Social Engineering Attacks - Types & Prevention Methods
Cyber threats and attacks are becoming more common than anything else as hackers are becoming more advanced and skilled. These attacks are based on two approaches: technical expertise and human psychology. Social engineering utilizes the latter. Responsible for endless hassle and nuisance, it is more about a human-error process than technical expertise. Let us explain all possible aspects of this effective and popular attacking method.
What is Social Engineering?
Frankly speaking, it takes a lot to explain social engineering definition as it’s a wider term applicable to multiple ill-activities, comprising multiple steps in general. However, all these activities involve leveraging human errors, psychology, and fear to access restricted or authorized resources/information.
Based upon the type of technique used, steps could be anything from digging deeper into personal details of the target, creating corrupted elements, finding a look between the target and the attack mean used, finding the loopholes in the security systems, and many more.
By all these and many more steps, the scammer tries to win the trust of the victims and coerce them to take the asked or needed actions.
How Does Social Engineering Work?
It is probably the most straightforward and technically-easy method of scamming while having a high success rate. All social engineering methods function in distinct ways.
A technique, say phishing or tailgating, is used by the hacker to push the target into the trap. Once that’s done, information is stolen and used for personal benefits. Its stages are:
- The preparation of the event involves searching for target information
- Infiltration comes next wherein the attack tries to connect with the target.
- Exploitation happens after the success of the above two steps and involves leveraging from the target’s trust.
- Disengagement happens on the attack’s success.
- Trace removal and disappearing is the final step of the process, where the attacker focuses on removing everything that might help the victim or authorities catch him.
History of Social Engineering
Trickery – a part of SE – existed even when the internet wasn’t there. People used to take the help of trickery to extract money or sell something that was illogical. The term was first used by Dutch industrialist JC Van Marken in 1894. This is enough to gauge the fact that social engineering is an old term.
When the internet came into being in the 90s, SE went through some changes. For instance, instead of fooling people in person, tricksters started using the internet. They started sending fraudulent emails featuring malicious links or invites. This is how phishing came into being. Cyberpunks started using this trick to lure novice internet users to visit a corrupted website or click on a malicious link.
The present era has also witnessed certain changes in SE. Hackers now take the help of work-from-home and COVID-19 scenarios to fool the targets. They seek access to servers/networks so that they can gain access to the wide database.
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
Multiple types and sorts of these attacks makes them difficult to spot and deal with. Also, all these attacks sound very similar to each other, except for a few minor differences. Here, we present a list of the most notorious ones:
It is a famous email/text-based trick planned to fetch the sensitive details of the target by forcing them to visit an ill-intended website or link.
In this technique, emails at a large scale are shared. Hackers can act like an ISP, CEO of a company, or even a government resource to lure the target. Impersonation is done so perfectly that it sounds authentic most of the time. But, they are not. One has to look for misspelled words, poor-quality logos, and suspicious logos.
Many types and forms of phishing exist.
For instance, when it’s done using SMS, it’s known as SMS phishing.
Angler phishing is majority done on SM platforms and decodes business-client communication. Then, there is Search engine phishing which involves placing a corrupted link/website in the search results and is usually done using paid ads.
URL phishing is manipulating the links of a trusted URL or using a similar URL to direct the traffic to a corrupted website.
In-session phishing interrupts your normal web browsing for a while (or more). Mostly, hackers will place a corrupted pop-up in an ongoing session. It can take place in the middle of already doing a web browsing session.
- Baiting social engineering
Just as we use cheese to lead the mouse into the trap, hackers use a promised profit or gain upon sharing certain information. It uses the people’s greed to scam them. Mostly, free gifts/downloads/ are offered.
- Pretexting social engineering
While using this storytelling-like voice/phone method, the hacker will narrate a story to the target and try to compel him/her to share sensitive/personal information. It might involve imagining a scenario and telling it to the victim in order to convince him well.
For instance, if they know a friend’s name then they might use that name to tell you that s/he needs your help. Or, if they know your bank name, they can act as an employee of that bank and ask for your PIN or account number.
- Watering Hole
When attackers need to impact many people at a time, a watering hole attack is the best bet. With this type of attack, scammers defile a famous website/webpage and target all the incoming traffic.
Even though the attack is a little tedious to conduct, when successful, it brings an abundance of benefits. Hackers first need to spot the weakness of that famous webpage/website and then take advantage. It can only be done with someone seasoned and technically sound person.
Websites having outdated SSL certificates, unnoticed bugs, outdated plugins, and other presented yet unnoticed vulnerabilities tend to be a target of waterhole attack.
This attack uses human fear and scares them with false alerts and threats. In general, it goes like this, the hacker will tell you that your system has a virus or your battery is draining too fast. So, download this X tool/software for the problem.
Tailgating refers to using a trusted person’s access or authentication details to gain access to a particular resource.
- Quid Pro Quo
The term means “a favor for a favor” in general. When it comes to social engineering, it means, sharing credentials or visiting a website for a reward or repayment of other types for doing so. Research studies and surveys are the most common means adapted for such types of social engineering attacks.
- Whaling and Spear Phishing
A concentrated edition of phishing, spear phishing has particular persons/enterprises. Based on the traits like job, location, contacts, and other details, a spear-phishing attack is planned. It has more personal touch and higher success possibilities.
Whaling is just the other name for spear phishing. As big names and top guns of a specific industry are known as whales, the spear-phishing aimed at them is often known as whaling.
- Vishing social engineering
A subcategory of phishing, vishing involves fooling over a phone or voice call.
Signs Of Social Engineering Attacks
The most oversized challenge that one has to face while dealing with SE hazards is its precise detection. It’s not manageable for a security expert to find out what this attack might seem like. The overlapping characteristics of SE confuse everyone.
To make things more complex, there are distinguishable attack goals. Some use SE to steal data, while others use it to install software and damage the concerned software/device.
The great news here is that there are particular specific traits and signs that make social engineering a distinct kind of exploit. Even if the attacks has distinct intentions, these characteristics can help one to figure out the presence of SE.
- Pressure to take immediate actions
Consider yourself under a SE attack if you find emails/texts/SMSs or any other correspondence forcing you to take immediate or urgent actions. The goal here is to increase the emotions and blind out the thought process so that the victim can’t think logically.
Hurry! Register now, or you’ll lose your bank account activation, or Your account is running out of balance, click here to get immediate funds.
You saw an example of what the texts or emails for tricking victims will look like. These texts panic the prey and make them make irrational decisions.
- Deceiving addresses
It takes a lot to take someone in confidence and do as you wish. The easiest way is to have a spoofed address.
Cyberpunks use domain names that are very much similar to the domain of a famous website or platform with minor changes.
For instance, instead of Amazon.com, you might receive emails or ask to visit a website that might have an address like Amezon.com or Amazen.com. The difference is no minor that customers won’t be able to figure out. Hence, s/he will fall into the trap for sure.
- Missing or inadequate details
No hacker will like to be exposed before or after successful plan execution. Hence, the SE resource will have either missing details or details that can’t be verified.
Hackers do that to cover their tracks. So, we suggest you double-check the sender credentials before actually making a move.
- No response when questions are asked
Hackers usually send malicious messages or texts in bulk to increase the success rate. Therefore, they won’t have time to reply back. Or, in worse case scenarios, you will receive emails or texts from email addresses/numbers that are not available for reply. This is an evident sign of a social engineering exploit.
- Files or links with poor graphics
Even though a hacker manages to trick the URL, s/he usually doesn’t pay attention to improving the graphics of the files and links. Mostly, social engineering files or graphics are of poor quality. They won’t have an appealing look and won’t give you professional vibes. The difference between professional and non-professional graphics is clearly seen with wide-open eyes. So, pay attention to these.
- Unrealistic claims or offers
Luring a victim isn’t easy. Hence, hackers often present an offer that seems too good to be true. For instance, fill out this form and get instant $5,000 credited to your account or take part in this survey and win assured gifts worth $10,000.
Do you really think that a survey can provide you with $10,000? This is an unrealistic claim, right?
But, still, hackers use them because they don't think that it’s not hard to resist proffered as free or with the least effort. If you receive a text or email with such boisterous claims or offers, don’t consider yourself lucky. Rather, become alert as you’re under attack.
Social engineering examples
If we start talking about all the examples of this methos, it will take ages. So, we present the classic one for you.
How can we forget the Nigerian 419 scam? In the scam, the scammer claimed to help targets in safe money laundering. As an effect of the same scam, a highly famous Michigan county end-up giving $1.2 million.
In 2011, scammers took advantage of people’s anxiety to get better-paying jobs. The victims were the lower-class employees of RSA, a famous security organization. A corrupted file was circulated to the workers to conduct the attack.
It was 2016 when a notorious scammer managed to gain admin-like control of the U.S. Department of Justice email address. After that, the hacker impersonated an employee of the organization and forced a help-desk worker to hand over sensitive details.
Methods of Detecting Social Engineering Attacks
Though such attacks are really diverse in the neture. But, that’s not an excuse to do the hard work in its early detection and timely remedial actions. With a little bit of resilience and awareness, people can figure out the harm-causing elements and fail the attacks before they cause severe damage. Here are a few ways to make early detection.
- Are you emotionally weak?
Certain emotions such as fear, curiosity, and excitement make you fall for virtual plus social methods of attacks. These emotions also make you less intellectual and more prone to fall into the trap. So, if you’re in this mental stage then keep in mind that you’re likely to be a victim.
- Check for the source of the message
Emails coming from trusted resources have no red flag attached and will feature no ill-intention. So, once you receive an email asking for sensitive information, pay attention to its source. There are certain traits attached to malicious emails. For instance, it will have names similar to the genuine name. email@example.com instead of firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t hesitate to cross with your trusted sources
In case you get an email stating that your X friend is in critical condition and needs your help, don’t mind cross-checking the info from that X friend directly or someone closely linked with that X friend. It can save you from falling into the trap of the scammer.
No matter how serious the situation seems, act mindfully and take action only after confirming the details. If facts don’t match with the details in the email when someone is trying to trap you.
- Look for the red flags
Every fraudulent website has certain prominent red flags and if you manage to watch out for these then you can detect an upcoming social engineering attack. These red flags are URL irregularities, images of bad qualities, typos in web pages, and missed company logos. If you visit such a website then leave immediately to prevent facing or falling prey to an attack.
- Check the offer authenticity
In case you got an offer, email that is too good to deny then you should check out the offer authenticity before claiming it and providing credentials.
Check whether or not the offer is coming from a legitimate company.
- Are the links suspicious?
Emails featuring any links and attachments need a thorough check for any suspicious elements. Links featuring unauthorized files and odd contexts are likely to be a trap for you.
Give the person on another side to provide identity – Being aware and attentive is more important than being a victim of an attack. So, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for the identity proof of the person sending you a lucrative offer or asking for certain sensitive information.
Basic defenses against social engineering
It takes a lot to find the difference between a genuine or a fake offer/assistance/urgency. However, it should be done. Dealing with these attacks is tough as they harvest human feelings.
Sometimes, the attack is so perfectly planned that it emotionally blinds the targets and forces them to take that stupid step. But, there is always a way out. Here are some of the most viable countermeasures against social engineering nuisances.
- Don’t react impulsively
The attacker needs the target’s action or moves to be succeeded in its plan. So, you need to be a little attentive and prevent taking immediate action. No matter how lucrative the offer seems, take a deep breath, look for the authenticity, and then only make a move. Without the targets’ actions, the attacker won’t be able to do anything.
- Don’t entertain emails/links/documents coming from untrusted sources
We have already explained the links and website red flags. Keep these in mind and ensure that you never entertain them. If you keep on receiving such emails again and again then spam it or report it. Email spoofing is a real thing and has created a lot of nuisance already. So, you need to be attentive to it.
- Use a feature-rich anti-virus software
We understand that we can’t be so attentive all the time and can make the mistake of opening a suspicious link or downloading a corrupted file. But, as the outcomes of these actions are too precarious, we can’t afford to make it happen.
This is why it’s wise to use powerful antivirus software. Malicious links and attachments can be neglected by humans but not by high-end AI. This tool will immediately sense the presence of ill-intended links and documents and will alert you before you visit or open them. This timely warning will save you from a huge mess.
- Activate MFA
The prime target of the social engineering attacks is to steal the user details like login passwords, banking passwords, email, and so on. To avoid unauthorized access to this sensitive information using MFA is a great move. MFA or multifactor authentication is a globally recognized user authentication approach wherein login sessions are doubly protected as two or more details should be provided to complete the access.
Most commonly, the combination of login password and OTP is used. The OTP is shared with the linked mobile number. So, the odds of unwanted access are very less. With MFA, the account/application security is improved a lot.
- A good spam filter can save the day
Your emails are the gateways for attackers. So, if you want to stay protected, keep your emails safe and secured. If a powerful spam filter is active then it will take a malicious email more than regular time to reach the target. Such filters have multiple email analysis criteria to check the authenticity of the email.
For instance, they can check out the IP address details, presence of corrupted links, and scan the message content.
Based upon these and many more factors, it decides whether or not an email should reach you. It saves a lot of hassles and effort.
- Email gateways are wonderful
While email filters are great for individuals, they are not very effective when we talk about an enterprise ecosystem. Recently, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity report revealed that the incidents of phishing were 667% higher when COVID-19 happened. When investigated further, it was figured out that scamming, brand impersonation, and business email compromise were the most common themes of these attacks.
Email gateways are very useful to keep email spoofing and other email-based attacks at bay. Those who aren’t aware of this concept can understand that an email gateway is a software/server checking the incoming and outgoing emails of an organization’s servers. Anything suspicious is blocked at an early stage only. Hence, the dangers are not that much. It works best for organizations.
- Take the help of the Incident Management Response System
This tool can keep track of all sorts of cybersecurity incidents for an enterprise.
Starting from identifying the incidents to recording the impact, the system does all of it. This is one of the best practices to keep social engineering dangers at bay as it blends AI and human-based threat analysis and resolution. When danger approaches the target organization, an alert is sent immediately.
- Maintain a low digital presence and erase your digital footprints
We know that being digital is the need of the hour and we all have huge digital footprint records. But, sharing too much information on social/digital media can be a headache for you as it brings you to the attention of an attacker.
People who are utterly active on social media, share too many personal details, and provide real-time updates of their whereabouts have a high probability of suffering due to social engineering attacks. Hence, we would say to maintain a low profile and share as little as you can. Don’t overdo things.
To have reduced digital footprints, try to browse in incognito mode, delete the search history, and don’t befriend everyone.
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