There has been a widespread misconception that whenever a hacker wants to steal someone’s email and password, all they need is to use a specific program to compromise a target account and that nothing can be done to protect yourself from becoming a victim of such a malicious act.
Realistically, this can’t be further from the truth. If a hacker wants to steal your account credentials, they will need to manipulate and trick you into unwittingly giving up this information yourself, and this process is known as social engineering.
This article defines social engineering, enumerates its different types, enables you to understand how to detect it, and helps you gain the proper knowledge to prevent future attempts.
What is Social Engineering?
Social engineering is a process that employs a collection of different techniques used to manipulate individuals and organizations.
The goal is to lure victims into disclosing information, spreading malicious software (malware), or gaining unauthorized access to restricted devices. Social engineering attacks can manifest either online or in the physical world.
Individuals or groups usually conduct social engineering attacks with either financial or malicious motivations. The attackers masquerade their identities to trick the victims into believing that they are legitimate.
The most significant advantage for the attackers is the victim’s lack of knowledge. They exploit the fact that many people are unaware of how specific technologies work or might not realize the value of certain data or information to the attackers.
How Does Social Engineering Work?
A social engineering attack relies on communication. Attackers need to establish a communication pipeline with potential victims and use many forms of deception to convince the victims into fulfilling their seemingly harmless requests. The alternative to social engineering is using brute force, which can work, but this process is highly inefficient, time-consuming, and has a greater chance of being noticed or degraded.
Why brute force your way into confidential information or access when an individual lacking the proper security awareness and knowledge can give you just what you want with a bit of effort.
Why would an attacker spend time and money trying to bypass multi-layer cybersecurity defense measures when you can exploit the weakest link in the chain, a human!
A social engineering attack cycle usually consists of the below steps:
- Preparation: performing reconnaissance activities on a potential target.
- Infiltration: initiating communication with the target to develop a relationship motivated by emotions, enticement, urgency, need, assistance, or quid pro quo.
- Exploitation: when trust is built, and weaknesses are identified, at this stage, the attack is escalated to acquire the desired gain.
- Disengaging: when the victim has performed the actions that fulfill the attackers’ goals.
Common Types of Social Engineering
The following are the most prevalent types of social engineering attacks:
Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack. In this case, attackers attempt to masquerade their identities and pose as trusted senders to deceive the victims into divulging information or performing specific actions.
Phishing attacks fall into the following categories:
- Spear Phishing: using accurate and personalized information to target specific victims.
- Spam Phishing: the opposite of spear phishing. This attack consists of a widespread campaign aimed at many potential victims, with non-personalized information, in the hopes of trapping the unwary.
- Whaling: is a more specific type of phishing at high-value targets like company management, celebrities, or governmental entities.
Most common types of phishing:
- Email Phishing: is the most common type of phishing attack. Communication is established via an email that requires either follow-up or contains web links, phone numbers, or even malware.
- SMS Phishing: via text messages.
- Voice Phishing: via phone calls.
Scareware is a form of social engineering used to scare the victims, either via blackmail, deception, malware, or fake claims. Therefore, this pushes the victims to do whatever action the attacker is demanding.
Baiting attacks take advantage of human curiosity and tempt the victims into disclosing sensitive information or distributing malware with the fake promises of exclusive offers or extraordinary deals or even winning prizes.
Quid pro quo
The meaning of this term is “a favor for a favor”. Attackers lure their victims into exposing personal information in exchange for compensation. Additionally, these attacks might promise victims a high return on a small investment or similarly unrealistic claims.
How to Detect Social Engineering Attacks?
The most important thing to do in an unfamiliar online interaction is to exercise caution and reason. Attackers typically bet their success on the unwary and the emotional.
It is essential to check for the following when dealing with a potential case:
- Who is the sender? Is it a legitimate source?
- Is it too good to be true?
- Do the contents look suspicious?
- Are you emotional? Are you properly evaluating your actions?
How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks?
The most crucial factor for anyone with an online presence is applying due diligence and being objective in activities and interactions. It is also essential to retain a certain degree of privacy and security, especially on social media platforms, to avoid exposing too much information.
Below are some key points that you can implement to mitigate the risk of a successful social engineering attack:
- Refrain from clicking unknown links, especially in emails and messages.
- Use a password manager.
- Set up multi-factor authentication.
- Do not disclose nor publish personal information.
- Be wary of online strangers who unexpectedly reach out to you.
- Always employ common sense in all your online and even offline interactions.
Social manipulation, also known as social engineering, is the art of deception used by malicious individuals or groups to trick and manipulate potential victims into disclosing sensitive information, spreading malware, or granting access. The most common type of social engineering is email phishing, and it is a significant cause of organizational compromise around the world. Detecting social engineering attempts requires basic common sense and the need to exercise caution and check the details and the legitimacy of the material to verify the sender and the contents. And finally, mitigating the risk of social engineering requires you to abide by certain habits that increase your privacy and enable you to secure your accounts properly.
Statistics show that 98% of cyber-attacks rely on social engineering as a vector, with an estimated 70%-90% of breaches being caused by social engineering and costing an average of 130,000$ in financial damages. (source).
Axon Technologies is committed to helping organizations tackle this threat on two fronts. Firstly, Axon’s Cyber Institute focuses on training and awareness programs to empower people’s knowledge around the latest cyber threats and risks. The second front is powered by effectively implementing state-of-the-art intelligence-led managed detection and response services. Furthermore, Axon Technologies offers SOC-as-a-Service model, a solution provided out of its Fusion Center, supporting organizations to monitor, detect and respond to cyber threats & attacks. Today, Axon Technologies employs more than 30 different security roles covering Consulting, Training, and Managed Services. The vision at Axon is to partner with organizations to bring substantial and lasting benefits in managing cybersecurity operations and proactively evaluating cyber threats to any environment.