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What is Social Engineering and How to Prevent These Attacks in Your Company?

With the rise in social engineering attacks, organizations are increasingly investing in preventing cyber threats related to this kind of attack. As a business owner or IT department head, investing in reducing social engineering attack risks can prevent income and income loss. Before investing in social engineering security measures, it is critical to have a deep understanding of these tactics.

Understanding the intricate details of phishing, ransomware, and malware mules also makes training employees easier, subsequently mitigating the risk of being a victim. Find out about social engineering and related attacks to better equip your workforce and cybersecurity arsenal.

Textbook definition of social engineering

Social engineering is defined as a wide range of malicious activities carried out on computers via human interactions. It is a psychological game played by cybercriminals with the intent of gaining access to personal PCs or corporate cyberinfrastructure. All social engineering efforts are aimed at tricking individuals into making security mistakes or even giving away sensitive information.

These exploits consist of various techniques to scare or lure people into taking action desirable to the perpetrators, like phishing attacks or ransomware. As such, social engineering has also been referred to as “human hacking” since this tactic does not focus mainly on brute force or other technical exploitations. The main weakness exploited in this cybercrime is human error.

Social engineering life cycle

A high-end social engineering attack begins with reconnaissance against the company or individual. Attackers monitor individuals’ or employees’ digital activities while learning more about their cyberinfrastructure. From the reconnaissance, fraudsters try to determine potential weak breach points. During this phase of the attack, social engineering hackers also choose which technique they will use for utmost damage.

The following step is creating a story and duplicating trusted parties to deceive a chosen target. A good storyline will be composed of either an email or SMS with the exploit link or attachment. Smart fraudsters do not want to leave a trail of their malfeasance. To accomplish this, they add the last step to the social engineering life cycle, an exit strategy. In this phase, they remove all malware and try to bring the entire “charade” to a natural end.

Business Email Compromise

One of the most common corporate social engineering attacks is Business Email Compromise (BEC) exploits. BEC exploits have diverse tactics that can be used on a single attack. A fraudster could either create an email inbox with a convincing domain and send emails impersonating a trusted person within the company.

Alternatively, attackers can pose as third-party service providers filing an invoice for goods purchases or other services rendered. Most BEC attacks are motivated by money since it is not easy siphoning data from this exploit. BEC attacks can have devastating effects since money lost through this scheme could never be recovered. However, email compromises could be prevented by improving the cybersecurity of your business and using advanced scanning tools.

Phishing attacks

Amongst the social engineering attacker’s arsenal lies phishing attacks. The primary objective of phishing exploits is getting individuals to reveal their personal information by posing as a service provider they use. Some of the most common service providers they impersonate are banks, investment services, insurance, or other seemingly valuable companies.

Fraudsters mark a target and conduct reconnaissance to determine which valuable companies they use. To strike, they formulate a story convincing enough to get the target to click on the desired link. On that link, targets might find a very convincing website, in most cases duplicating a login portal for one of the services they use. Once they log in, the username and password will be exposed to social engineering fraudsters.

Ransomware cyber threats

Ransomware cyber threats are a very dangerous attack facing organizations of different sizes. Some call ransomware attacks as Trojan exploits because of how this attack is carried out. Through social engineering efforts, attackers create a storyline from the findings of their reconnaissance to convince employees to download a file and open it.

Immediately when that file is opened, the ransomware will lockout users from workstations connected to a specific network. A full-screen pop-up will appear stating the demands and instructions to get access to the computers again. In the background, ransomware tries to corrupt local backup files and attempts to permeate to other backups stored on cloud-based and legacy solutions.

Malware mules

Similar to ransomware, malware mules are delivered using an email that is not suspicious. Malware mules are emails delivering files with a virus infecting a specific computer or a company’s network. The malware could be created to infiltrate data sources and siphon sensitive information.

Depending on the intent of cyberattackers, the stolen data could be leaked, used for insider trading deals or other malicious activities. Malware mules also use social engineering to trick employees into downloading an attachment or clicking on a link.

Social engineering techniques

There are different social engineering techniques. One of the latest is called spear phishing. It is more effective than traditional phishing methods because the message is more personalized to each target. More time is invested in conducting reconnaissance to learn more about each target, their contacts, and other personal details.

This technique takes significantly more time for perpetrators and can take up to months to accomplish. Other common social engineering techniques include pretexting, where fraudsters ask targets to confirm details such as social security numbers, residential addresses, etc. From then, attackers can use the information obtained to better craft their main attack.

Preventing social engineering attacks

Social engineering attacks generally originate from emails, either in a business or personal setting. To prevent social engineering attacks, you can use email security tools that deeply scan each mail coming through.

Some of the latest email security tools use AI/ML technology to scan emails for any signs of social engineering. Social engineering scams are often given away by the domain name used. Email security tools also scan the domain name and confirm its authenticity before ranking it as a potential social engineering scam or legitimate mail.

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