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What is Social Engineering?

Published on Dec 02 2021

social engineeringSocial engineering is the act of taking advantage of human mistakes to gain access to sensitive data or perform malicious activity. 

Social engineering is focused on exploiting human errors. Psychological manipulation is the main activity attackers perform to launch social engineering attacks. Social engineering attacks are different from traditional cyber security attacks but can lead to notorious cyber-attacks. 

To best describe what social engineering is, let us provide you with a simple example. You have the best cyber security system installed to protect the communication of your business. Alice is your network administrator who controls all the network administration-related queries. While working in the office, Alice received an email offering her a gift voucher of her most favorite brand and Alice clicked the link in the email to apply for a voucher. The link Alice has just clicked can be a malicious link from an attacker, which can provide access to the Alice system to control the network of your company. So, the attacker psychologically tricked Alice, targeted human greed, and gained access to her company's internal network. 

It only takes a crying baby and a phone call to launch a social engineering attack, watch this video about how a lady used a fake crying baby sound and a phone call to launch a social engineering attack.  

  

Types of Social Engineering Attacks 

social engineering types

There are several techniques cybercriminals use to launch a social engineering attack. These techniques include: 

  • Phishing Attack - This attack mostly involves emails, when cybercriminals pretend to be a trusted entity and entice a victim to open malicious links sent in the email. 
  • Pretexting - In pretexting attack, attackers try to convince the victim to provide sensitive information, such as login credentials or answers to security questions. 
  • Physical Baiting - An infected device mostly likely USB memory stick is used in a Baiting attack, where cybercriminals intentionally leave the infected device where it is most likely to be found (bathroom or under the table etc.). When their victim finds it, he/she feels a sense of curiosity to open that infected memory stick which turns into a successful baiting attack.
  • Honey Trap - This attack involves building a relationship with the person concerned who possesses sensitive targeted information.
  • Scareware - In scareware, attackers use pop up to inform victims that their system is infected, and they need to download XYZ antivirus software to protect their system. Attackers will scare the victim and the victim will download that software which is malware itself instead of being antivirus software.
  • Tailgating - By tailgating, cybercriminals gain unauthorized physical access into company premises and perform their malicious activity. The best example is the access of delivery drivers, who gain access into the building using the security card of the company employee.
  • Smishing - Smishing is the same as a phishing attack but instead of using email as a medium to launch attacks, Smishing uses SMS text messages to launch the attack.
  • Vishing - Whereas phishing primarily uses email for identity theft, monetary gain or account takeover, vishing uses voice, typically calls to users’ cell phone number in order to trick them. 

→10 Basic Steps To Protect Yourself From Phishing Attacks

How social engineering can be a great threat to businesses 

Social engineering is the building block of most of the cyber-attacks in the world. Especially when it comes to companies. A report from Barracuda, a cyber security company, stated that an average organization is targeted by 700 social engineering attacks in a year. Key findings of the report can be seen in the picture below: 

Social engineering is a serious threat to businesses because the way it works is different than traditional cyber security attacks. A company has spent thousands of dollars for its cyber security and one successful social engineering attack may break all the cyber defense of the company. 

 Social engineering can cause the following serious problems for a business: 

  1. Service disruption 
  2. Ransomware attacks which can finally turn into ransomware demand 
  3. Privacy concerns include leakage of sensitive data 
  4.  Loss of sensitive or customer data 
  5. Serious compliance violations for a company 
  6. Financial frauds and financial losses 

Social engineering threats are not only limited to the above-mentioned problems. Social engineering can be the first step in launching a massive cyber-attack for a company. 

Most specifically, small & medium businesses (SMB) are highly vulnerable to social engineering attacks. SMB’s have limited budgets which is why they are not capable enough to spend money in educating their employees about what social engineering is or make the use of sophisticated cyber defense systems. 

 

→ Key Cyber Security KPIs And 10 Metrics For Small & Medium Sized Businesses

 

5 ways to prevent social engineering 

With the passage of time and an increase in social engineering attacks, various prevention mechanisms have been introduced. Following prevention strategies can help an organization to defend against social engineering attacks. 

Awareness: 

Top of the list prevention strategy of all time is awareness of social engineering. Organizations need to educate their employees about social engineering attacks. Most organizations are using periodic training to educate their employees about social engineering attacks. 

Security Protocols: 

Build strong security policies about who and how someone can gain access to a particular area virtually or physically (like server rooms etc.). Always test and improve the policies according to the need of time. Exercise these policies monthly for best performance outcomes. 

IDS/IPS: 

Intrusion Detection and Intrusion Prevention systems can be helpful to defend against social engineering attacks. IDS/IPS systems can trigger alarms on suspicious activities going on in the company network. 

Endpoint protection and antivirus software: 

Always make use of endpoint protection and antivirus software and scan every physical device before opening it in the system to avoid Baiting and other social engineering attacks 

Encryption: 

Encrypt all your sensitive data and keep the encryption key in a secure way. If an attacker gains access to your system using social engineering, they will not be able to even understand your sensitive information. 

Conclusion

There has been a hike in social engineering attacks in the last two years. Social engineering attacks are difficult to defend because they are not like traditional cyber-attacks. The success of these attacks depends on the mistakes of humans. These attacks have caused millions and billions of dollars to the companies, most precisely an average data breach costs US SMBs more than $9 million USD.   

Companies must educate their employees about social engineering and secondly, they must adopt policies and preventions systems. 

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