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Social Engineering: 5 Ways to Identify an Attack

January 18, 2024 - Cybersecurity & Compliance

Social Engineering: 5 Ways to Identify an Attack
Matt Weber

Posted by Matt Weber

The cybersecurity landscape is filled with all kinds of threats. While businesses often encounter malicious attacks on their infrastructure, like hacking attempts, the most deceptive and effective type of threat takes advantage of basic human psychology. 

Known as social engineering, this tactic is used by cybercriminals to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential and private information. Let’s explore social engineering and learn some effective strategies to help identify an attack of this kind.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering covers the manipulative tactics by criminals to trick individuals into offering up confidential information unknowingly. When we’re talking about social engineering attacks in the digital space, it usually means the use of psychological manipulation to trick individuals into making security mistakes or giving away sensitive information — such as passwords or other security secrets.

95% of organizations experience some degree of social engineering attacks. The reason these threats are so prevalent is that they target the weakest link in any security system: people. Even the most advanced defense can fail if a single employee is tricked into giving up sensitive data.

These threats come in many different forms. While there are new approaches to social engineering attacks always emerging, there are a few common types of threats every business should be aware of:

  • Phishing - The sending of fraudulent emails and other digital communications to steal confidential information.
  • Pretexting - The fabrication of fictional scenarios, often with the promise of goods or services, to bait victims into providing personal information.
  • Vishing - Also known as voice phishing or SMiShing (SMS phishing), these attacks use phone calls or text messages to trick victims.

Keep in mind that while ransomware is not a type of social engineering attack, the two are closely related as social engineering tactics are commonly used as a delivery mechanism for ransomware. 

For example, a common scenario is a phishing email that appears to be from a trusted source, which tricks the recipient into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. Doing so can unknowingly install ransomware on their system, leading to the encryption of their files and a subsequent ransom demand.

5 Strategies for Identifying Social Engineering Attacks

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to completely mitigate social engineering threats. But, when employees have the right tools to identify these attacks effectively, they have a better chance of not falling victim to them. 

Here are a handful of tactics that hackers use, and recommended strategies that organizations can employ in their everyday operations to help reduce the risks of social engineering attacks.

1. Unsolicited Requests

Team members across all departments should be wary of messages from outside the organization, especially when these messages ask for confidential information. This could be a sudden email from what appears to be a reputable source or a call from a tech support technician needing a password. These unsolicited requests should raise a red flag.

2. Urgency and Pressure Tactics

A common tactic used in these types of situations revolves around urgency and pressure. Cybercriminals will convince targets that there’s an immediate threat or a possible limited-time offer. The goal is to provoke a quick and absent-minded decision by reducing the time for the victim to consider the request's legitimacy. 

3. Inconsistencies

Paying close attention to discrepancies that might reveal a scam is important. This could be an email address that’s slightly off from the official one or a website URL that doesn't match the original site. Another common inconsistency is a lack of professional appearance or grammatical errors. These identifiers are often subtle and overlooked but are telltale signs of a social engineering attack.

4. Monetary Requests

If there is a request for money, it’s often some sort of social engineering attack. Be extremely cautious with requests for incoming money transfers or sensitive financial information. Legitimate requests from reputable organizations will often follow a formal process for transactions and rarely demand immediate action via email or phone.

5. Suspicious Attachments/Links

Attachments and links in emails or SMS messages are always a risk. Avoid opening attachments or clicking links from unknown sources. These could appear as normal files or have official-looking links, but they often contain some type of malware that can compromise the device and steal information.

Social Engineering Prevention Tips

In the fight against social engineering attacks, knowledge is power. While businesses can enact tools and cybersecurity measures to limit the risks of certain threats, the only way to mitigate social engineering attacks is through cybersecurity awareness and best practices

Let’s take a look at some practical steps businesses can take to safeguard against social engineering threats:

  • Strong Passwords - Encourage creating passwords that are a mix of numbers, letters, and special characters, and be sure to change them regularly. It’s good password practice to not use the same passwords across multiple platforms.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) - Implementing MFA adds an extra layer of security. Even if a criminal is able to get ahold of a password, they would still need the second factor. The second factor is usually a temporary code sent to something you have possession of, such as a mobile device.
  • Employee Training and Awareness - Regularly conduct cybersecurity training sessions to educate employees about the latest social engineering scams and their telltale signs. Utilize real-life examples and scenarios for more engaging and interactive training.

Combat Social Engineering with a Strong Cybersecurity Strategy

Social engineering is one of the most common cybersecurity threats businesses face. As these threats evolve, staying vigilant is essential. Remember that in the digital age, your cybersecurity posture is only as strong as your least informed employee. 

With the right strategies in place, you can create a strong cybersecurity posture that will protect your business and its valuable data from malicious actors. And with the proper employee training, your staff will have the skills they need to respond effectively in case of an attack or security incident. 

Organizations interested in reducing their attack surface should request a cybersecurity assessment. This assessment will identify exploitable vulnerabilities and provide actionable recommendations for improvements. 

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Matt Weber

about the author

Matt Weber

Matt Weber is SymQuest's Security Services Manager. Drawing on over 17 years of experience within the IT sector, Weber is passionate about partnering with businesses the necessary services and solutions to stay ahead of the curve in their security posture to keep the bad actors at bay and their businesses thriving.