Social engineering attacks are among the most prevalent cyber threats that individuals and businesses face today. In some ways, these attacks can be even more destructive than traditional malware or hacking attacks, as they rely on exploiting human psychology rather than technical vulnerabilities. Understanding what social engineering attacks are and how they work can help you stay safe online and help businesses protect their sensitive information and data from malicious actors.
What is a Social Engineering Attack?
To put it simply, a social engineering attack is a form of cyber attack that uses psychological manipulation techniques to trick individuals into divulging personal information, clicking on malicious links or attachments, or taking other actions that compromise their security. These attacks often involve some degree of deception, as the attacker seeks to impersonate someone trustworthy, such as a friend, a customer service representative, or a colleague.
Social engineering attacks can take many forms, from phishing emails and social media messages to phone scams and impersonation attacks. The goal of these attacks is always the same: to get the victim to do something that will grant the attacker access to sensitive information or systems. Social engineering attacks are often successful because they exploit human weaknesses, such as curiosity, fear, and trust, making it difficult for victims to detect the scam until it’s too late.
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
There are many different types of social engineering attacks, and new attack vectors are emerging all the time. Some of the most common social engineering attacks include:
Phishing attacks: These attacks involve sending an email or message that looks like it’s from a legitimate source but actually contains a malicious link or attachment. Phishing emails often claim to be from a bank, a social media platform, or a well-known company, and they typically use urgent or threatening language to get the recipient to act quickly.
Spear phishing attacks: These attacks are similar to phishing attacks but are targeted at specific individuals or organizations. Spear phishing attacks use information about the victim (e.g., job title, company name) to make the attack more convincing, and they often appear to come from a trusted source, such as a colleague or vendor.
SMiShing attacks: SMiShing (short for SMS phishing) attacks are similar to phishing attacks but take place over SMS. In these attacks, the attacker sends a text message that appears to be from a legitimate source (e.g., a bank, a shipping company) but actually contains a malicious link.
Baiting attacks: These attacks involve leaving a tempting item (e.g., a USB drive) in a public place in the hope that someone will pick it up and plug it into their computer. The device contains malware that infects the victim’s computer, giving the attacker access to their data.
Pretexting attacks: Pretexting attacks involve creating a false pretext to trick the victim into disclosing sensitive information. For example, the attacker might pretend to be a tech support representative and ask the victim for their login credentials or other personal information.
Impersonation attacks: Impersonation attacks involve impersonating a trusted person or organization (e.g., a CEO, a government agency) to trick the victim into taking a particular action, such as wiring money or sending sensitive information.
Examples of Social Engineering Attacks
One of the most famous examples of a social engineering attack is the “Nigerian Prince” scam. In this scam, the attacker sends an email claiming to be a wealthy individual or government official from a foreign country who needs help transferring a large sum of money. The victim is promised a percentage of the money in exchange for their assistance, but in reality, there is no money, and the victim is left with nothing but a drained bank account.
Another common example of a social engineering attack is the “CEO scam,” in which the attacker impersonates a CEO or other high-level executive and sends an email to an employee requesting a wire transfer or other sensitive information. Because the email appears to come from a trusted source, the employee is often willing to comply, and the attacker can walk away with a significant amount of money or information.
In recent years, social engineering attacks have become more sophisticated, with attackers using deepfake technology and other tools to create convincingly fake audio and video recordings. In some cases, attackers use these fake recordings to impersonate key personnel (such as a CEO) or create fake news stories that can sway public opinion or cause panic.
Protecting Yourself From Social Engineering Attacks
To protect yourself from social engineering attacks, you need to be vigilant and skeptical of any message or request that seems suspicious or too good to be true. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of falling victim to a social engineering attack:
- Don’t click on links or download attachments from unknown or suspicious sources
- Use strong, unique passwords for all your accounts and enable two-factor authentication whenever possible
- Beware of messages that use urgency or intimidation to get you to act quickly
- Verify the identity of any person or organization that requests sensitive information, especially if the request came out of the blue
- Keep your software and operating system up to date with the latest security patches
Social engineering attacks are a growing threat to individuals and organizations alike, and they require a different approach to cybersecurity than traditional hacking or malware attacks. As social engineering attacks become more sophisticated and more common, it’s essential to be aware of the risks and take steps to protect yourself and your sensitive information. By staying vigilant and following best practices for cybersecurity, you can reduce your risk of falling victim to these harmful attacks.