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Many cyberattacks prey on a lack of education on the topic to create a trap to lure potential victims in. Rather than going for the systems, these attacks instead target the very people that operate them.
This is an attack known as a social engineering attack, and they’re one of the most important attacks you need to know about — as the only way you can really counteract them is by educating yourself and knowing what to look out for. Social engineering attacks are really tricky to identify, so having any leg up to protect yourself from them is vital.
In this article, we’re going to go over the ins and outs of social engineering attacks, as well as how you can detect them and protect yourself from them in the long term.
Social engineering is a cybercriminal technique that tries to take advantage of human error and manipulate people to gain access or credentials to a system. This can happen in real life, online, and in other, more archaic ways (such as telephone).
These attacks exist to take advantage of people’s weaknesses and to manipulate people’s human and emotional core into making an error. These attacks usually either try to appear harmless to fly under the radar or trigger a hasty reaction to instigate a mistake.
Social engineering attacks generally have one of two goals:
- Sabotage: Causing disruption and inconvenience to an organisation. This generally causes downtime and possible damage and can cost businesses lots of money to recover from.
- Theft: Stealing money, information, or anything else for any kind of gain.
These attacks are often incredibly fast — by design, they’re meant to happen in a flash so you don’t have time to react to them. These attacks also often try to play on people's emotions, to try to cause them to make an irrational decision due to being in an enhanced emotional state.
These social engineering attacks typically have a standard lifecycle, which includes the following stages:
- Information Gathering: During this stage the attacker will gather information on the target, typically through legitimate public-facing website, such as LinkedIn. For the attacker, the goal of this stage is to understand enough about the target to craft a compelling trap.
- Establishing of Relationship: The attacker may establish a relationship with the victim through phishing emails, voice calls, social media, or even in person.
- Exploitation: In this stage the attacker will use the information gathered and the relationship with the victim to infiltrate the target. The exploitation may be as simple as sharing information that would make it easier to crack their password, or even include introducing the attack to
- Execution: There are a few different types of key social engineering attacks that you’ll come across in the wild —
- Phishing: Phishing is when an attacker pretends to be a trusted individual to try to persuade you to expose your credentials and personal data. This can be less personalised (spam phishing) or more tailored to the victim (spear phishing).
- Baiting: Conversely, baiting tries to use your natural human curiosity against you. From email attachments to files being airdropped, this method uses malware to infect you once you’ve taken action.
- Physical Breaches: Social engineering occurs in real life too. Attackers will pretend to be someone with credentials to be able to gain access physically — a risky task but with a possible lucrative reward. Oftentimes, this will be targeting a specific organisation or entity.
All of these attacks can be detected in very similar ways and prevented using the same techniques.
There are a few different things you can do to detect and avoid a social engineering attack, all of which require sharpness and intuition —
- Is the message legitimate?: For all of the messages you receive, it’s important to work out whether the message is legitimate or not. By keeping a close eye on small details, you can seek flaws and work out if anything is real or fake.
- Am I emotionally invested?: Often, social engineering attacks will take advantage of those who are emotionally or professionally invested in whatever the attack is using to gain access. For example, a phishing email asking a user to log into their bank account to check for a recent transaction will create an emotional worry.
- Was this actually sent to me?: If possible, reaching out to whoever sent the suspect email or message to ask if it was actually them will help you confirm that an email is legitimate.
Using these tips, you can keep vigilant against social engineering attacks.
There are a few key steps that employees and businesses alike can take to protect themselves from social engineering attacks —
- Be vigilant: Following the steps above and remaining careful and vigilant about whatever you’re receiving or doing will help protect you against attacks.
- Communication is key: Oftentimes, communication with your team and whoever the sender is will be able to help you stamp out any risk. Social engineers will often go for those who are isolated to ensure they can’t seek help.
- Keep educated: By staying up to date on the latest social engineering attacks, you can ensure that you know what attacks are currently common or new and prepare for them.
- Security: Access management and security tools are vital to stopping social engineering attacks. You can use your institution’s security system to ensure that the point of first principle is intact, to ensure that only those who need access to your sensitive data have it.
- Education: Similarly to employees, educating yourself on the latest risks is vital to understanding how you can stop social engineering attacks.
- Security enforcement: Using security enforcement tools to enforce rules such as good password hygiene and secure networking will be able to help you ensure that you don’t have any vulnerabilities that can be taken advantage of.
Social engineering is a pervasive threat for organisations worldwide, with a massive reliance on a lack of education on the topic to be able to take advantage. By educating yourself, it becomes a lot easier to block out any social engineering attacks and protect your organisation.
If you’re looking to get started with security within your organisation and don’t know where to start, reach out to us today. We’re here to help, and to ensure that you have a helping hand along the way. Our team of experts will be able to work with you to work out what you need and best take care of your organisation.