Many cyber-attacks exploit users’ lack of understanding about cyber security in order to gain entry to systems. Rather than going for the systems themselves, these attacks instead target the people that operate them – know as a social engineering attack.
In this blog, we’ll look at the objectives of these attacks and the different methods used, along with how you can detect and protect against them to keep yourself and your organisation safe.
What are social engineering attacks?
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 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. They usually either try to appear harmless to fly under the radar, or trigger a hasty reaction to instigate a mistake. They are also usual incredibly fast - they're designed to happen in a flash so you don’t have time to react to them.
Goals of social engineering attacks
Social engineering attacks are primarily driven by two goals:
1. Sabotage: In this context, sabotage refers to actions that disrupt the normal functioning of an organisation or individual's digital systems. Social engineers who aim for sabotage often have motives such as causing harm to a business's reputation, disrupting operations, or creating chaos. For instance, a social engineer may trick an employee into downloading a malicious software that crashes the company's server, or manipulate them into performing actions that lead to data loss.
2. Theft: This is arguably the most common goal of social engineering attacks. In these cases, the attacker is interested in stealing valuable data or assets. This could include personal information like credit card details, login credentials, or corporate information such as trade secrets, client databases, or proprietary technology. The stolen data can then be used for purposes like identity theft, fraudulent transactions, selling on the dark web, or gaining an unfair advantage over competitors.
Both sabotage and theft can have severe consequences for individuals and organisations alike. It's crucial to understand these motives when developing cyber security strategies, as this understanding can help shape effective defences against social engineering attacks.
Types of social engineering attack
There are several types of social engineering attacks that cybercriminals employ to manipulate their victims and gain unauthorised access to sensitive data. Here are some of the most common ones:
1. Phishing: Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack. It typically involves sending emails that appear to come from reputable sources, but contain malicious links or attachments designed to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information like usernames, passwords, or credit card details.
2. Spear phishing: This is a more targeted version of phishing. Cybercriminals customise their attack emails with the target's name, position, phone number, and other information in an attempt to trick the recipient into believing that they have a connection with the sender.
3. Pretexting: In pretexting attacks, the attacker creates a fabricated scenario (the pretext) to lure the victim into providing information. This could take the form of a scammer pretending to need certain bits of information from their target in order to confirm their identity.
4. Baiting: Baiting involves offering something enticing to an end user, in exchange for login information or private data. The “bait” comes in many forms, both digital, such as a movie download on a peer-to-peer site, and physical, such as a corporate branded flash drive labeled “Executive Salary Summary Q2 2023” left out in the open for an unsuspecting employee to find.
5. Quid pro quo: Similar to baiting, quid pro quo attacks promise a benefit in exchange for information. This benefit usually masquerades as a service, whereas baiting often takes the form of a good.
6. Tailgating: Tailgating or "piggybacking" involves someone without proper authentication following an employee into a restricted area. While physical tailgating doesn't necessarily involve technology, electronic tailgating does. An example of electronic tailgating is when one user lets others use their personal login credentials to access a restricted page, and the other user steals information from it.
7. Watering hole: A watering hole attack involves an attacker guessing or observing which websites the group often uses and infecting one or more of them with malware. Eventually, some member of the targeted group gets infected.
Each type of social engineering attack requires a different method of prevention, but all require vigilance and a good understanding of the tactics used by cybercriminals.
How to detect a social engineering attack
Detecting a social engineering attack involves vigilance and knowledge of the common signs of such attacks. Here are some steps you can take:
- Suspicious communication: check for unsolicited messages or calls asking for sensitive information like passwords, bank details, or personal information. Legitimate organisations rarely ask for this information through emails or phone calls.
- Urgency and fear tactics: many social engineering attacks instil a sense of urgency or fear to prompt immediate action. For example, an email might claim your bank account will be closed unless you provide certain information immediately.
- Check email addresses: the email address of the sender can often reveal a lot. If it is from an unknown source, or if it does not match the organisation it claims to represent, it could be a red flag.
- Poor grammar and spelling: emails or messages full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors can be a sign of a social engineering attack.
- Verify links and attachments: hover over links without clicking to see the actual URL. Be wary of shortened links as well. Do not open attachments from unknown sources as they may contain malware.
- Unusual requests: be suspicious of any requests that seem out of character for the person or company supposedly making them.
- Security education: regular training and awareness programmes can help individuals and employees recognise the signs of a social engineering attack.
It's always better to verify by contacting the person or organisation directly using known contact information, not the information provided in the suspicious communication.
How to protect against attacks
Protecting against social engineering attacks is a critical aspect of an organisation's overall cyber security strategy. Here are several steps organisations can take:
- Security awareness training: regular training sessions can educate employees about different types of social engineering attacks and how they work..
- Clear policies and procedures: create clear protocols for handling sensitive information. Employees should know who to contact if they receive a suspicious request. Regular updates and reminders about these policies can help keep them top of mind.
- Multi-Factor Authentication: implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) where possible. This adds an extra layer of security that can prevent unauthorised access even if a scammer obtains login credentials.
- Regular software updates: keep all systems and software up-to-date. Many updates include patches for security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.
- Email filters: use email filters to detect and block phishing emails and spam. This can reduce the chance of employees coming into contact with malicious emails.
- Incident response plan: have a plan in place for responding to security incidents. This should include steps for identifying, containing, eradicating, and recovering from an attack, as well as notifying any affected parties.
- Regular audits: conduct regular audits of your security measures to identify and address any potential vulnerabilities.
- Encourage reporting: encourage employees to report any suspicious activity or suspected social engineering attempts. This not only helps to catch attacks early but also provides valuable information that can be used to improve security measures.
By implementing these practices, organisations can significantly reduce their vulnerability to social engineering attacks.
How we can help
As cyber threats continue to evolve, it's critical that individuals and organisations are well-equipped to identify and protect against social engineering attacks. However, navigating the complex landscape of cyber security can be challenging. This is where Advanced comes in. As a trusted cyber security service provider, Advanced offers end-to-end solutions designed to bolster your organisation’s defences. Our team of experts can assist with everything from security assessments to system updates, providing tailored strategies to mitigate risks and respond effectively to any potential threats. Get in touch today to discuss your requirements.