What Is a Social Engineering Attack?

A simple online search can reveal significant information about a person. You can find information about someone’s address, phone number, email address, and social media accounts. 

Our lives are increasingly centered around the digital world, so having some of our personal information online is unavoidable. 

At the same time, you have to be aware of the risks, one of which is social engineering. Social engineering is a cybersecurity attack vector relying on human interaction. Often, it involves manipulating people to go against their normal security procedures, so those bad actors can gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, or physical locations for their financial gain. 

The following are key things everyone should know about social engineering attacks to protect themselves proactively. 

How Does Social Engineering Work?

The term social engineering is broad, referring to a range of malicious activities that are achieved through human interactions. Psychological manipulation is used as a ploy to trick people into giving away potentially sensitive information or making mistakes relating to cybersecurity. 

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A social engineering attack will often occur in phases. 

The perpetrator will first learn as much as they can about their victim. They’ll gather background information, such as the potential points of weakness in security protocols they’ll need to move forward with their attack. 

Then, the attacker will take steps to gain the trust of the victim. That trust they build will lead the victim to break their own security practices. Once a perpetrator gains the trust of their victim, they could manipulate them into revealing login information for accounts. 

Social engineering is built on human error instead of weaknesses in operating systems or software. 

When a legitimate user makes a mistake, it’s a lot less predictable and harder to identify and stop than a malware breach.

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The Techniques

There are different approaches to social engineering attacks, and some of the more common ones include:

  • Baiting

In this type of attack, a false promise is used to gain a sense of curiosity on the part of the victim. Frequently in baiting, the cybercriminal will use something like malware-infected bait, such as flash drives. It looks authentic, and a victim will pick up the bait because of their own curiosity, then leading malware to be installed on their device. 

  • Scareware

Victims are bombarded with fake threats. They might be shown messages saying their system is infected with malware. That can prompt them to then install software, but that actually ends up being the malware. 

  • Pretexting

This scam begins when a perpetrator pretends they need sensitive information from their victim to perform an important task. They might say they’re a tax official or coworker. Then, they gather information along the way. The information is beyond what’s available in the public record. It might include social security numbers or bank records. 

  • Phishing
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Scams involving phishing are the most popular social engineering attacks. Phishing scams can create a sense of fear, urgency, or curiosity in victims that then leads them to reveal sensitive information, click malicious links, or open attachments with malware. 

  • Spear phishing

This is a more targeted take on phishing where attackers will target a particular person or organization. Then, the phishing messages are highly tailored. Spear phishing is more sophisticated than phishing and requires more work on the part of the perpetrator. These attacks can take weeks or months to pull off, and they have higher success rates. 

Preventing Social Engineering

So what can you do in order to protect yourself against social engineering attacks?

It’s important to never open attachments or emails from suspicious sources. If you don’t know the person or even if you do know them, but anything seems even slightly off, verify. You can call the person directly if you think an email comes from someone you know, and make sure they sent it. 

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Email addresses are frequently spoofed, so you have to go over things very carefully. 

Use multifactor authentication on any account offering it, and be cautious about offers that seem too good to be true because they probably are. 

On social media, be careful about what you share. Don’t overshare or add a lot of personal information to your bios because this can be used as part of social engineering to gain your trust or even to impersonate you to gain the trust of the people you’re connected with on social media. 

Finally, keep your antivirus and antimalware software updated. Make sure you use automatic updates, and regularly check to ensure you’re applying all updates.

Samuel Jim Nnamdi is the CTO of Foxstate, a platform that powers digital infrastructures for Real estate financing globally. He has over 8 years of Software Engineering and CyberSecurity expertise.

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