How To Protect Yourself From Social Engineering

by | Sep 7, 2023

Social engineering is a major threat, bypassing traditional security through widespread tactics like phishing. Instead of hacking into systems, social engineers manipulate individuals into willingly giving up confidential information or gaining access to secure systems. That makes it difficult to protect yourself, which is why the ISACA lists social engineering as the #1 cybersecurity threat. In this article, we’ll explore how social engineering works, what to watch out for, and how to better protect yourself. 

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is the art of tricking people into giving away confidential information or taking a harmful action. Instead of using complicated technical hacks, social engineers exploit human emotions and behaviors to get what they want. They might use emails, phone calls, or even direct conversations to deceive. That is a big concern for personal and workplace cybersecurity because the tactic focuses on human error, allowing them to bypass many security measures.

The Psychology Behind Social Engineering

Social engineering doesn’t rely on advanced coding skills or malware. Instead, it exploits human behavior and expectations. At its core, this approach is a form of manipulation aimed at inducing people to divulge confidential information or perform actions that compromise security.

Here are some common psychological tactics used by social engineers:

Trust: People tend to trust others by default, especially if they appear to be part of a known organization and sound well-informed about the job they claim to have. Social engineers exploit this trust to gain access to sensitive data.

Authority: Individuals are more likely to believe requests from authority figures. For instance, an employee will likely follow their instructions if an urgent text appears to come from a CEO or manager.

Familiarity: Some attacks will gather publicly available information and then use that to create a more convincing attack. For example, they might know the name of a coffee shop across the street or about upcoming company events that are publicly listed.

Exchange: People are likelier to give information when they get something back. A social engineer might pretend to be a partner company giving out rewards for survey responses. Or they might claim to be HR gathering feedback for a positive employee initiative.

Social Proof: People often look to others for cues on behavior, especially in uncertain situations. Attackers exploit this by creating scenarios where multiple people are participating in or supporting an action, encouraging the target to join in.

Urgency: Creating a sense of urgency can override rational thinking. Attackers often use time-sensitive requests, such as saying there’s an emergency, to rush individuals into acting before thinking.

By understanding these factors, you’ll be better equipped to recognize when you might be the target of a social engineering attack. Whether at home or work, planning is essential to better protect yourself and your organization.

Social Engineers Often Target Weak Points

Social engineering attacks often vary in approach but focus on specific weak points within an organization. Employees are frequently targeted, from front-desk staff to upper management. Even IT and customer service departments can fall victim to these schemes. Remote workers and third-party vendors can also be especially vulnerable, as they may not have the same security standards as their business partners.

Apart from people, specific locations and data repositories can also be prime targets. In early 2023, stolen data from over 2,000 companies showed up for sale online due to a data center being hit. That incident notably used social engineering, targeting the employees rather than trying to defeat the security systems.

Social engineers can also gather data from social media accounts and publicly available information. If the attacker is familiar with specific people, places, or functions within a company, then their social engineering attempt will be much more convincing. Understanding these common targets can help individuals and organizations take preventive steps to safeguard against the often subtle and manipulative tactics employed in social engineering.

The Role of Human Error in Social Engineering

While technology has advanced to better protect against cyber threats, the people behind the computers are still a factor. Around 43% of employees admit to making at least one mistake that may have led to security repercussions. The challenge with human error is that an employee can otherwise have a perfect record and good judgment, yet all it takes is one mistake to lead to a significant issue. That places a lot of burden on employees.

Many cybersecurity strategies can’t prevent social engineering, though additional security measures like multi-factor authentication (MFA) can help in some situations. Even if login credentials are stolen, with MFA, attackers won’t be able to access an account because that is only one of the multiple factors needed to log in. While that works for some situations, if the target is tricked into sending files directly or giving physical access to records, MFA can do nothing to stop that.  

Why Some Cybersecurity Measures Fall Short

Some cybersecurity measures like firewalls, antivirus software, and encryption are designed to protect against technical threats. These measures are highly effective at guarding against malware, unauthorized system access, and data interception, among other risks. However, they only protect the systems and can’t stop threats that target people directly.

Additionally, the effectiveness of modern cybersecurity has led to social engineering becoming the biggest form of cyberattack. It’s such an ongoing problem that businesses now face an average of 700+ social engineering attacks yearly. Not only does targeting the users directly bypass a lot of security measures, but it also requires less skill than hacking. That makes for a dangerous combination of a cyberattack.

5 Common Types of Social Engineering Attacks

There are a lot of approaches to social engineering attacks. We’ll discuss 5 of the most common types that users are most likely to deal with.

1. Phishing 

One of the most well-known types of social engineering is phishing. Commonly done via email, the attacks pose as a trusted entity such as a bank or well-known company. It usually involves urgent action, such as clicking a malicious link or downloading an attachment. Any information inputted, such as login details or personal data, can be stolen when following a link. Due to how common it is, phishing remains one of the biggest cybersecurity threats.

2. Pretexting

Pretexting involves creating a fabricated scenario or ‘pretext’ to obtain personal information. The attacker might pose as an HR representative conducting a routine employee survey, a bank officer confirming account details, or even a utility worker needing access to company facilities. The fake story is designed to reduce suspicion and encourage people to share confidential information.

3. Baiting 

Baiting is similar to phishing but involves offering something enticing to the victim, like free software or a valuable report. Once the target takes the bait, they unknowingly download malware or other malicious software. The key difference between baiting and phishing is the promise of receiving something of value, which lures the target into taking action.

4. Quid Pro Quo 

Unlike baiting, which offers something valuable up front, quid pro quo involves a more subtle form of exchange. An attacker may offer to fix a minor issue with a person’s computer in exchange for access credentials. Or they might provide some useful information, expecting sensitive information in return. The ‘give-and-take’ nature of the interaction makes it less obvious but equally dangerous.

5. Tailgating or Piggybacking 

This physical form of social engineering involves an attacker gaining access to a building by following an authorized person. The attacker might strike up a casual conversation or simply walk in behind someone who has swiped an access card. It can be difficult to spot, especially if a company has enough staff where everyone doesn’t know each other. Tailgating can lead to major security breaches, including theft of physical or digital assets.

Understanding these common types of social engineering attacks equips you with the knowledge to identify and counteract them effectively, bolstering your overall security posture.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Social Engineering?

While attacks are becoming more complex, there are several actions you can take to protect yourself from social engineering. Here’s a look at some essential measures:

Verify the Source

If you receive an unexpected request for sensitive information, verify the identity of the requester. Always confirm their identity through a separate channel, such as a phone call, especially if the request comes via email or instant messaging. Do not use any contact provided by the person you suspect is a social engineer.

Be Cautious with Unsolicited Offers

While it’s natural to be curious about offers or opportunities that come your way, remember to be careful. Be skeptical about too-good-to-be-true offers, especially those requiring immediate action or personal information. Always validate the legitimacy of any offer before sharing your data.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security by requiring two or more verification steps to access an account. Even if a social engineer gains your password, they would still need additional verification, making unauthorized access significantly more difficult.

Be Aware of Threats

In a professional setting, the human factor is often the weakest link in the security chain. Security awareness training programs can help employees understand the risks and signs of social engineering attacks. These programs should be regular, updated to reflect new tactics, and include practical tests like simulated phishing exercises.

Limit Information Sharing

Social engineers often gather publicly available information to craft their attacks. Limit the amount of personal and professional information you share on social media or other public platforms. Also, be cautious when responding to surveys or questionnaires that could be collecting data for malicious purposes.

Always Use Secure Connections

When accessing company resources or inputting sensitive data, use a secure and trusted connection. Public Wi-Fi networks are often less secure and can be a hotspot for attackers to intercept data or deploy malware.

You can reduce the risks associated with social engineering attacks by implementing protective measures and promoting cybersecurity awareness. Remember, staying secure is a continuous effort involving technological solutions and human involvement.

Spam Filters Can Prevent Social Engineering Emails

Email spam filters serve as a strong first line of defense against social engineering attacks. These filters use a combination of algorithms, machine learning, and predefined rules to sift through incoming emails. Anything marked as suspicious can be manually reviewed or completely blocked. As a result, spam filters substantially reduce the likelihood that an employee will be exposed to a social engineering attack by preventing risky emails from reaching their inbox.

It’s important to note that while no spam filter can offer 100% protection, their high accuracy rate significantly reduces risks. Considering that 45% of all emails sent are spam, a good spam filter can defend users from a wide range of threats, whether social engineering or otherwise.

What To Do if Social Engineering Has Targeted You

Whether you’ve fallen victim to a social engineering attack or narrowly avoided one, immediate action can reduce the risk, prevent future incidents, and help protect those around you. Below are steps you should consider if you’ve been targeted in any capacity.

Assess the Situation

First, determine the severity of the threat. Did you give away sensitive information or notice the threat before giving any details? The type of action you’ll need to take varies depending on how far the attack progressed.

Alert Others

After assessing the situation, contact someone right away. If the attempt occurred at the workplace, notify your IT department or upper management. If it was a personal attack, consider reporting it to local law enforcement, financial institutions, and family if it may impact them.

Secure Your Accounts

Change passwords immediately if you suspect any of your personal or work accounts could be compromised. That holds true even if you didn’t fall for the scam but feel your information might be at risk.

Conduct a Security Scan

If the attempt came via email, whether you clicked on a malicious link or not, running a security scan on your devices can identify and remove lurking threats. Update your security software before conducting the scan for the best results.

Review Financial Activity

If there’s a chance your financial information was exposed, report the incident to your bank. Even if your account remains accessible, it can be flagged as at-risk and should be carefully monitored by both you and your bank.

Seek Expert Advice

Consult cybersecurity professionals for a thorough assessment if you’re uncertain about the scope of the attack or the measures you should be taking. They can offer targeted advice tailored to your situation.

Knowledge Is a Strong Defense Against Social Engineering

In the realm of cybersecurity, knowledge truly is power. With 82% of data breaches involving a human element, understanding how social engineering works can help protect yourself and your workplace. While technical measures like firewalls, antivirus software, and encryption play a vital role, they’re still vulnerable to human error. However, these attacks only work if the target falls for the scheme.

The evolving nature of social engineering tactics means that education and awareness training is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Regularly updated training sessions and reading material can inform everyone about the latest threats. While protecting yourself from social engineering can feel like a difficult task, a little knowledge and caution can go a long way.

Are you or your business concerned about social engineering threats? Reach out to one of our IT security experts via our contact form or call us at +1 (800) 297-8293

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