How do criminals gain access to sensitive personal information from individuals and organizations? Hacking accounts and computer systems may be the obvious answer. However, there is no need for the criminal to be an IT expert in many cases. Social engineering entices companies and people to part with potentially sensitive details. It is one of the biggest challenges for the cybersecurity industry.
How Social Engineering Works
Social engineering uses human psychology to manipulate individuals into revealing confidential information. It is a form of cyberattack that exploits human curiosity, a sense of urgency, and other emotions. Social engineering relies on manipulation techniques rather than what is commonly referred to as hacking to be successful. Like hacking, social engineering is illegal and leads to exposed information and malicious actions costing businesses and individuals to lose an average of $130,000 per incident, according to SecurityInfo Watch. According to Keeper, credential theft and phishing/social engineering are the most frequent types of cyberattacks since COVID-19 began.
Social Engineering Techniques
- Quid Pro Quo: an attacker may pose as a bank employee or an IT technician asking for access details to your accounts in exchange for something. In the case of the fake bank clerk, this could be resolving a strange transaction that results in the attacker clearing out the account. The so-called IT expert may promise to resolve a problem when they are actually gaining access to your WiFi.
- Phishing: one of the most common forms of social engineering, phishing convinces the target to open a link or an attachment containing malware or other malicious data.
- Scareware: deception software may trick you into thinking you have been the victim of a malware attack. Once again, the goal is to convince the victim to install software that may be malicious.
Who May be a Target
Anyone who stores information online could be a target of social engineering. Whether it is on a professional or a personal level, most people have countless accounts requiring passwords.
As a company employee, you may be using accounts that contain customer data or supplier information meant for internal use. In this case, social engineering is used to obtain trade secrets. In a more serious scenario, the breach may endanger national security.
On a personal level, social engineering techniques may be used to access credit cards or bank accounts. Generally, those accounts are secured with unique access details provided by a bank. However, most banks allow some personalization to help customers remember their access details.
The most common form of social engineering targets individuals who are unfamiliar with data security and unaware of the danger of sharing their information. Organizations should employ Cybersecurity Awareness Training to keep data safer.
Read our article: How to Create A Human Firewall At Your Business and Why You Need One.
Social Engineering in Four Steps
Social engineering hackers leverage human impulses and curiosity. People are inclined to trust the person on the other end of the phone requesting details of a PIN code. No amount of cybersecurity can prevent a breach that is helped by information the victim volunteered.
Most social engineering attacks are well planned. They can be broken down into a four-step strategy.
The attackers research worthwhile targets and start monitoring their activities. They learn any patterns of behavior that can later be exploited.
2. Initial Approach
Having researched their victim, the attacker decides which identity to assume to gain access to their target.
The attacker will create a tailored attack to help them gain access to the target’s sensitive information.
To avoid detection, social engineers conceal their tracks to escape any suspicion. They remove harmful code from the victim’s computer, for example, and cover the identity of their own computer.
How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks
Preventing social engineering attacks starts with increasing awareness of how to recognize a potential threat. Social engineering hackers tend to prey on naïve, vulnerable targets. People from earlier generations who may not be as proficient with technology and cybersecurity may be targeted, or even young children.
Individuals can best protect themselves by remaining getting educated, staying vigilant, and keeping private information truly private. Don’t be tempted by offers that seem too good to be true. Avoid opening emails or downloading attachments from unknown sources. Take advantage when banks and other companies offer multi-factor authentication to create strong, unique passwords.
Similar guidelines apply to employees looking to safeguard sensitive company information. At the same time, employers need to protect themselves through measures including strong antivirus software and other mandatory yet inexpensive cybersecurity tactics. Another effective method of protection is increasing security awareness across their workforce with security awareness training.
Social engineering is less a breach of computer systems and more an encroachment on human trust. However, the outcome can be devastating to the businesses and people affected. As more individuals and organizations use cloud-based services and store information online, the importance of understanding the threat and how to mitigate it continues to grow.
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