What is Social Engineering Attack?

Social engineering is an attack vector that relies heavily on human interaction and often involves manipulating people into breaking normal security procedures and best practices to gain unauthorized access to systems, networks or physical locations or for financial gain.

Threat actors use social engineering techniques to conceal their true identities and motives, presenting themselves as trusted individuals or information sources. The objective is to influence, manipulate or trick users into releasing sensitive information or access within an organization. Many social engineering exploits rely on people’s willingness to be helpful or fear of punishment. For example, the attacker might pretend to be a co-worker who has some kind of urgent problem that requires access to additional network resources.

Social engineering is a popular tactic among attackers because it is often easier to exploit people than it is to find a network or software vulnerability. Hackers will often use social engineering tactics as a first step in a larger campaign to infiltrate a system or network and steal sensitive data or disperse malware. 

How Does Social Engineering Work?

Most social engineering attacks rely on actual communication between attackers and victims. The attacker tends to motivate the user into compromising themselves, rather than using brute force methods to breach your data.

The attack cycle gives these criminals a reliable process for deceiving you. Steps for the social engineering attack cycle are usually as follows:

  1. Prepare by gathering background information on you or a larger group you are a part of.
  2. Infiltrate by establishing a relationship or initiating an interaction, started by building trust.
  3. Exploit the victim once trust and a weakness are established to advance the attack.
  4. Disengage once the user has taken the desired action.

This procedure can happen in a single email or over the course of several social media talks spread out across months. Even a face-to-face conversation might take place. However, it ends with a decision you make, such as revealing personal information or making oneself vulnerable to infection.

It’s important to beware of social engineering as a means of confusion. Many employees and consumers don’t realize that just a few pieces of information can give hackers access to multiple networks and accounts.

They steal your personal information, such as name, date of birth, or address, by pretending to be legitimate users to IT support staff. Passwords can then easily be reset, giving you nearly infinite access. They are also capable of stealing money and spreading malware that uses social engineering.

Traits of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks center around the attacker’s use of persuasion and confidence. When exposed to these tactics, you are more likely to take actions you otherwise wouldn’t.

Among most attacks, you’ll find yourself being misled into the following behaviors:

Heightened emotions : Attackers always have the upper hand thanks to emotional manipulation. When your emotions are high, you are far more inclined to make irrational or unsafe decisions. The following feelings are all employed equally to persuade you.

  • Fear
  • Excitement
  • Curiosity
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Sadness

Urgency: Time-sensitive opportunities or requests are another reliable tool in an attacker’s arsenal. You may be motivated to compromise yourself under the guise of a serious problem that needs immediate attention. Alternatively, you may be exposed to a prize or reward that may disappear if you do not act quickly. Either approach overrides your critical thinking ability.

Trust: Believability is invaluable and essential to a social engineering attack. Since the attacker is ultimately lying to you, confidence plays an important role here. They’ve done enough research on you to craft a narrative that’s easy to believe and unlikely to rouse suspicion.

These characteristics have a few exceptions. Attackers may occasionally employ more simple social engineering techniques to obtain access to a network or computer. For example, a hacker might frequent a large office building’s open food court and “shoulder surf” people using their tablets or laptops. By doing so, several passwords and usernames can be generated without sending any emails or creating any viral code.

Now that you understand the underlying concept, you’re probably wondering “what is social engineering attack and how can I spot it?”  

Tips to Remember:

  • Slow down. Spammers want you to act first and think later. If the message conveys a sense of urgency or uses high-pressure sales tactics be skeptical; never let their urgency influence your careful review.
  • Research the facts. Be suspicious of any unsolicited messages. If the email looks like it is from a company you use, do your own research. Use a search engine to go to the real company’s site, or a phone directory to find their phone number.
  • Don’t let a link be in control of where you land. Stay in control by finding the website yourself using a search engine to be sure you land where you intend to land. Hovering over links in email will show the actual URL at the bottom, but a good fake can still steer you wrong.
  • Email hijacking is rampant. Hackers, spammers, and social engineers taking over control of people’s email accounts (and other communication accounts) has become rampant. Once they control an email account, they prey on the trust of the person’s contacts. Even when the sender appears to be someone you know, if you aren’t expecting an email with a link or attachment check with your friend before opening links or downloading.
  • Beware of any download. If you don’t know the sender personally AND expect a file from them, downloading anything is a mistake.
  • Foreign offers are fake. If you receive an email from a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, money from an unknown relative, or requests to transfer funds from a foreign country for a share of the money it is guaranteed to be a scam.  ‘

Ways to Protect Yourself:

  • Delete any request for financial information or passwords. If you get asked to reply to a message with personal information, it’s a scam.
  • Reject requests for help or offers of help. Legitimate companies and organizations do not contact you to provide help. If you did not specifically request assistance from the sender, consider any offer to ’help’ restore credit scores, refinance a home, answer your question, etc., a scam. Similarly, if you receive a request for help from a charity or organization that you do not have a relationship with, delete it. To give, seek out reputable charitable organizations on your own to avoid falling for a scam.
  • Set your spam filters to high. Every email program has spam filters. To find yours, look at your settings options, and set these to high–just remember to check your spam folder periodically to see if legitimate email has been accidentally trapped there. You can also search for a step-by-step guide to setting your spam filters by searching on the name of your email provider plus the phrase ’spam filters’.
  • Secure your computing devices. Install anti-virus software, firewalls, email filters and keep these up-to-date. Set your operating system to automatically update, and if your smartphone doesn’t automatically update, manually update it whenever you receive a notice to do so.  Use an anti-phishing tool offered by your web browser or third party to alert you to risks.

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