I am a cybersecurity journalist who has a knack for following emerging technology.
One of the most significant Twitter hacks of all time has people shook to their core. The attack targeted some of the most influential accounts on Twitter and led some to question the platform’s security capabilities.
However, recent insights reveal this massive hack attack was in fact a social engineering attack. With this information, many cybersecurity analysts are calling this attack a “wakeup call” about the dangers of human hacking.
Social engineering attacks are sneaky. They now target tend to target specific victims, preferably influential persons within an organization. The main motive behind these attacks is usually collecting information for financial gain. Since these attacks are crafted explicitly for individual victims, they happen to have a high success rate.
Phases of Carrying Out a Social Engineering Attack
Social engineering tends to unfold in four phases:
1. Researching the victims
As social engineering attacks become more targeted, they require extensive research. Before carrying out the attack, the hacker learns details about the victim that may prove useful in launching the attacks.
The attacker builds intimate knowledge of the victim through available sources like social media, search engines, and news articles. For sensitive data, they may turn towards the dark web, even gaining it through previous attacks.
2. Planning the attack
Along with gathering relevant intel on the target, the social engineer plans a strategy for achieving the intended outcome. Here, they choose the pawns to play in their game carefully.
Suppose an attacker’s ultimate goal is to steal financial information or money from an organization. In that case, he may spend his time carefully planning around and selecting the right employee to exploit in the finance department.
3. Contacting the targets
This phase requires the practical skill of the social engineer. The hacker now comes in direct contact with the target they want to exploit. Social engineering attacks work by exploiting human emotions.
Depending upon the type of attack, the hacker may either gain the victim’s trust to instill a sense of fear or urgency. At this point, the target becomes an unwitting insider threat to the organization.
4. Executing the attack
With connections within the organization, the social engineer can carry out the final stages of his plan to inflict damage from within.
This may come in the form of requesting employee credentials, bank information, or credit card information. The attacker may even be after intellectual property the organization is hiding from rivals.
During this time, the insider remains unaware of the threat they pose to the organization because of the bond forged with the attacker. In such cases, the social engineer may create additional contacts via the insider, ultimately increasing the chances of a successful attack.
Tactics of social engineering
Social engineering is one of the most popular hacking techniques and it’s based on exploiting general human emotions like kindness, urgency, and curiosity.
This attack happens to be particularly sneaky since it relies majorly on legitimate human emotions.
There are several social engineering tactics that hackers use to exploit and manipulate human vulnerabilities, including:
One of the most popular types of social engineering attacks, phishing, uses seemingly legitimate emails and text messages to dupe victims. These disguised emails and text messages often trick users by creating a sense of urgency or instilling fear into them.
A phishing attack’s main motive can be to spread malware through malicious links or malicious downloadable documents or to steal sensitive information like names, addresses, or Social Security numbers.
Baiting attacks are similar to phishing attacks, the only difference being that these attacks feature the promise of an item or good by malicious actors to entice the victims.
Malicious actors’ most common baits are free music or movie downloads, which ultimately trick users into handing over login credentials. These attackers are not confined to online schemes and can also exploit human curiosity through physical media.
Tailgating, also known as “piggybacking,” features a malicious actor entering a restricted area by following an authenticated employee.
The attacker might often impersonate a delivery driver and wait outside the target building to put things into motion as soon as the authentic employee gains security approval and enters the building, allowing the impersonating delivery guy to follow him into the building.
However, tailgating attacks are not effective in corporate settings where companies allow employees access through designated keycards. It is mostly the midsize enterprises that should remain canny to such piggybacking attempts within their restricted area.
Pretexting attacks involve attackers fabricating an elaborate background scenario to steal a victim’s personal information. Usually, the attacker gives off the impression that the bits of personal information they steal are meant to confirm an individual’s identity.
In reality, they’re trying to solicit information to commit identity theft or to design secondary stage attacks aimed at a higher goal. In contrast to phishing attacks, pretexting attacks rely on building a false sense of trust within victims. Attackers spin a credible story that leaves little room for doubt.
How to stay safe from social engineering?
As mentioned, social engineering attacks are sneaky. Since they’re often highly targeted, it is hard to recognize and get past social engineering attacks. Especially as emerging technologies allow social engineers to develop even more ingenious ways of duping their victims.
But organizations still have useful tactics for deploying against social engineering attacks. Awareness and training are two such methods. The following measures can also help ensure security from a social engineering attack:
- Since social engineering attackers reach their goal by targeting employees within an organization or network, it is best to train staff on possible social engineering tactics.
- Users should be made aware of how social engineering attacks are carried out and how they can be victimized so that they can defend themselves.
- Organizations should implement specific security measures around sensitive data and restricted areas making it difficult to enter them.
- Classified information should remain encrypted so that it remains safe if it lands in the hands of a hacker.
- Access to classified information should be restricted to select personnel only.
- Employees should refrain from carrying office hardware such as laptops and flash drives outside the office premises. Hardware that is permitted to leave the office should be routinely checked and monitored by the designated IT team.
Though these measures may enhance security, there is no foolproof way of protecting against social engineering attacks. Since these attacks are carried out through manipulation, the best defense against them is to combine cybersecurity with user awareness training.
Social engineering attacks stick around due to their high success rate. Evolution on the part of cybercriminal has helped make these attacks even more subtle and sophisticated.
Therefore, it’s imperative organizations take the threat of social engineering tactics seriously and no longer neglect the human component that enables their success.