Understanding the real danger of social engineering
Social engineering is one of the most common techniques threat actors use to exploit an individual or organization. Rooted in deception, these attacks don’t solely use technology-based penetration methods like the conventional hacker would – and that’s part of the reason why they’re so dangerous.
While it’s true that these hackers (sometimes referred to as social engineers) may indeed exploit technology vulnerabilities, they primarily rely upon psychological manipulation to gain the trust of their victims or get them to make security mistakes. Once they succeed, social engineers quickly put their deceptive plans into action.
In this post, we explore how these attacks pose such a dangerous threat compared to other forms of malware, and what businesses can do to prevent them.
The Insidiousness of Social Engineering
Among the key dangers of social engineering is the fact that hackers can bypass other cybersecurity measures by merely deceiving users. And in the most insidious attacks, users don’t even realize they’ve been duped.
In a social engineering attack, a threat actor deceives users into providing their login credentials or other sensitive information to the attackers. In the most basic attack, hackers use spam email, designed to look like legitimate communication from a trusted sender (i.e. a bank or customer). The email link takes the user to an imposter login page, which captures their credentials and provides them to attackers.
But that’s one method. Increasingly, to achieve their goal, hackers are targeting specific people and using more personalized tactics to gain the trust of their victims, who a) have access to the systems they plan to infiltrate or b) serve as a gateway to gaining other sensitive information.
Additionally, attacks aren’t limited to email. Social engineering can occur over the phone, via chat or even in person.
Increasingly Sophisticated, Convincing & Targeted
Social engineering is dangerous because of how convincing it can be. Even the most detail-oriented person can fall prey to one of these carefully crafted schemes.
To launch a more sophisticated and targeted social engineering attack, first, these criminals will investigate the person(s) they want to exploit by learning personal information and things about their environment.
To accomplish, this they might:
- Scrape personal information from online sources, such as company staff directories, LinkedIn profiles or social media.
- Pose as a third-party vendor and chat with personnel via phone, email or messaging system.
- Once trust is gained, they might send out friendly emails, texts or other electronic messages to get their victims to click on links or share sensitive information.
In-person attacks, while rarer, can involve perpetrators going to great lengths to study their victims. For example, they might:
- Monitor behaviors when customers/clients enter an organization and see when employees might leave their computer screens, trash cans or file cabinets unattended.
- Watch shift changes to see if and when secure areas are unattended or when certain individuals are on duty.
- Observe interpersonal relationships in a workplace, noticing which individuals get along – and which ones don’t – and use this knowledge to gain the confidence of certain employees.
- Initiate conversations with the goal of attaining familiarity, eventually positioning themselves to casually ask questions.
Preying on Fear & Disorientation
Many attacks take a more blunt approach by using threats, fear tactics or a sense of urgency to get their victims to take action. For instance, they might raise fear by sending messages that a bank account was compromised or that someone has a password problem and the employer is cutting access if they don’t change it NOW (providing a handy link of course).
Essentially, social engineers rely on trust, deception and, eventually, human error. According to statistics, an estimated 98% of cyberattacks use some form of social engineering. It’s one of the most dangerous threats that organizations face. But as we outline below, circumventing this risk doesn’t necessarily mean adding additional safeguards for digital assets, because these tools can’t mitigate human behavior. However, understanding tactics can help to recognize these schemes and prevent users from being deceived.
Dangerous Consequences of Social Engineering
The effects of a social engineering attack can be disastrous and far-reaching, depending on what systems the hackers are able to access. The problem is that an initial successful attack can lead to additional social engineering or delivery of malware that enables the attackers to go deeper into your systems.
Worst-case scenarios include:
- Hackers stealing your most valuable data, including sensitive customer information or intellectual property
- Extortion threats to publicly release your data if you don’t pay up
- Destructive malware like ransomware being planted, locking up your files
- Operations brought to a halt after the threat actor takes systems offline
- Financial losses due to ensuing downtime and recovery costs
Unfortunately, human error is a vulnerability that even the best cybersecurity systems can’t prevent entirely. While there are some steps you can take to limit the access of intruders, such as placing stronger access controls on file directories, the best way to mitigate the risk is by raising awareness and providing training to employees, as we explain below.
How Does Social Engineering Compare to Traditional Malware?
Traditional malware can only go so far once it’s discovered “in the wild,” because once the threat is known, most antimalware systems will be able to detect it. Social engineering is arguably more dangerous because it only takes one employee being caught off guard to bypass your other cyber defenses.
Again, deceptive techniques are the name of the game for social engineering attackers. Human error is high on the list when it comes to organizational security weaknesses. This is the key contrast between social engineering and malware. Social engineering relies upon human weakness for the attack to be successful enough to bypass cybersecurity safeguards. In other words, a person must either outwardly share information or be lured to take action that delivers the hackers the credentials or information they need.
On the other hand, traditional malware attacks focus more on technology vulnerabilities. These attacks are done more covertly, and often without any “internal” help from employees or other key personnel (e.g. vendors). But as long as your systems are routinely updated and you’re using strong cybersecurity measures, the vast majority of those malware threats can be blocked.
Common Social Engineering Tactics
While phishing is the most common form, social engineering can utilize a variety of skills and deceptive methods to achieve their objectives. Let’s explore a few different tactics they use to steal credentials and infiltrate your secure systems.
Phishing emails: Phishing emails heavily depend upon impersonation to deceive users into giving up their login information to various secure systems or clicking a link that leads to a compromise of their credentials. Subject lines can be either attention-grabbing (“Your account has been compromised”) or subtle (“Invoice receipt”). The emails often replicate the layout, tone and design of legitimate communications from a real company, such as a bank. Sometimes attackers will “spoof” an email address or website to click on as well.
Pretexting: Pretexting is the approach where the attacker impersonates a legitimate person to gain trust and access to the sensitive information they seek. They may also create a fake identity, with an authoritative appearance, to gain the victim’s confidence.
Vishing: Vishing is a social engineering technique where the threat actor uses a VoIP service that enables them to spoof their telephone number or otherwise deceive users by phone. To do this, a perpetrator might pose as someone from the IT department or a third-party vendor to convince the victim to provide their login credentials. This type of attack was used in the high-profile Twitter hack in 2020.
Baiting: This social engineering approach exploits human curiosity. The way it works is by enticing the victim to obtain something of use if they follow the directives given. For instance, the attacker may send a malicious file disguised as useful software or an update to software the victim’s organization uses.
Quid pro quo attacks: A variant of baiting, quid pro quo promises a benefit or service to a user who takes a specific action. As an example, they might receive a call from a hacker who is posing as a technology expert, and the hacker offers free IT assistance if the user signs in to a specific website or downloads a file. They might go as far as asking a victim to disable antivirus software so they can “check” something. Of course, this opens up the floodgates for the organization to quickly be exploited.
Importance of User Awareness and Training
All organizations, large and small, should take social engineering risks and threats seriously. In addition to cybersecurity and other essential disaster-recovery safeguards, such as data backup, organizations should consider the vulnerabilities associated with social engineering.
As social engineering has gotten more intricate, its sophistication will continue to grow. To avoid becoming the victim of a socially engineered attack, companies need to raise user awareness and provide training. These two actions can go a long way toward ensuring employees don’t fall victim to the trickery associated with social engineering.
Here are some key steps to consider:
- Hold mandatory cybersecurity training at least once a year and for new hires.
- Create an easy-to-read, straightforward policy. Carefully outline how employees should handle requests for sensitive information or login credentials.
- Show employees how to detect phishing attempts. Usually, even with more sophisticated campaigns, there are tell-tale signs users can learn to recognize.
- Develop a reporting process for employees to follow should they suspect a social engineering attempt (or successful attempt) has occurred.
- Teach employees how to spot signs of deception; give examples of different approaches these criminals use.
Simple mistakes can hurt an entire organization. While beefing up security from a technology standpoint is also essential, it’s important for decision-makers to not forget about social engineering as they invest in their cybersecurity strategies.
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