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Understanding Social Engineering in the Digital Age

It's an adage that, when it comes to security in general and cybersecurity in particular, humans are the weakest link. The phenomenon of social engineering takes advantage of this principle as hackers seek to con employees into accidentally sharing information or otherwise giving these criminals a foothold into your organization.

Let's explore how social engineering works in the digital age, as well as some of the techniques your company can employ to thwart scammers.

What Exactly Is Social Engineering?

Social engineering refers to the use of psychological manipulation to trick other people into giving up money or assets, including confidential information or data. Fraudsters who use social engineering techniques often pressure, cajole, or trick employees into revealing either personal or work-related information, such as passwords, credentials, or unauthorized access to sensitive files.

The scammers typically follow a three-step procedure of research, initial contact, and attack. During the research phase, the social engineer studies a user to identify potential weak points. The scammer may stalk one of your employees online (such as through social media) to discover their birthdate, phone number, or other publicly available information.

With the research phase completed, the criminal then moves on to initial contact. At this juncture, the scammer will use the personal information they've gained in combination with an understanding of human psychology to establish trust and rapport with the victim, perhaps claiming to be a member of a government institution, a different part of the same company, or even a friend or family member.

If the gambit succeeds in fooling the victim into revealing their sensitive data, the scammer can use this information, such as passwords, Social Security numbers, and account information, to launch phase three: the attack stage. During a cyberattack, a hacker can steal identities or use their newfound access to your business systems to install ransomware or other forms of malware.

Different Forms of Social Engineering Attacks

Most social engineering attacks follow the general three-part structure explained above. However, individual hackers may utilize different tactics in the pursuit of their goal.

The most common type of social engineering attack is phishing. During a phishing attack, the scammer will pose as a legitimate entity sending a message (usually an email but sometimes a chat message) to the victim, typically with a link or attachment containing malware. The message may also contain a request for the victim to provide some form of sensitive information.

Whaling is a specific type of phishing that uses similar tactics but targets a high-profile victim rather than a low- or mid-level employee. For example, whalers might target a high-ranking executive or even a politician. The higher stakes may require more sophisticated techniques to fool the mark, such as spoofing an email address to make their phishing message seem more legitimate.

Baiting is a somewhat more involved scheme in which the bad guy leaves a USB drive or other device in a public place, hoping that the victim will find the device and be curious enough to plug it into a personal or work device. This device then covertly installs malware, giving the hacker access to the system in question.

How Social Engineering Has Changed in the Digital Age

The two biggest game-changers in the world of social engineering recently are the proliferation of social media and the advancements in artificial intelligence (AI).

Social media can provide online attackers with a wealth of publicly available information, such as using a company's LinkedIn profile to study that business's employees for potential victims. Hackers can glean enough information from LinkedIn, Facebook, and more to create detailed and personalized phishing emails.

Bad guys can also use these platforms to spoof or hack into the accounts of their victims’ trusted friends, allowing them to send messages and malware-infected links to unwitting recipients via online chat.

On top of the information on offer to hackers through social media platforms, AI represents another frightening aspect of the evolving cybersecurity landscape. As AI becomes more sophisticated, so do the methods employed by hackers who corrupt this technology for their benefit.

For instance, AI can make it easier for a social engineer to employ vishing, which is a voice-based phishing attack. Vishing attacks are often made by hackers who call a victim over the phone and claim to be a rank-and-file employee at a trusted institution, such as a bank or government agency.

AI tools allow scammers to take this con to the next level. Voice-imitating software can harvest audio from hours of publicly available videos and webinars to reproduce the voice of a victim's high-ranking employer or immediate supervisor. A social engineer can also use AI to help write text-based phishing emails with greater ease.

Protecting Your Company Against Social Engineering

This vast array of cybersecurity threats may seem intimidating. However, just as social engineering methods have evolved with the times, so too have cybersecurity techniques to thwart these scams.

The right software can filter through emails to catch sketchy emails originating from fake-sounding domains or even use AI to scan incoming emails for keywords that are often connected to social engineering tactics.

Of course, technology can't be your only layer of security. Physical verification requirements, such as requiring a phone call or a physical (rather than a digital) signature for certain procedures, can decrease the likelihood of a hacker taking advantage of an employee's absentmindedness.

Perhaps the most important way to keep your company safe is through proper cybersecurity training. Awareness seminars and rehearsals of cybersecurity protocols at regular company meetings can go a long way toward keeping social engineering top of mind for your team members.

Taking the Human Factor Into Account

Since social engineering is a particular form of scamming that targets the human factor, you need to beef up your employees' ability to identify and fight back against social engineering tactics. This means building an entire culture of cybersecurity awareness.

Employees need to be able to recognize both general patterns of suspicious activity and specific tactics used by scammers. For example, your workers need to know the importance of two-factor authentication, not to open emails or attachments from unverified sources, and how to keep their work and personal devices' antivirus software up to date.

With the right training, your employees will go from being the weakest link to the strongest shield in your cybersecurity defense plan!

Contact a Leading Cybersecurity Provider to Schedule a Consultation

Speaking of training, TechBldrs, Inc. offers incredible cybersecurity training programs, disaster recovery, firewall services, and more! Contact our team to book a consultation today!

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