Social Engineering Attacks And Their Prevention Technique

By Haseeb Awan

Even though businesses have spent a great deal of money on security to stop cyber-attacks, people often become victims of social engineering. Social engineering is when attackers exploit human vulnerabilities inside organizations to circumnavigate the security barrier. This can be done by using psychological methods against an individual to get them tricked into performing actions that would jeopardize their safety or privacy.

Social engineering attacks have also risen as enterprises have become more common over the years. In addition, these types of attacks have become more complex and difficult to detect.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an end to cybercrimes. As time passes, hackers are discovering more and more ways to dupe people into giving them sensitive information. Because of this constant threat, companies must dedicate resources to stay ahead of these criminals. Just recently, Barbara Corcoran from ABC's "Shark Tank" was scammed out of $400,000 with a fake invoice for renovations.

Social engineering threats include phishing scams, watering hole websites, real-world baiting, pretexting, whaling attack, and quid pro quo attacks.

What Is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is malicious activity when attackers exploit human vulnerabilities inside organizations to circumnavigate the security barrier. It uses psychological manipulation to accomplish this broad range of activities.

Attacks of this sort occur in multiple phases. The first step is for the attacker to research the intended victim, acquiring crucial background information such as possible entry points and weak security measures so the attack may continue. Then, using methods such as disclosing sensitive data or giving access to critical resources.

Social engineers' goal of data manipulation is to generate hardship for a company. They want to steal information, money, or unauthorized access.

How Does Social Engineering Work?

Attackers use social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets. They may impersonate a trusted individual or authority figure or employ scare tactics to get someone to give up confidential information. Once they've got what they came for, they may use it to gain access to systems or commit fraud. People are frequently trusting and want on numerous occasions, have assisted others, so they're more prone to fall victim to an attack's ploys. Furthermore, individuals may be unaware of the dangers of sharing personal information or clicking on links.

The first stage of most social engineering attacks is collecting information on the target. For example, if the organization is the target, then the hacker would collect data on organizational structure, internal procedures, common industry jargon and potential business partners.

A social engineer's primary tactic is to study the behaviour and patterns of employees with low-level but initial access, such as a security guard or receptionist. They attack by scanning profiles for personal information on social media and studying their online/in-person behaviour.

Social engineers can design an attack based on the information gathered during reconnaissance. If successful, they access confidential info like Social Security numbers and a credit card or bank account details; make money from their targets, or gain access to protected systems or networks.

Social Engineering Life Cycle

The social engineering process is not unlike software development or risk management in that it relies on a constant input/output cycle to improve the overall method. There are entire lifecycle models devoted to social engineering. However, at its simplest, the social engineering process consists of four phases: Investigation, Hooking, Playing, and Exiting.

The Investigation phase is when an attacker does their research. They might select their targets depending on where they sit in an organization or how easy it is to access them, among other things. After selecting a target, attackers will utilize public facts to gather as much information as possible. Attackers have a plethora of resources at their disposal, thanks to social media, corporate websites, and other profiles.

The 'Hook' initially occurs when the attacker contacts the target, which could be through email or in person. The goal during this phase is to spin a web of lies so that they can manipulate the victim however they want.

In the Play phase, an attacker who has gained a stronger foothold during the play phase will begin disrupting or stealing sensitive and valuable data, depending on their goals.

The Exit phase is the concluding stage of the lifecycle. The Social Engineer will do their best to erase any proof of their presence and end their deception. All that the attacker has attained or assimilated during this process will be used during a future attack so they can effectively scam someone else.

Social engineering is when internet users take advantage of unaware people to get what they want. To protect yourself, you must be prepared and mindful of conmen trying to exploit you.

What Is The History Of Social Engineering?

The term "social engineers" was first established by Dutch industrialist J.C. Van Marken in 1894. He asserted that just as specialists with a technical background could work out the glitches of machines and related processes, social engineers could solve human-related issues - also known as social problems. His beliefs were inspired by his employees and their quality of life. For example, he had schools, libraries and social clubs at his factories that employees and their families could take advantage of; he also offered insurance funds to his workers. Van Marken's policies included legislation requiring his employees to set money aside for future difficulties. He used social engineering as a means to change the mindset/behaviour of his staff.

Unfortunately, there are individuals out there who wish to employ these tactics for personal gain. Social engineering is a very successful cybercrime technique that is one of today's most prevalent cyber threats. Cybercriminals prefer social engineering because it is much easier and cheaper to implement than other methods. According to experts, more than 90% of cyber assaults use some form of social engineering.

Examples Of Social Engineering In The Past

The Nigerian scam also called the advance fee scam or 419 scams, is one of the most popular examples of social engineering. This works because the perpetrator will act like they are a government official or someone who works for a bank overseas. They'll say they need access to an account to transfer money out of it, and in exchange for doing so, they will ask for some commission. The scammer offers a high commission to lure the victim, often in the millions of dollars. The perpetrator then convinces the victim to send a small amount of money for certain costs associated with the transaction, such as taxes and legal fees. Once the victim sends the money, the scammer disappears. In some instances, Scammers ask victims for more money and, later on, unexpected costs like increased taxes or bribes to government officials.

In February 2022, a person in disguise as a Walmart employee was able to remove several televisions from a Memphis store without being noticed.

Have you ever found an offer online or in person that seemed too good to be legitimate? In 2010, Anthony Lee tried to sell one of London's most popular landmarks, the Ritz Hotel. Offering it for 350 million pounds- much less than its actual value- he convinced a few buyers into depositing 1 million pounds each before being rightfully thrown in jail.

Nowadays, social engineering has become more and more complex. Past social engineering attacks have become one of the leading cyber threats for individuals and businesses.

What Are The Latest Trends In Social Engineering Attacks?

Cybersecurity and information security are two distinct areas of study. Cybersecurity is the practice of defending computer networks from cyber-attacks, while information security refers to protecting sensitive data from outside intruders. When a victim performs the required action, it creates vulnerabilities for attackers to exploit. They also use the knowledge acquired through collaboration to get unauthorized access to an organization's network and data without being detected. The rise in the number of ransomware infections, which are now four times more common than a decade ago, has pushed social engineering to become the second-greatest global concern for cyber security experts, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022 report.

The worldwide pandemic created the ideal circumstances for enhanced social engineering assaults. The world moved from face-to-face communication to digital media, such as email, video calls, SMS and IM chats, which are treasure troves for cybercriminals. It's no surprise that social engineering attacks climbed by 270% in 2021, given the situation.

With the current trend of hybrid work environments, onsite vulnerabilities are becoming more prevalent again. Fewer people are physically present in the workplace; there are fewer "eyes" to dissipate security risks and dangers. IT admins have grown too comfortable with servers being "secure" as long as they remain hidden and often neglect to change root passwords since no one is around to see them. Furthermore, because the worldwide workforce has been working from home for nearly two years now, most employees are unfamiliar with many of their coworkers. Threat actors may use "traditional" social engineering to gain access to buildings during smoke breaks or skirt through an office building's parking lot. This simplifies introducing USB drives loaded with malware into computers or other media slots.

Different Social Engineering Attacks and Techniques

Physical Attacks

Baiting

When attackers use a tangible item as bait, they are baiting. Baiting attacks rely on the curiosity or greed of the user to lure them into infecting their own systems. The attacker leaves some form of enticing bait, such as a USB drive or email attachment, in a public place or sends it directly to the target. Once the victim takes the bait, the malware on the bait infects their system.

Piggybacking or Tailgating

Tailgating is one of the most basic and efficient methods to gain access to a secure area. Attackers can follow someone else into the building without going through any security procedures themselves. This saves time and gives them a better chance of avoiding detection. Once they are inside, attackers may be able to forge authentication documents or otherwise bypass security measures.

Hunting vs Farming

Finally, remember that some social engineering assaults are far more sophisticated. Most of the basic methods we've described are based on the concept of 'hunting'. Simply put, get in, get what you need, and get out. However, other types of social engineering attacks rely on establishing a connection with the target to obtain additional information over a longer period. This is termed "farming," It is riskier for attackers because they have a greater chance of being discovered. However, their presence undetected may provide a wealth of information.

Pretexting

Face-to-face pretexting is essentially acting a part. Scammers adopt a fake identity to entice you into providing sensitive information. This involves scammers assuming a fake persona to get you to share your credentials. The simplest method of this technique is to pretend to be a technician or consultant. Attackers then deceive other individuals into allowing them access, most often by pretending they have been called or are on time for an appointment.

Attackers may also fool employees. Attackers can trick other workers into believing them if they do their homework. They gain access to delicate corporate data, such as customer records or financial information, resulting from this trust. Even people who are generally cautious may be duped by aggressors employing high-pressure tactics or confusing the victim, such as claiming that the victim would be fired if they didn't cooperate.

Online Attacks

Phishing

Phishing attacks use email or malicious websites to try and trick victims into giving up sensitive information like passwords, credit card numbers, or banking information. These emails and websites look legitimate, but the attacker controls them. When victims enter their information on these fake sites, the attacker can then use it to commit fraud or steal their identity.

An attacker might persuade you that your computer has a virus and then send you to a download site for the solution. If you accept the offer, malware can be downloaded onto your system.

Whaling or Spear Phishing

Phishing refers to a fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information or money by disguising oneself as a trustworthy entity. Spear phishing is a type of phishing that targets high-authority individuals, often targeted because they offer increased potential payoff for scammers. Scammers can spend months conducting research in order to find the best way to attack their victims. 

Celebrities may be hacked to gain access to compromising photos that could be used to extort large sums of ransom money from them.

Hackers may send fraudulent emails to C-level personnel of the victim organization, making it appear as if they are from within the company. The sender claims to know sensitive information about a coworker but is afraid to bring the issue to a person-to-person discussion. They'll provide their evidence in the form of a spreadsheet, PDF, or slide deck instead. When victims click the link in these emails, they are taken to an evil website instead. If they open the attachment, malware is installed on their system and disseminated across their network.

An executive's assistant's computer might be hacked. Attackers may email the president and request login information or passwords to reset the executive's security credentials at a particular time.

Watering Hole

In this type of social engineering attack, an attacker seeks to compromise a specific group or organization by infecting a common website that members of the group are known to visit. The attacker's goal is to use the compromised website then to infect the computers of unsuspecting users who visit the site to gain access to the target group's network. Watering hole attacks are often difficult to detect because they generally involve legitimate websites that have been compromised without knowing the site's owners. 

For this reason, users need to be aware of the risks associated with visiting unknown or untrusted websites and take steps to protect themselves. Additionally, organizations should monitor their networks for signs of unusual activity that could indicate an ongoing watering hole attack.

Typosquatting

Typosquatting is the practice of registering URLs for common typos made by consumers when attempting to visit a well-known website. It is usually done by replacing one letter from the original URL. When a customer inputs the incorrect typosquated URL, you are redirected to an imitation of your bank's website.

You might use your login details without realizing it, which is a huge problem if these sites are readily accessible. Then, after the hacker gains access to your account, they can later utilize this data at the genuine website to steal money from it.

Scareware

This is called scareware, when users are bombarded with false alarms and threats. This type of software misleadingly convinces the victim that their system is infected with malware, resulting in them installing other software that does nothing for them but help the perpetrator. Scareware can also be called deception software, fraudware, or rogue scanner software.

An example of scareware would be a popup banner that looks legitimate but displays text such as "Your computer may be infected with harmful spyware programs." This type of malware will either offer to install a tool for you (often malware-infected) or direct you to a malicious site where your computer becomes infected. 

Scareware is also propagated through unsolicited commercial email, which distributes false warnings or makes offers to acquire worthless/harmful services.

Cache Poisoning Or DNS Spoofing

In this attack, an attacker injects fake information into a web cache to deliver fraudulent HTTP responses to visitors. Another similar tactic is DNS spoofing, in which attackers use the Domain Name System (DNS) to divert users from safe servers to malicious or harmful ones.

Cache poisoning attacks can be used to carry out various attacks, such as phishing and malware infections. They can also be used to steal sensitive information or to launch denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.

Social Engineering Attacks Examples

The Trojan War is commonly cited as an example of a victory achieved through social engineering. In this case, the Greeks hid inside a giant wooden horse and were able to gain access to the city of Troy undetected. This allowed them to win the war.

Kevin Mitnick obtained the source code for Motorola's MicroTAC Ultra Lite, then known as "the world's most hunted hacker," from a Motorola employee after convincing him that he was a software developer seeking to test the phone. Mitnick was a fugitive in 1992, but he moved around frequently to avoid getting caught by the police. He sometimes used aliases to make it more difficult for people to find him. Even though he was careful, Mitnick worried that the government could use his computer programming code to figure out where he was hiding. To hide his position from authorities, Mitnick used his hacking skills to access and alter information on the Motorola MicroTAC Ultra Lite before attempting to disable the phone's link with cellphone towers.

After finding the name and number of an employee working on the device's source code, Mitnick called Motorola and pretended to be a colleague. The worker bought his story and emailed him the sensitive information. This resulted in five years of imprisonment for hacking; however, he is now a millionaire author and speaker on security. He also runs his own successful cybersecurity company.

In 2013, a data breach affecting 40 million Target customers occurred after the company's systems were infiltrated by malware from a phishing email. That same year, the U.S. Department of Labor's websites were infected with remote access malware called Poison Ivy through a watering hole attack that exploited a vulnerability in Internet Explorer.

In 2015, hackers accessed John Brennan's AOL account while he was the Central Intelligence Agency director by social engineering Verizon to think they were repairmen. By obtaining Brennan's account information from Verizon, they could correctly answer his email password security questions and gain access to his AOL account.

What Are Some Warning Signs Of Social Engineering?

Social engineering attacks can be difficult to spot because the attackers use creative storytelling. Even with an antivirus or spam filter, malicious emails can still get into employee inboxes.

Here are a few signs that will help you tell these attacks apart from legitimate emails:

  • Getting a weird message from a colleague, boss, or someone you know. 
  • Getting into situations that are too good to be true. 
  • Receiving an offer that asks you to exchange confidential business data for something you desire.
  • Unusual requests for you to take action, where the requester threatens negative consequences if you don't comply.
  • Receiving urgent requests. 
  • Communications through unknown numbers via email, phone call, text or voicemail.
  • Communications requesting that you verify your information via email, phone call, text or voicemail.
  • Requests to change passwords immediately via email.
  • Emails warning of account lockout or closure.

Social Engineering Attacks Prevention Techniques

1. Multi-Factor Authentication

MFA is an authentication method that requires more than one factor to verify a user's identity. This can include something the user knows (like a password), something the user has (like a security token or key fob), or something the user is (like their fingerprint). 

MFA provides a much higher level of security using multiple factors than traditional single-factor authentication methods like passwords alone. Even if a malicious actor were to get hold of a user's password, they would still need another factor to gain access to the account. 

There are many different ways to implement MFA, but one of the most common is to require both a password and a code from an authenticator app like Google Authenticator or Authy. This means that even if a password is compromised, an attacker still needs to have the user's phone to access their account. 

MFA can be used for any type of online account, but it's particularly important for accounts that contain sensitive information, or that can be used to make financial transactions. Many online services now offer MFA as an option, and it's something we recommend enabling whenever possible.

2. Use A Cloud-Based WAF That Employs Next-Generation Technologies

A cloud-based WAF is a web application firewall that uses cloud-based technologies to improve your website security posture. Using a cloud-based WAF, you can offload the processing and memory requirements of running a WAF on your own servers. Additionally, a cloud-based WAF can provide you with more flexibility in how you deploy your WAF and scalability to accommodate future growth. There are many benefits to using a cloud-based WAF, including: 

Offloading processing and memory requirements: A cloud-based WAF can take advantage of the processing power and memory of the cloud provider, freeing up resources on your servers. Scalability: A cloud-based WAF can scale to accommodate future growth without providing additional hardware or software. 

Flexibility: A cloud-based WAF can be deployed in various ways, including on-premises, in the cloud, or a hybrid environment. Improved security posture: By using a cloud-based WAF, you can improve your website security posture by taking advantage of the latest technologies and features offered by the WAF provider. 

3. Always Keep Track of Your Critical Systems

No matter what business you're in, there are always going to be critical systems that need to be monitored closely. This could be anything from your website to your inventory management system. Whatever it is, make sure you have a plan in place to track these systems so that you can identify any issues quickly and take corrective action. 

There are a few different ways you can keep track of your critical systems: 

1. Use monitoring tools: Many different monitoring tools are available that can help you keep an eye on your systems. These tools can alert you if there are any problems so that you can take action quickly. 

2. Stay organized: Make sure you clearly understand which systems are critical and where they are located. This will help you quickly identify any issues that may arise. 

3. Have a plan: In the event of a problem, make sure you have a plan in place to correct the issue quickly. This could involve having a backup system in place or working with a third party to resolve the issue. By following these tips, you can ensure that your critical systems are always up and running smoothly.

4. Determine Which Critical Assets Attract Criminals

When many organizations concentrate on protecting their assets, they typically do so from their company's perspective. That is not always how a hacker would target your organization. They will always attack the assets that are important to them. In order to consider the attacker's point of view and determine what to protect, you should think about what you have other than your product, service, or intellectual property.

5. Verify the Identity of the Email Sender

Many scams rely on the method of obtaining a victim's information by pretending to be a trustworthy source. For example, in a phishing attack, an attacker might send emails that look like they come from a bank, credit card company, social networking site. These emails often tell a story designed to tempt you into clicking on a false link which looks legitimate. The link directs you to a malicious website that may install malware on your computer or device. 

There are several ways to verify the identity of the sender before clicking on any links in the email: 

1) Check the sender's email address - Often, phishing emails will come from a free email service provider such as Gmail or Yahoo. If you receive an email from what looks to be a legitimate source, but with a free email provider, this is likely a scam. 

2) Check for spelling and grammar errors - Many scammers do not speak English as their first language and will make mistakes in their grammar or spelling. This is often a dead giveaway that the email is not legitimate. 

3) Verify any links in the email -  If you have doubts about an email, it's best to err on caution and delete it.

6. Penetration Testing

The best way to defend your company against social engineering attacks is by running a penetration test (or pen-test). This process involves trying to exploit vulnerabilities in your organization in order to detect them. Suppose our testers are successful in endangering any of your critical systems. In that case, we can identify which system or employees need more protection and the types of social engineering attacks you may be vulnerable to.

7. Ensure That The Website Has An SSL Certificate

By encrypting data, emails, and communication channels, you can be sure that hackers will not be able to access intercepted information. To prevent this from happening in the first place, obtain SSL certificates from trusted authorities. Furthermore, always check the authenticity of websites before inputting sensitive information by looking at their URLs. Safe websites will always start with HTTPS://, while those that are less secure only have HTTP:// at the beginning of their URL.

8. Keep A Complete Backup Of Your Data

Simply put, data protection is essential for any company that wants to stay in business. By having a reliable backup of your organization's mission-critical data, you can minimize the amount of downtime and disruptions caused by a cybersecurity incident. You can still retrieve your data when you have several backups in various locations, even if one storage gets damaged or corrupted.

9. Set Up Spam Filter

Spam filtering services are vital in protecting your inboxes from social engineering assaults. You may quickly classify emails using spam characteristics and be free of the repulsive chores of identifying suspicious emails.

There are several benefits of enabling spam filter, including: 

1. It helps to protect your email account from being hacked. 

2. It blocks phishing emails and other types of scam emails. 

3. It helps to reduce the amount of junk mail in your inbox. 

4. It can help to improve your email deliverability. 

5. It can help to reduce the risk of viruses and other malware being downloaded onto your computer. 

6. It can help improve your productivity by reducing your time dealing with junk mail.

10. Educate your Employees 

The most vital way to prevent social engineering attacks is by educating your employees about the different types of social engineering scams and how to identify them. Make sure that every member of your organization knows about these threats and is aware that cybercriminals are always trying to exploit their gullibility. Employees should immediately report security incidents or suspicious behaviour to the security team. By having policies and an incident response plan that details the actions you will take in the event of a cybersecurity incident, you can minimize damage and contain the situation quickly.

 What Should You Do If You Believe You Have Been A Victim Of Social Engineering Attacks?

  • If you believe you may have unintentionally disclosed important information about your business, report it to the proper people inside the company, such as network administrators. They can be on the lookout for unusual or suspicious behaviour. 
  • If you detect suspicious charges on your account, contact your bank immediately and terminate any compromised accounts.
  • Change any passwords that you might have revealed immediately. If you used the same password for multiple resources, change it for each account and do not use that password in the future. Also, keep an eye out for other signs of identity theft. 
  • Lastly, consider filing a police report and also filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission.

For social engineering prevention, here are some quick tips to keep in mind:

  1. Take a step back and think before you click. Frequently, attackers try to create a sense of urgency to make you act without thinking of phishing attacks. If you receive an urgent message that puts pressure on you, take the time to verify whether or not the source is credible. The best way to do this is by utilizing another form of communication - like texting the person directly - rather than responding through the same channel where you received the message. It's always better to err on the side of caution!
  2. Investigate the sources. Always be wary of any unsolicited communications. Check to see whether the domain links are genuine; if they are, then the sender is most likely a real member of the organization. A typo/spelling error is generally a red flag. Use a search engine, go to the company's website, and look up their phone book. These are all simple methods for avoiding being spoofed. Before you click on a link, hover your cursor over it to view the URL at the bottom; this is another method to ensure you're going to the right website.
  3. Email spoofing has become alarmingly common. If you aren't familiar email spoofing is when hackers create an email that looks like it's from a legitimate source to get your personal information. They will often prey on your contacts once they gain access to your account. Even if the sender appears to be someone you know, it's always best practice to double-check with them before clicking any links or opening any files from the email.

Conclusion

The strongest cybersecurity defence will not save you from attack if you do not also consider social engineering. Even the best security technologies cannot protect against careless mistakes or lapses in judgment by employees. Train your staff to be aware of phishing schemes and other ways they could inadvertently give an attacker access to your systems.

Like many security challenges, social engineering protection is difficult. Education and regular reinforcement help people discover and respond to social engineering assaults, but you should also consider options for safeguarding your data. Install multifactorial authentication, limit user access to vital information, and be wary of employee mood, especially among employees with critical system access. In the ideal case scenario, social engineering is prevented at the first point of attack most successfully when individuals in an organization are taught how to identify attempts to target them.

It's crucial to keep online security training updated yearly or quarterly, and this should be part of any new hire's onboarding process.

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