Social Engineering Attacks and How to Prevent Them
Written by Kieran RobertsHead of Penetration Testing
Threat actors are employing more advanced social engineering techniques with ever increasing frequency. All sectors are open to attacks with the financial and reputational losses being significant.
Exploiting human nature is not new. The methods used by hackers are getting more sophisticated and they are becoming better at manipulating human behaviour. This guide to social engineering will help you:
Real-life Examples of Social Engineering Attacks
World Health Organisation
Red Kite Community Housing
What is Social Engineering and how does it work?
Whilst social engineering attacks are inextricably linked with technology, social engineering has been around long before the advent of computers. The most famous example of historic social engineering is the Trojan Horse, which, as we all know, proved to be rather embarrassing for the Greeks.
Ultimately, social engineering aims to deceive individuals into providing business critical data or other sensitive information that benefits the threat actor. This information is then utilised for malicious purposes (e.g. ransomware, whereby hackers hold customers’ sensitive data for ransom to extort a company).
Social engineering recognises that the main weakness within any cyber security system is, more often than not, the individuals that use them. Even the most advanced cyber security systems cannot totally eliminate human vulnerability. These attacks are varied, unique and use increasingly sophisticated methods to exploit human nature. Predominantly relying on trust and by understanding the online behaviours of victims, anyone can fall prey to social engineering attacks.
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
The pandemic exacerbated social engineering attacks. Playing on the heightened emotions of the global population, threat actors turned to more devious tactics than ever before. The first half of 2021 saw a 22% worldwide increase in phishing attacks. Shockingly, further data reveals that the majority of data breaches were caused by social engineering attacks, with 85% exploiting some aspect of human error in cyber security.
Deep fake recordings exploit the trust and good nature of many people. These sophisticated methods of social engineering coerce victims to divulge information or send data to a threat actor under the guise of someone they know.
“I’ve forgotten my pass, can you hold the door?”
It may be polite, but you could cost your company £1000s in data losses and reputational damage by falling victim to tailgating. Social engineering isn't siloed behind a screen. Threat actors are real people and an unsuspecting employee innocently holding the door for someone to follow in from behind can lead to a systems breach from an internal computer.
Preventing Social Engineering Attacks
Education and Training
Most social engineering attacks are successful because the victim is unaware that they are being manipulated to take harmful action.
Recognising Phishing Emails
Phishing is the most common form of social engineering attack. For that reason, your employees must understand how to identify phishing emails.
How to catch a phish?
- Unfamiliar email addresses - Always check the email address before clicking a link. Attackers can create convincingly replicate email addresses by changing single letters
- Poor spelling and grammar - If there are grammatical mistakes within an email, this should be a red flag of its validity, particularly if purporting to come from a large organisation
- Unrealistic requests - Any email requesting a user enters personal data should be considered suspicious
- Pro-forma scams - The majority of phishing emails are sent in bulk and take similar forms. If the email tells you that you've won something or that your account has been compromised, it is most likely to be a phishing scam.
Implement Specific Security Policies
A security policy that includes ways to assist employees in identifying and avoiding social engineering attempts should be put in place.
Even though social engineering typically relies on human failings rather than machines, technology can help reduce the scope of these types of threats. You can considerably decrease the risks associated with social engineering attacks by installing technologies such as multi-factor authentication and other security solutions.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
Ensure Regular Software Updates
Secure Company Data
Reducing the amount of business critical data employees can access outside of the office is a key opportunity to limit potential damage. Employees should only have access to information necessary for the tasks at hand when working remotely. Limiting employee permissions according to job roles is another way to create security barriers that stop social engineering attacks from having far-reaching ramifications.
Due to the dynamic business landscape and hybrid working practices, social engineering attacks are a common and ever-changing threat. As such, it is vital to stay up-to-date with the latest security guidance to protect your business critical assets. The best way to protect yourself and your company from social engineering is by educating employees on how social engineering works and what they can do to prevent it.
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