Information is one of any company’s most prized possessions, and when attackers know that you have valuable data, they will try anything to get it.
Social engineering refers to a broad range of deceptive techniques used to manipulate people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. Social engineering attacks rely on human vulnerability, and their success depends on trusting employees who unknowingly help an attacker gain unauthorized access to corporate resources.
According to PurpleSec, 98% of cyberattacks rely on social engineering. In addition, 60% of IT professionals cited new hires as more vulnerable to socially engineered attacks. These statistics make it clear that enterprises need to develop comprehensive security awareness training programs that include components for addressing social engineering threats.
This guide will describe social engineering and how it works and provide recommendations for defending against these attacks.
What are Social Engineering Attacks?
Social engineering attacks involve a cyber criminal using various techniques to trick victims into giving away sensitive information. These attacks differ from traditional computer hacking in that they don’t involve the exploitation of technical vulnerabilities. Instead, social engineering attacks rely on human error to access private information.
One famous example is when Frank Abagnale impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, and an assistant state attorney general in Louisiana by making up fake identities and convincing others he was who he said he was.
How are they used against enterprises?
Social engineering attacks are carried out using several techniques to extract critical information from targets, steal intellectual property, access privileged accounts, disrupt operations, or commit identity theft. These attacks can take many forms, from malicious email attachments to phony pop-up messages.
Social engineers often target enterprise end users in what is known as phishing, a popular form of social engineering that takes advantage of human behavior by encouraging people to click on malicious links in emails and other communications.
Cyber criminals can trick victims into giving up passwords, financial information, and other sensitive data by pretending to be friends, family members, law enforcement agency representatives, or technical support.
To avoid being targeted by these kinds of attacks, an enterprise may use a combination of technical solutions, employee training, and awareness programs.
Also read: The Growing Necessity of Zero-Trust Frameworks
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
There are several different types of social engineering attacks, each with a different methodology. These attack methods can be used to gain access to valuable and sensitive information from your organization or its employees.
Here’s a list of the most common types of social engineering attacks you should know.
Phishing occurs when an attacker uses deception to trick people into disclosing personal information such as usernames, passwords, credit card details, etc. Phishing attacks typically come via email or instant messaging. Some types of phishing includes:
- Vishing: Voice-based phishing that uses interactive voice response systems
- Spear phishing: Phishing attacks targeting specific organizations or individuals
- Angler phishing: Attacks carried out via spoof customer service accounts on social media
- Smishing: SMS messages-based phishing
Baiting is another social engineering attack where an attacker lures their victim by offering something they want. This bait could be a new job offer, free tickets to a music festival, free merchandise, or infected devices.
The key here is that baiting involves enticing victims with something they want or need to get them to disclose confidential information.
A tailgater is a person who follows closely behind someone else through an open door or gate without permission. For example, in computer security, tailgating occurs when an unauthorized person gains entry to a secure area by following closely behind an authorized person who holds valid entry credentials.
It is often described as the art of sneaking into places because it relies on misdirection and concealment rather than brute force.
Whaling is a type of social engineering attack aimed at C-level executives. This type of attack is particularly effective because C-level executives usually have higher clearance levels and more resources at their disposal. In addition, their social engineering attacks typically involve impersonation, and they’re meant to exploit greed, carelessness, and even desperation.
One of the more insidious forms of social engineering attacks is pretexting. A pretext is an excuse to justify a request for information, especially over a phone call or email conversion.
Quid pro quo
Quid pro quo (Latin for favor for something) is a social engineering attack whereby the attacker makes a seemingly harmless request and offers something of value.
This type of social engineering attack is used to scare users into purchasing software or services they don’t need. Scareware is a form of malware that creates a sense of urgency by lying to and scaring end users with exaggerated claims of infection, infestation, or imminent danger.
BEC (business email compromise) is a type of social engineering attack that targets business email accounts, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most dangerous threats to businesses today. According to VentureBeat, 77% of organizations faced business email compromise attacks in 2021, up from 65% in 2020.
Preventing Social Engineering Attacks
The best defense against social engineering attacks is prevention. This means being vigilant, being prepared, and recognizing when you’re at risk. The best way to do that is by keeping an open mind, knowing how to respond if something happens, and knowing what a social engineering attack looks like.
Here are some strategies to help you:
- Simulate social engineering attempts.
- Verify sources and IDs.
- If you must send sensitive data via email, use encryption technology to ensure the security of your data.
- Implement security software with anti-phishing capabilities.
- Maintain strong password policies.
Social Engineering Attacks Best Practices
Social engineering attacks can be deceptively easy to pull off. However, there are several methods that savvy information security professionals can use to stay ahead of these schemes. Here are some social engineering best practices that could help:
Educate employees about social engineering attacks
If your employees don’t know what a social engineering attack is, they won’t be able to recognize it when it happens. Educating them on what an attack looks like, what red flags they should look out for, and who they should report suspicious activity to will help keep your organization safe.
Train employees on proper security behavior
After you educate your employees about potential threats, teach them how to handle those situations appropriately. For example, teach them not to open attachments from unknown senders; if something seems fishy, contact IT immediately; and never give personal information over email or phone unless you verify the requestor’s identity.
Implement strong password policies
Passwords are often compromised during a social engineering attack. Strong passwords require special characters, upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. In addition, they must be at least 12 to 16 characters long and changed every three months. Weak passwords include birthdays, names of family members or pets, and easily guessed words found in dictionaries.
Use two-factor authentication (2FA)
Two-factor authentication adds another layer of protection by requiring users to verify their identity through another method besides just a username and password. For example, they might need to enter a code sent via text message or receive an automated call before being granted access.
Use multi-factor authentication (MFA) where possible
Multi-factor authentication uses multiple forms of identification to grant someone access to an account instead of just one factor. The most common form of MFA requires users to provide a second form of identification, typically in addition to a username and password. The second factor could be any number of items, including tokens, biometrics, smart cards, and even retina scans.
Regularly update software with patches
Updating software regularly ensures that all known vulnerabilities have been addressed. Patches are designed to fix security holes in software, but hackers can exploit them if they aren’t installed, so install patches as soon as they become available.
Also read: Patch Management Trends for 2022
Regularly change passwords
Changing your password regularly makes it harder for social engineers to guess or crack your password and access your accounts. Use a password manager to help you create and store secure passwords.
Limit employee privileges
Limiting an employee’s access to only what they need for their job reduces opportunities to accidentally or intentionally expose sensitive information. Also, giving employees access to sensitive information only on a need-to-know basis will help prevent them from accidentally or deliberately sharing that information with others.
Being Prepared for Social Engineering Attacks
Enterprise employees can employ several strategies to stay safe from social engineering attacks. Since social engineering attacks can happen anywhere and at any time, an enterprise needs to take measures to protect itself from them. There is no one way to prevent social engineering attacks—all you can do is lay out layers of protection and implement a series of ways to protect yourself.
The key lies in paying attention to detail and adopting cybersecurity best practices. With some standard safeguards in place, you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that your information is safe from social engineers and their high-pressure sales tactics.
Read next: Containing Cyberattacks in the Age of IoT