For instance, you can receive an email offering a gift card in exchange for clicking a link to fill out a survey form. 

DNS Spoofing

DNS spoofing is an attack that alters a Domain Name record to redirect users to a fraudulent website resembling the intended destination. The attacker then requests the victim to log in, giving them the chance to steal their credential details.

Pretexting

Pretexting is a social engineering attack that tricks victims into divulging confidential data. The attacker creates a fabricated or made-up scenario, pretending to be a legitimate or known source. In this attack, cyberactors can physically access your data by pretending to be a vendor or delivery person. 

Physical Breaches

Physical breaches involve the physical theft of sensitive documents and other valuables like storage drives and computers. Physical breaches are caused by unauthorized access to a building. 

Watering Hole Attacks

A watering hole attack is a cyber threat where an attacker targets a particular group of users by infecting the group members’ site. The attacker aims to infect the victims’ computers and access critical network resources. 

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo is another social engineering technique where attackers make fake promises to lure victims into divulging sensitive data. For example, you can get a call from someone posing as a trusted service provider representative or IT support. 

Diversion Theft

Diversion theft is an offline and online cyberattack where attackers hijack deliveries and divert them to the wrong location. Scammers also use this tactic to lure victims into revealing sensitive information.

This effect of social engineering on an organization poses a great question: How do you prevent and avoid these kinds of attacks? 

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering can happen to anyone, and everybody should learn how to avoid social engineering scams. However, it poses a significant danger to business security as well. It’s vital to prioritize social engineering prevention methods as a core component of your cybersecurity plan.

Organizations should adopt a holistic approach that combines sophisticated security tools, protocols, and regular cyber awareness training for staff and executives. Below are the measures you can implement to counter social engineering risks. 

Security Policies and Protocols

Security policies and protocols should be an integral part of your cybersecurity plan. These measures tell your employees how to securely access and treat the organization’s resources like email, mobile devices, and passwords. Here are some aspects worth considering:

2FA and MFA enforcement

Organization security policies and protocols should enforce two- and multi-factor authentication. This strengthens your organization’s security by requesting employees to log in with more than just their username and password. With 2FA or MFA, social engineer attackers still can’t access your company’s accounts, even if they have login details., 

Frequent Password Changes and Good Password Hygiene

Practicing good password hygiene should be mandatory. Mandate your employees to change their passwords frequently. They should use a strong password that’s difficult for hackers to guess.. A strong password encompasses both upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special symbols. Also, different passwords across different accounts are essential. 

Penetration Attack Testing

Regular penetration attack testing is key to your overall security defense. It allows you to find gaps in your security procedure. You can even simulate a real-world attack to test your employees and network for any vulnerabilities. With that, you can take a proactive approach to evaluate and constantly improve your IT infrastructure network. 

Employee Training

Social engineering leverages human error to compromise networks. So it’s essential to include your employees in your security plan. They are the first line of defense. Social engineering defense training should equip your staff with relevant tools to identify cyber threats, protect themselves, and safeguard the organization. You can even schedule monthly social engineering meetings with your employees and invite a security expert. 

Device Management

Proper mobile device management is another vital component of effective social engineering preventative measures. Employees using the company’s mobile devices should use strong passwords and install up-to-date anti-virus software. 

Implement strict BYOD (Bring Your Device) policies governing how employees use their devices in the office or when working from home.  

Third-Party Risk Management Framework

Organizations that rely on third-parties vendors can suffer reputational damage arising from third-party breaches. Even though it’s not a regulatory requirement, organizations should include a third-party management plan in their security plan. It provides valuable control and information on mitigating risks arising from these outside business relationships. 

Data Leak Detection

Data breaches expose confidential information like login details, credit card info, and email addresses. Social engineers can purchase this information from the dark web to attempt phishing or other email attacks. For that reason, organizations should implement a Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution to prevent endpoint devices from leaking confidential data. 

Conclusion

Social engineering is one of the most prevalent cyberattack types that threaten organization security. Organizations and employees must understand the negative impact of successful cyberattacks. This can go beyond data loss to more aggravating effects like financial loss and even damage to business continuity. 

Understanding how social engineers work and what they want is the first step to social engineering prevention. Implement strict security policies and educate your staff on identifying social engineering tactics to prevent these attacks. Your cybersecurity plan should include regular penetration testing and third-party risk management, too.

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