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What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is a type of attack that depends largely on human contact and frequently includes persuading individuals to violate standard security processes and best practices in order to obtain unauthorized access to systems, networks, or physical places, or to earn a financial advantage.

Threat actors utilize social engineering strategies to disguise their actual identities and motivations by posing as trustworthy persons or information sources. The goal is to persuade, mislead, or deceive users into revealing sensitive information or granting access to an organization. Many social engineering schemes rely on people's eagerness to help or their fear of being punished. For example, the attacker may impersonate a coworker who has an urgent problem that needs additional network resources.

Because it is frequently easier to abuse individuals than it is to uncover a network or software weakness, social engineering is a common strategy among attackers. Social engineering is commonly used as the initial stage in a larger scheme to gain access to a system or network in order to steal sensitive information or distribute malware.

How Does Social Engineering Work?

Social engineering, like most forms of manipulation, is based on deception and persuasion. A successful social engineering attack typically follows four steps:

  1. Preparation: The social engineer obtains data about their targets, including ways to reach them via social networks, mail, SMS, and other methods.
  1. Infiltration: The social engineer contacts their victims by imitating a reliable source and validating themselves with the information obtained about them.
  1. Exploitation: Persuasion is used by social engineers to get information from their victims, such as account logins, payment methods, contact information, and other details that they may use to carry out their attacks.
  1. Disengagement: The social engineer cuts off all communication with their target, launches an attack, and then leaves quickly.

These procedures might take from hours to months, depending on the sort of social engineering approach used. Knowing the indications of a social engineering attack can help you detect and stop one quickly, regardless of the time period.

What are Social Engineering Attack Types?

To avoid being a victim of a social engineering attack, you must first understand how they work and how you could be targeted. Six significant forms of social engineering attacks to be wary of are listed below.

What are Social Engineering Attack Types

Figure 1. What are Social Engineering Attack Types

1. Physical Breach Attacks

Social engineering, or "people hacking," is at the heart of the majority of successful physical breaches.

Attackers may use a thumb drive to obtain access to workplace computers in order to install key loggers or similar malware, or they may try to leave with disks or documents containing sensitive information. In any scenario, they must get through individuals rather than firewalls.

Because they don't have a key card, social engineering attacks may be as simple as timing their arrival into a facility with staff to persuade someone to keep the door open for them.

Even if an attacker enters through the front entrance, they may readily get access to crucial locations by just smiling, nodding, and seeming like they belong. When someone disguised as a repairman walks through the front door, no one looks twice, and no one looks twice later when they see them walking out of a file room with a box in tow.

2. Pretexting Attacks

An attacker collects information by speaking a succession of well-crafted lies. A fraudster may begin the scam by claiming that he or she requires sensitive information from a victim in order to fulfill a critical task.

To acquire the trust from their target, the attacker typically impersonates coworkers, police, bank and tax officials, or other persons with right-to-know authority. The pretexter poses inquiries that are apparently used to validate the victim's identification but are really used to obtain sensitive personal information.

This scam obtains a wide range of sensitive information and records, including social security numbers, personal addresses, and phone numbers, as well as phone records, employee vacation dates, bank records, and even security information about a physical plant.

3. Baiting Attacks

A scammer uses a false promise to draw a victim into a trap in which personal and financial information is taken or malware is planted on the system. It's possible that the trap will be disguised as a malevolent attachment with a seductive name. In the most common kind of baiting, physical material is used to spread malware. Attackers may, for example, distribute bait in the form of malware-infected flash drives in high-traffic areas where potential victims are likely to see them. The virus is immediately loaded on the machine when the victim puts the flash drive into work or home computer. Baiting schemes may also be found online, in the form of enticing adverts that direct viewers to harmful websites or entice them to download a malicious program.

4. Phishing Attacks

Phishing is a form of social engineering in which an attacker sends bogus emails that appear to come from a reputable and trustworthy source. A social engineer, for example, may send an email that looks to originate from your bank's employee. They may claim to have crucial account information, but you must first respond with your full name, birth date, social security number, and account number so they can verify your identification. Finally, the individual emailing is not a bank employee; he or she is attempting to steal personal information.

5. Spear Phishing Attacks

Spear-phishing is a sort of phishing attack that uses malicious emails to target specific persons or organizations. The purpose of spear phishing is to acquire sensitive data like login passwords or infect the targets' devices with malware.

Spear phishers conduct extensive research on their targets in order to make the attack look to come from trustworthy sources in the target's life. The victim of a spear-phishing email is enticed to click on a malicious link or attachment using social engineering tactics. The attacker can steal the credentials of a targeted legitimate user and access a network unnoticed once the victim completes the specified operation.

It's mostly an issue of targeting that separates phishing and spear phishing. Phishing emails are sent to huge groups of people at random, with the hope that only a tiny fraction of them will respond. Spear phishing emails are painstakingly prepared to elicit a single response from a single recipient.

6. Access Tailgating Attacks

Tailgating is a straightforward social engineering technique that allows hackers to obtain entry to a password-protected or otherwise restricted physical site. Tailgating is when you follow an authorized individual into a restricted location very closely. When a typical employee swings a hefty door, a tailgating social engineer may seize it just as it closes, waling straight into the intended physical system.

Organizations with several entry points might be particularly vulnerable to such attacks. Someone impersonating a delivery driver, for example, may try to enter a facility through a parking lot area entry. Tailgating social engineering attacks are particularly vulnerable in organizations with a big number of employees and a high rate of employee turnover. Tailgating efforts may also go unnoticed in workplace locations as employees wander from meeting to meeting over a broad network of buildings and hallways.

Tailgating directly does not function in many situations. Entry-oriented security procedures are ubiquitous in established companies, ranging from biometrics-based systems to badge systems to various kinds of identification. Nonetheless, a bad actor may be able to start conversing with staff and use this familiarity to get access to otherwise guarded places. Potential unsuspecting tailgating attack 'accomplices' will be pressured or otherwise psychologically manipulated by attackers.

What are Traits of Social Engineering Attacks?

Social engineering attacks rely heavily on the attacker's ability to persuade and inspire trust. When you're exposed to these approaches, you're more inclined to do things you wouldn't normally do. You'll be led astray towards the following actions in the majority of social engineering attacks:

  1. Trust: Believability is priceless and crucial in social engineering attacks. Because the adversary is ultimately deceiving you, trust is essential. They've done enough research on you to concoct a story that's both plausible and unlikely to raise suspicion.
  1. Emotional Manipulation: Manipulating emotions provides attackers the upper hand in every situation. When you're in a high-emotion state, you're significantly more prone to make illogical or unsafe decisions. The emotions such as fear, excitement, curiosity, anger, guilt, and sadness are all employed in equal amounts to persuade you.
  1. Urgency: Attackers might use time-sensitive chances or requests to their advantage. Under the pretext of a critical situation that requires quick treatment, you may be persuaded to compromise yourself. You might also be offered a gift or incentive that would expire if you do not act soon. Either method obliterates your ability to think critically.

There are a couple of exceptions to these characteristics. In certain circumstances, attackers utilize more basic social engineering techniques to obtain access to a network or machine. A hacker may, for example, attend a major office building's public food court and "shoulder surf" customers using tablets or laptops. Without sending an email or writing a line of virus code, this can result in a significant number of passwords and usernames.

How to Protect Against Social Engineering Attacks?

Phishing and other forms of social engineering pose a significant danger to company security. The following are some of the best techniques for avoiding social engineering attacks:

  1. Employee Education: Employees must be aware of the hazards they face from social engineering in order to recognize and respond effectively. The ability to recognize the many forms of phishing attempts, as well as the understanding that phishing is not restricted to email, is a crucial aspect of this employee's cyber security training.
  1. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Login credentials that may be exploited to obtain access to corporate resources are frequently the subject of social engineering attacks. By implementing MFA across the organization, attackers will have a harder time exploiting these compromised credentials.
  1. Separation of Responsibilities: Social engineering attacks are intended to persuade victims to transfer sensitive information or money to an attacker. Payments and other high-risk operations should be arranged such that multiple sign-offs are required, reducing the likelihood that everyone will be duped by the fraud.
  1. Antivirus and Antimalware: Phishing attacks are frequently used to infect a target machine with malware. Antivirus and antimalware software are critical for detecting and preventing these threats.
  1. E-mail Security: Phishers employ a range of ways to make their communications appear more realistic and to deceive their intended receivers. Before sending emails to recipients, email security solutions can analyze them for suspicious material and remove potentially dangerous content from messages and attachments.

How to Mitigate Social Engineering Attacks with MFA?

Implementing multifactor authentication is one technology approach that has proven successful against social engineering attacks, especially when the purpose is to get access data.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multifactor authentication (MFA) are access control systems that require two or more pieces of evidence, such as knowledge (e.g. passwords), possession (such as a physical token), or inherence (e.g. fingerprints), to enable access.

The success of 2FA/MFA is due to the fact that if one of the verification steps (such as a password) is hacked, a hacker will still be unable to access the network without the other pieces of authentication.

Despite their similarities, each form of the 2FA/MFA approach may be separated into the following groups:

  • Email: The user's email address is used to send a one-time password.
  • SMS: A one-time password (OTP) is delivered to the user's mobile phone through text message.
  • Application: A one-time passcode supplied to a smartphone app by the user.
  • Device: A separate physical device that displays a one-time passcode.
  • Token: A tangible token that may be placed into a USB port is known as a token.
  • Biometrics: Biometrics is the process of reading elements of a person's body to verify that they are who they say they are.

2FA/MFA is still a viable method for reducing the consequences of social engineering attacks, particularly spear-phishing and whale phishing, where the goal is to get access to a company's network. Even if a hacker obtains a user name and password, access will be denied until the appropriate passcode(s) are also entered with a 2FA/MFA system in place.

Given that social engineering is a fundamental component of the majority of high-profile data breaches, businesses should explore whether multifactor authentication techniques are most suited to their requirement to close a weakness that is frequently exploited by hackers.

What are Some Examples of Social Engineering?

The following examples of social engineering attacks will give you a sense of how they operate and how costly they can be for businesses, individuals, and governments. This list is for you if you ever thought that a simple bogus support email may do serious harm.

  1. RSA, 2011: RSA, a security firm, is thought to have spent over $66 million in 2011 as a result of a data breach. The attack began with an Excel document sent through email to a select group of employees. The topic of the email was something along the lines of "Recruitment Plan." The attachment contained a malicious file that provided the hackers with a backdoor.
  1. Department of Revenue of South Carolina, 2012: The South Carolina Department of Revenue was hacked in 2012, and hackers acquired millions of Social Security numbers as well as thousands of credit and debit card details. Employees fell for phishing scams and handed over their usernames and passwords to criminals. The hackers then used their credentials to gain access to the state agency's network.
  1. Target, 2013: In 2013, hackers obtained access to 40 million customers' financial information as a consequence of the Target data breach. Criminals put malware on a Target collaborating firm using a phishing email, allowing them to access the network of the second-largest department store retailer in the United States in a matter of seconds. Another virus was then planted on Target's system, which copied consumers' credit and debit card information.
  1. Sony Pictures, 2014: The FBI concluded after an investigation that the cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014 was carried out by the North Korean government. Thousands of data were taken, including company contracts, financial papers, and personnel information. Spear phishing attempts were launched against Sony Pictures. Fake Apple emails appear to have enticed staff.
  1. Ubiquiti Networks, 2015: Due to a phishing attempt in 2015, Ubiquiti Networks, a networking equipment maker, lost around $40 million. In Hong Kong, it's thought that an employee's email account was hacked. The hackers then impersonated employees to make false payments, which were processed by the accounting department.
  1. Cabarrus County, North Carolina, 2018: Cabarrus County, North Carolina, lost USD 1.7 million in 2018 as a result of social engineering and BEC fraud. Hackers pretended to be county suppliers and sent bogus emails asking for money to be sent to a new bank account. The money was moved to multiple accounts after it was transferred, according to the inquiry. The fraudsters offered what appeared to be real paperwork in the emails.
  1. Toyota, 2019: In 2019, the auto parts supplier Toyota Boshoku Corporation was the target of a social engineering and BEC (Business Email Compromise) attack. A total of USD 37 million has been misappropriated. Attackers convinced a finance officer to update the recipient's bank account details in a wire transfer using persuasion.
  1. Shark Tank, 2020: In 2020, Shark Tank judge Barbara Corcoran was the victim of approximately USD 400,000 phishing and social engineering fraud. A cybercriminal impersonated her assistant and sent an email to the bookkeeper requesting a renewal payment for real estate investments. He utilized a fake email account that looked identical to the real one. The scam was only detected after the bookkeeper inquired about the transaction through email to the assistant's proper address.

Who is the Best Social Engineer?

Three of the best and famous social engineers are Frank Abagnale, Chris Nickerson, and Kevin David Mitnick.

  • Frank Abagnale: Frank Abagnale made his impact as a social engineer in the 1960s without the use of the Internet or other modern comforts. He pretended to be a variety of imposters and utilized deception methods to gain trust from his victims. He used such skills, as well as his forgery skills, to carry off some of the most deceitful frauds of all time, including impersonating a top resident doctor at a hospital for over a year and posing as an airline pilot to fly for free. While Abagnale exploited his knowledge and expertise to deceive others, he eventually completed his sentence and worked as a security consultant for the FBI, assisting them in preventing similar crimes. "Catch Me If You Can," a Stephen Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Leonardo DeCaprio, was likewise based on his life.
  • Chris Nickerson: Chris Nickerson is a modern-day pioneer and a force to be reckoned with in the worlds of information security and social engineering. He is a specialist at exploiting new technology, has a broad understanding of physical security, and has the courage to take on initiatives that most security professionals would shun. On a TruTV reality show, Chris highlighted the flaws of a high-profile jewelry store and a sports car dealership, which was one of his most memorable experiences. He got access to each place by using social engineering tactics and exploiting technical flaws, exposing critical information, and gaining access to expensive products, including an exotic sports automobile. Nickerson, unlike Abagnale, is a legitimate professional who is employed by companies to execute social engineering activities.
  • Kevin David Mitnick: Kevin David Mitnick is a well-known figure in the security sector. In the past, he has used a range of social engineering vulnerabilities and attacks to compromise the security of multiple Fortune 500 organizations, as well as federal and state institutions. His knowledge of the vulnerabilities of anything from punch card systems to telecommunications dates back to 1975. Mitnick ended up in prison as a result of his conduct, and he spent time for offenses that tested new rules pertaining to digital theft. However, his social engineering skills and technological aptitude paved the way for the information security business to take off. Since then, he's reinvented himself, founding Mitnick Security Consulting, LLC, co-authoring two books, and spreading information security awareness throughout the globe.

Is Social Engineering Illegal?

Social engineering is a frequent cyber-attack vector that has been used in a number of cyber-crime incidents. To do social engineering, you must use charm and trust to control human brains. As a result, they give away sensitive information such as system or financial credentials, which can later be utilized by hackers to circumvent an organization's security restrictions or commit fraud through identity theft.

All of these methods are illegal since they control people's thoughts into doing something bad without them realizing the implications. Something leads individuals to believe anything about how beneficial this will be to their lives, even when there may be no such advantages.

Cybercrime is a slippery slope that can result in fines, jail time, and other penalties. When consumers are attacked by phishing or spear-phishing attacks that result in a financial loss on their behalf, social engineering typically results in harsh repercussions for the person who does it.

If social engineering is carried out without the approval of an organization, it is a criminal offense; nevertheless, they may only be lawfully subjected to this sort of test if they have granted that permission.