How to Recognize Social Engineering Attacks?
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about social engineering. Or you believe it only aims to dupe unsuspecting victims to steal some money. But what you may not realize is that social engineering techniques can take many forms. The theft of money is not always the primary objective. In fact, social engineering schemes can be employed to steal sensitive information or even cause discord and chaos. As a result, social engineering attacks are sometimes difficult to detect and avoid. However, there are usually telltale signs that can tip you off to the scheme. Let’s check how to avoid social engineering attacks!
What is Social Engineering?
First things first. What is social engineering? Social engineering gathers many techniques to exploit our human nature to induce behaviours and mistakes that will lead to compromise or weaken security measures. It will allow cybercriminals to access information, money or control what they’re looking for. It’s not a unique kind of attack but rather a group of different scams that share several similarities:
- Scammers attempt to obtain sensitive information or money;
- They exploit trust and human behavior to manipulate their victims and achieve their goals;
- They exploit their victims’ lack of knowledge and their inability to implement security measures to protect themselves;
- Their schemes often involve using personal information (identity theft) to appear more authentic.
Remember the ancient Greeks’ “gift” horse to the city of Troy? An excellent real-world example.
Manipulation is the key
Forget about brute force tactics. With social engineering, attackers use manipulative tactics to lead their victims into compromising themselves or the security measures they rely on. Scammers connect with their victims to infuse confidence and influence their actions.
As attackers become more familiar with their targets’ motivations, they can craft persuasive tactics to lure them into potentially destructive behaviour.
And it works: many cybersecurity incidents are actually successful social engineering schemes carried out by external attackers. They play with human weakness to make their victims unwittingly provide access to sensitive information or money.
You may be using secure channels to communicate and take a variety of other measures to protect and secure your online privacy – for example, if you use an email suite such as Mailfence – and still get caught by a social engineering scheme.
A hacker can get your credentials and bypass all your security barriers to access your online world, just because for a brief moment you trusted them and let them get crucial information from you. That’s why learning how to detect social engineering schemes is crucial.
If human weakness is the key for hackers, understanding social engineering is the way to avoid it.
How does social engineering work?
As we already mentioned, social engineering implies manipulating the victim. It can take various forms to induce specific feelings or human traits:
The hacker will send a message spoofing an organization’s communication codes, such as its logo and other brand features (fonts, writing style, etc.). They want to trick the victim into doing things they would routinely do with this specific organization (click on a provided link, download a file, etc.), because they trust it and just don’t challenge the message origin.
Compliance with the authority
Obedience to authority is another human trait social engineering tactics can exploit. Pirates will impersonate a high-ranking individual or a government agency to induce their obedient target to do something.
Sense of urgency, fear
People may act without thinking when faced with a sudden sense of panic or anxiety. They are vulnerable to social engineering scams that prey on such emotions. These deceptive tactics leverage fear and urgency in various ways:
- Such as false credit alerts,
- Virus warnings,
- Or exploiting one’s FOMO (fear of missing out).
The panicking victim is lured into taking action without taking the time to consider the consequences or double-check the request’s legitimacy. It could be disastrous for a business or even on a personal level. Plus, when you know hackers specifically target SMBs, you really need to protect yourself.
You wouldn’t refuse a gift, would you? Scammers understand this and many scams leverage our greed to attract their victims with money rewards, iPhones, and other coveted prizes.
Most likely, you have received a “Nigerian Letter” at least once. It’s actually a phishing attack. This kind of emails is allegedly sent by an individual pretending they want you to collect many millions of dollars from the Nigerian bank. Apparently, the money is blocked there for some obscure reason… You just need to pay administrative fees to get the money.
This is the perfect example of a scam using our attraction to money, gifts, or easy rewards.
Generosity and the desire to help our fellow humans are other human traits social engineering techniques can exploit. Pirates will research on social media to find out what matters to you and what causes you might support.
They can then impersonate an organization linked to one of the relevant causes to contact you and ask you for a donation. During the process, they will request your banking information, so that they can help themselves with your money.
The various kinds of Social Engineering Attacks
There are many kinds of social engineering attacks with subtle varieties.
Phishing scams are the most common types of social engineering attacks used today. Phishing scams rely on emails to make a connection with the target, while smishing relies on SMS and vishing on phone conversations.
Spear phishing targets specific individuals with personal information to make it appear legitimate. Whaling attacks target high-ranking executives.
Pretexting is another form of social engineering where attackers focus on creating a plausible pretext, or a fabricated scenario, that they can use to steal their victims’ personal information.
Baiting is, in many ways, similar to phishing attacks. However, what distinguishes them from other types of social engineering is the promise of an item or good that hackers use to entice victims, just like the Trojan horse.
Similarly, quid pro quo attacks promise a benefit in exchange for information. This benefit usually assumes the form of a service, whereas baiting frequently takes the form of a good.
Another social engineering attack type is tailgating, where someone seeks physical entry to a restricted area where they are not allowed to be.
Scareware aims to make its victims believe a virus infected their device, and they need to buy or download specific software to sort it out.
Most of them also share the following characteristics:
They seek to obtain personal information, such as names, addresses and social security numbers.
They can use link shorteners or embed links that redirect users to suspicious websites in URLs that appear legitimate.
They are often paired up with malware to create a perfect package – where the user’s machine doesn’t only leak the credentials but also gets compromised.
They can include threats, fear, and other ways to inspire a sense of urgency to manipulate the user into acting promptly.
How to spot and avoid Social Engineering?
Take your time to evaluate the situation
Take the time to consider the whole situation and examine the message carefully, even if it is quite worrying.
- Is this message totally unexpected?
- Does it really originate where it’s supposed to?
- Ensure you are interacting with trusted contacts by confirming their identity. Whenever possible, contact your sender directly to make sure they sent what was received.
- Also, check for spelling mistakes, oddities in the logo, or other details revealing it’s a fake. Does this organization usually communicate in this manner?
- Again, in case of any doubt, take your phone and call the number you’re used to call (and not the provided number) to get more information.
Check the URL or file before clicking
Any attachment in a message can actually hide a virus or some other kind of malware, such as ransomware. A link in a message can lead you to a staged website set up to steal your data or infect your device with malware.
Before clicking on them, inspect them carefully:
- Is there any message indicating it contains macros?
- Were you expecting this file or link?
- In doubt, don’t hesitate to check and ask the sender directly if it’s actually coming from them (contact them with your usual means of contact, not the contact means provided in the suspect message).
- And if you don’t know the sender, just don’t click, especially if the file’s title is particularly appealing for some reason.
Be aware of your valuables
Even if you’re not a millionaire, you own many things that could arouse the greed of cybercriminals:
- Your data (which can be sold on the dark net),
- Some software access you have in the company you work for,
- Very detailed social network accounts, with numerous pictures, and comments revealing what you like, what you support, etc.. This means it will be straightforward to profile you and determine the appropriate strategy to target you. Therefore, be careful with what you share on social media.
Take the time to look at your privileges, communications on the net, and try to understand the potential you offer for any scammer. Being more aware of this can improve your ability to detect social engineering schemes.
Learn about social engineering scams
Social engineering exploits human weaknesses, so education is the key to avoiding social engineering attacks. Check these posts to learn even more about how to avoid social engineering schemes:
Prevent yourself from social engineering scams
As individuals, we are in most cases at the origin of a potential attack due to our lack of awareness and knowledge. Prevent yourself and your surroundings learning more about :
- The 10 tips we recommend to protect your computer
- Our Email security and privacy awareness course is probably the best pick to learn about cybersecurity.
Use security software to avoid spam and phishing emails
To protect your device and your data from cyberthreats and intrusion attempts, you must use an antivirus and make regular backups.
But you must also use a secure email solution to ensure messages coming into your inbox don’t include any malware or any malicious part, and to block them if that’s the case.
Also, emails are the perfect gateway for hackers. Why not harden the security of your email account with encryption, digital signatures, and 2FA?
Why not open a free plan now to experience the ease of use of the Mailfence suite?
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Salman works as an Information security analyst for Mailfence. His areas of interests include cryptography, security architecture and design, access control and operations security. You can follow him on LinkedIn @mohammadsalmannadeem