Social engineering involves malicious activities realized through interactions with people, utilizing psychological manipulation to trick individuals into divulging sensitive information. The attacker initiates the attack by thoroughly investigating the victim, and collecting information to exploit the victim into revealing confidential data easily. This attack is particularly difficult as it relies on human error rather than vulnerabilities in software or the operating system.
Attackers employ social engineering because it is easier to exploit people’s natural inclination to trust than to discover ways to hack software. Studies indicate that people are the weakest link and the most common target of attacks due to their mistakes.
This blog post provides a detailed exploration of social engineering, covering its types, the manipulation techniques employed, how individuals are coerced into becoming victims, and preventive measures to safeguard against social engineering attacks.
Social engineering attacks
Almost every cybersecurity attack involves some form of social engineering. Social engineering comes in many different forms, and the common factor is that human interaction is involved. The most popular types of social engineering include the following techniques:
Phishing stands out as the most prevalent form of social engineering attack and poses a significant threat. This tactic employs emails designed to evoke a sense of urgency, curiosity, or fear, coaxing victims into divulging sensitive information or interacting with a malicious website or email attachment containing malware. The more convincingly the email looks, the higher the likelihood that the recipient will engage with the attachment, leading to malware downloads. An illustrative example is ransomware, which encrypts the user’s system and withholds data until a ransom is paid.
Spear phishing, a specialized form of phishing, tailors attacks to a single victim rather than a broader audience. The attacker customizes the message based on specific characteristics of the victim, such as job position, contacts, interests, or hobbies. This method demands more effort from the attacker and proves harder to detect. An example of this attack involves an imposter posing as an IT consultant, sending an email to an employee, urging them to change their password, and redirecting them to a malicious page where the attacker seizes the victim’s credentials.
Vishing, short for voice phishing, involves manipulating users through phone calls to extract personal information.
Smishing, or SMS phishing, deploys text messages to deceive and reach targets.
Baiting exploits the victim’s curiosity by using bait, prompting them to take action and compromise their confidential data. This type of attack can manifest online or in the physical world. For instance, a victim might click on an enticing email or fake ad, automatically installing malware on their computer. Another scenario involves a USB device strategically placed outside a building, enticing the victim to plug it into their computer, triggering the preinstalled malware.
Pretexting involves an attacker assuming a false identity to extract confidential information. By initially establishing trust, the attacker impersonates someone known to the victim or claims affiliation with a trusted organization, posing questions to elicit personal information. For instance, an attacker posing as a bank official might request sensitive details like social security numbers, personal addresses, and bank records.
Scareware bombards the victim with false alerts about malware infections, urging them to download software for removal. Instead of receiving legitimate antivirus protection, the victim unwittingly downloads and runs malware on their computer. Pop-up banners claiming system infections during web browsing are an example of this type of attack.
Tailgating involves attackers exploiting the kindness of authorized individuals to gain unauthorized access to restricted areas. For instance, an individual posing as a new employee without an access card might request entry from a courteous victim, who unwittingly grants them access to the building.
Motivation for attacks
Research shows that motivations for cyber-attacks include money, ego, entertainment, cause, social group entry, and status. When it comes to money, is the primary motive for any cyber attack and criminal behavior. Money is always a priority. Attackers often have some other kind of vice, such as gambling or participation in organized crime. They are primarily motivated by financial gain. The ego becomes the motive. Usually, the attacker seeks respect for their skills and aims to prove their capability by executing a planned attack.
Similar dynamics apply when it comes to joining a hacker group, where proving oneself through successful attacks is a motive for gaining recognition within the group. Attackers frequently need to expand their knowledge by learning new hacking techniques. Sometimes, the goal of the attack is purely for entertainment, indicating that the attacker is playing with technology for their amusement. The cause becomes a motive in cases involving terrorists, political agendas, or motivated groups. In addition to money, status is a significant motive, as the larger the attacker’s goal, the higher their status.
Cybercriminals are often inspired by a combination of factors, making it challenging to pinpoint a single motive that prompted them to launch an attack.
Essential prevention tips
Social engineering attacks are not easy to spot because they are designed to exploit emotions such as curiosity, fear, respect, and the like. There are tips to follow to reduce the chance of becoming a victim of social engineering, which are:
- Verify the email sender’s identity.
- Don’t click on attachments if the source is suspicious or unexpected.
- Use multi-authentication to enhance account security.
- Check the email or message for spelling mistakes, as attackers often make errors.
- Pay attention to whether they ask for your personal information.
- Beware of urgency, as phishing emails often create a sense of emergency.
- Don’t believe everything you see; social engineering attacks sometimes sound too good to be true.
- Educate yourself on the latest social engineering threats and exercise necessary caution.
The danger of social engineering attacks is increasing day by day. To protect ourselves, we must stay familiar with cybersecurity threats and ways to detect them and avoid becoming victims. After interacting with someone unfamiliar, we should carefully consider whether the person is who they claim to be and whether they are requesting information that should not be shared. Although social engineering attacks pose one of the biggest threats today, we should not forget that they rely on human error and emotions. Therefore, as individuals, we have the power to stop them.