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What is a social engineering attack?

Affan Malik


Social engineering is a term used for numerous harmful activities performed through human interaction. It is an attacking phenomenon that relies heavily on human interaction to break standard security procedures and best practices, gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, and physical locations, and gain financial benefits.  

In essence, social engineering is not a cyber attack. Instead, social engineering is all about persuasive psychology. The purpose is to gain the victim's trust, weaken their alertness, and take dangerous actions such as disclosing personal information, clicking web links, opening potentially malicious attachments, and so on. 

An illustration of the social engineering attack life cycle

Attacking techniques

Over time, social engineering attacks have become more sophisticated. Not only do fake websites and emails look realistic enough to trick victims into leaking data that can be used to steal personal information, but attackers can break the organization's initial defenses and damage the firewall. Some of the famous attacking vectors are given below:

  1. USB baiting: The attacker leaves behind the malware-infected physical device, such as a USB flash drive, in a location where it is easy to find. The target then grabs the device, connects it to the computer, and unintentionally installs the malware.
  2. Phishing: When a malicious party sends a deceptive email disguised as a legitimate email, it often pretends to be from a trusted source. This message tricks recipients into sharing financial and personal information or clicking links to install malware.
  3. Pretexting: One party lies to the other to gain access to confidential data. For example, a subtle scam could involve an attacker who pretends to need financial or personal information to verify the recipient's identity.
  4. Scareware: Victims are deluded that their computer is infected with malware or accidentally downloaded illegal content. The attacker then provides the victim with a solution that fixes the obvious problem. The victim falls for the trick of downloading and installing the attacker's malware.
  5. Quid pro quo: It is an attack in which a social engineer pretends to provide something in exchange for targeted information or assistance. For example, a hacker calls a random number selection within an organization and pretends to be a technical support specialist responding to a ticket.
  6. Tailgating: It is when a hacker follows someone with an authorized access card to break into a secure building. In this attack, anyone with legal access to the building must be polite enough to keep the door open only if the person behind them is allowed to be there.

Prevention techniques

Social engineers manipulate human emotions such as curiosity and fear to execute plans and lure victims into traps. Automatic security features such as email screening help prevent attackers from contacting victims. Still, the best defense against social engineering attacks is to have the latest knowledge about different types of malware practices. 

In addition, the following tips can help be more vigilant about social engineering hacks. 

  1. Emails from unknown sources should be ignored: It should not be opened if the sender has an unknown email address. Even if you know them and have doubts about them, check and confirm the messages from other sources.
  2. Using multi-factor authentication: One of the most valuable pieces of information an attacker looks for is user credentials. Multi-factor authentication ensures that your account is protected in the event of a system compromise. 
  3. Beware of attractive offers: If an offer seems too attractive, think twice before accepting it as a fact. Google a topic to quickly determine if you are dealing with a legitimate offer or a trap. 
  4. Keep your antivirus/anti-malware software up-to-date: Make sure automatic updates are turned on, or get in the habit of downloading the latest signature first every day. Periodically check for updates and scan the system for possible infections.



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