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Social Engineering Attacks – How to Recognize & Protect Yourself

Picture of By Collin Weekly

By Collin Weekly

Social Engineering Attacks

Table of Contents

Social engineering attacks are becoming increasingly prevalent in our digital age. Cybercriminals use these attacks as manipulative tactics to exploit human behavior and trick individuals into performing actions that can compromise their privacy or security or divulge sensitive information.

The consequences of falling victim to a social engineering attack can be devastating, ranging from financial loss to identity theft. Therefore, it is essential to recognize the different types of social engineering attacks and know how to protect yourself against them.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is a term used to describe a diverse array of malicious activities that involve human interaction. These activities utilize psychological manipulation techniques to dupe users into revealing sensitive information or committing security mistakes.

How Do Cybercriminals Perform Social Engineering Attacks?

Social engineering attacks are a straightforward but highly effective way for hackers to infiltrate a system. All it takes is for one unsuspecting or trusting individual to fall for the scam, and the rewards can be significant.

Take, for example, the Twitter hack of 2020, where hackers used social engineering to gain access to the internal tools of Twitter employees. With this access, they could hijack the accounts of high-profile individuals like Joe Biden, Elon Musk, and Kanye West, asking their followers to send Bitcoin to the hackers.

According to recent data, hackers implemented social engineering methods in 20% of all data breaches in 2022. The FBI received over 550,000 complaints from Americans in 2021 about these crimes, resulting in reported losses of more than $6.9 billion.

Cybercriminals perform social engineering attacks in four distinct phases:

  • discovery and investigation,
  • deception and hook,
  • Attack
  • Retreat

Discovery & Investigation

The first phase involves scammers identifying targets who have something they want, such as credentials, data, unauthorized access, or confidential information. They then conduct online research to scope out potential victims and learn as much as possible about them to personalize their attacks.

Deception & Hook

The second phase involves the scammer finding an entry point to reach their victim, such as an email address or social media account. They then use a hook, such as a job offer or interview request, to pique the victim’s interest and encourage them to lower their guard.

Attack

Once the hook has been set, the scammer executes their attack. It could involve installing malware on the victim’s device, using phishing techniques to extract login credentials, or other deception to trick the victim into divulging sensitive information.

Retreat

The final phase is the retreat, where the scammer tries to vanish with as little evidence as possible. Detecting a social engineering attack can take months, and the attacker can continue to steal sensitive information and cause significant harm.

Common Types of Social Engineering Attacks

  • Phishing attacks
  • Spear phishing
  • Whaling
  • Smishing and vishing
  • Baiting
  • Piggybacking/Tailgating
  • Pretexting
  • Business Email Compromise (BEC)
  • Quid Pro Quo (i.e., tech support scams)
  • Honeytraps (romance scams)
  • Scareware
  • Watering hole attacks

Phishing Attacks 

According to the FBI, phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack. Scammers use various communication channels to trick people into divulging sensitive information, posing as reputable organizations and individuals known to the target.

Phishing attacks aim to lure people into clicking on malicious links, downloading virus-laden attachments, or entering login details on fake but convincing websites. Scammers can carry out various malicious activities once they access credentials or malware on victims’ devices, including identity theft, financial fraud, corporate espionage, etc.

Spear Phishing

While regular phishing attacks are not directed toward any specific person or organization, spear phishing attacks are. IT decision-makers say targeted phishing attacks are the most significant security threat. In 2015, hackers stole $1 billion from 40 countries using spear phishing.

Whaling

Whaling refers to a phishing attack aimed at a specific high-profile individual, such as a government official, executive, or celebrity. Cybercriminals view these targets as “big fish” since they offer the potential for significant financial payouts or access to valuable data.

Smishing & Vishing

Phishing attacks can occur through various communication channels, including emails and fake websites. Smishing refers to phishing attacks through SMS text messages, while vishing involves phishing over the phone, where scammers deceive individuals into providing personal information by posing as legitimate sources. These forms of phishing can lead to severe consequences, including identity theft and financial loss.

Baiting

Baiting is a social engineering tactic where scammers entice victims with the promise of a valuable reward in exchange for sensitive information. Scammers use pop-up ads to offer free downloads of games, music, or movies, which, when clicked, install malware on the device.

Baiting scams also occur physically, such as placing an infected USB stick with a tempting label in a strategic location, such as an office or public place. Once the victim inserts the drive into their workstation, their network becomes compromised.

Piggybacking/Tailgating

Piggybacking and tailgating are social engineering attacks where an unauthorized person gains access to a restricted area by following an authorized person. It can happen at work, in apartment buildings, or in other places. Scammers can pretend to be delivery drivers or act as if they forgot their IDs.

Once inside, they can access workstations, spy on people, and gather sensitive information. Tailgating can also include unauthorized users accessing company devices and spreading malicious code.

Pretexting

Pretexting is a type of social engineering involving someone creating a fake identity or exploiting their position. It is commonly used in data breaches that occur internally. For example, Edward Snowden tricked his colleagues into giving him their passwords by claiming to need them as their system administrators.

Scammers use their titles to build trust with victims and convince them to provide confidential information. When scammers use pretexting, they may trick victims into giving sensitive data by establishing trust using their title or a fake persona. Victims may not question the impersonator even if something seems wrong because they believe the impersonator is trustworthy.

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

Around 20,000 complaints about business email compromises (BEC) were reported to the FBI in 2021, resulting in over $2.4 billion in losses. BEC social engineering attacks come in three primary forms: impersonation, account compromise, and thread hijacking. Impersonation involves using spoof emails to pose as trusted vendors, clients, or employees.

At the same time, account compromise occurs when hackers access a legitimate employee email address to send emails containing malicious code. Thread hijacking is a more advanced form of account compromise involving automatically replying to scanned inboxes with malware-laced messages. These attacks are usually hard to detect, so specific awareness training is necessary to prevent them.

Quid Pro Quo (Tech Support Scams)

Quid pro quo means “something for something” and is a type of social engineering attack where scammers offer a benefit, such as faster internet or gift cards, in exchange for access to sensitive information.

They may pretend to be from a technical service provider and ask victims to create an account or verify login credentials. Once they receive this information, they can use it against the victim or sell it on the Dark Web.

Honeytraps (Romance Scams)

Honeytrap is a type of online scam where scammers create fake profiles on social media platforms and dating apps using attractive photos that are stolen. For instance, in a military romance scam, the fraudster pretends to be an active service member stationed in a distant location and unable to meet in person.

Scareware

Scareware, also called deception software, fraudware, or rogue scanner software, tricks victims into thinking they are in danger. For instance, you might receive a message stating that your device is infected with a virus.

Scareware often pops up in your browser or can be found in spam emails. Victims are prompted to click a button to remove the virus or download software to uninstall the malicious code. However, doing so allows malicious software to infect the device.

Watering Hole Attacks

A watering hole attack is when hackers target a website they know you frequently visit. When you access the site, malware is automatically downloaded onto your device, or you are directed to a fake version of the site designed to steal your login information.

Social Engineering vs. Reverse Social Engineering Attack

Social engineering uses psychological manipulation to deceive people into performing actions that could harm a company or divulging sensitive information. On the other hand, reverse social engineering is when an attacker makes themselves look like a trusted authority to get a target to reach out to them.

In reverse social engineering, the attacker waits for the victim to make contact, while in social engineering, the attacker initiates contact with the victim. Both types of attacks can be used to steal sensitive data, but reverse social engineering can be more challenging to detect because the victim willingly approaches the attacker.

How to Detect Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks have a typical pattern with warning signs that you can recognize. Knowing these signs can help you easily detect if someone is trying to target you in a social engineering attack. If you think an attack is targeting you, there are certain things you should look for.

Check Emails Carefully

Check emails carefully, including names, addresses, and copies. If you receive a suspicious email, look for spelling and grammar mistakes. Also, be cautious of emails that appear from a contact but have a slightly different email address.

Identify Phishing Email Subject Lines

Be aware of common phishing email subject lines that hook victims with enticing and emotionally charged language. Examples of these include subjects like “Notice: Your online account was accessed,” “IRS Tax Transcript,” and “Celebrate Mom this Sunday with an exquisite $29.96 bouquet.”

Assess Emotional Response to Avoid

Take a moment to assess any emotions that the message generates. Social engineering attacks frequently target natural human emotions like trust, fear, and greed. If you feel a strong response to an email or online offer, it’s best to pause and consult your instincts before taking any action.

Verify Identity of Unknown Contacts

Make sure to confirm the identity of individuals whom you don’t have a personal relationship with. If you’re contacted by an impersonator over the phone or suspect a colleague’s email account has been hacked, it’s best to act on your suspicions. Trustworthy representatives will not request your confidential details through email or phone.

Reporting Ransomware to the FBI

Immediately inform the FBI about any ransomware incident and refrain from paying any ransom to attackers. Paying hackers to retrieve your files or data encourages them to use such attacks for profit.

If you believe you’re a victim of ransomware, contact your local FBI field office or file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). In case your identity has been stolen, it might be necessary to file a report on identity theft with the police and also reach out to the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.

Most Common Targets of Social Engineering Attacks

The primary objective of social engineering attacks is to acquire sensitive data like financial information, company secrets, or Social Security numbers. The more access an individual has to the desired information, the more attractive they become as a target.

The most common victims of social engineering attacks are:

  • Individuals with high net worth, executives, and high-ranking officials who have access to valuable information. CEO fraud, a $12 billion scam, is an example of how criminals target people with high-level access. It’s a good idea to set up fraud alerts to detect unauthorized access to personal financial accounts.

 

  • Social media influencers and other online personalities who share personal information online are at an increased risk of being targeted by cybercriminals. For example, if your partner has a large following on Instagram or your child is a popular video game streamer, they may be vulnerable.

 

  • Younger generations and employees who lack awareness of cybersecurity threats are also common targets. A study found that 45% of millennial workers are unfamiliar with phishing, the most common social engineering attack. Moreover, only 27% of companies provide social engineering awareness training.

 

However, these groups are not the only ones vulnerable to social engineering attacks. Anyone can be targeted and fall victim to these scams.

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attackers take advantage of human emotions like curiosity and fear to carry out their schemes and lure victims into their traps. Therefore, it’s essential to be cautious whenever you feel alarmed by an email, tempted by an offer displayed on a website, or encounter unfamiliar digital media. Staying vigilant can help protect you against most social engineering attacks in the digital realm.

In addition, following these tips can help enhance your awareness and protect you against social engineering attacks.

  • Be cautious of email attachments from unknown sources. If you receive a suspicious email from someone you know, confirm the message’s authenticity with them directly before opening any attachments.

 

  • Use multi-factor authentication (MFA) to add an extra layer of protection to your accounts. It helps to safeguard your credentials in case of a compromise.

 

  • Be wary of tempting offers or requests. If an offer appears too excellent to be authentic, it is most likely fraudulent activity. Use a search engine to research the topic and verify the offer’s legitimacy before taking action.

 

  • Clean up your social media presence. The more personal information you post online, the more accessible social engineers can create targeted phishing attacks. Limit the amount of personal information you share on social media.

 

  • To safeguard your computer from malware, it’s important to install antivirus software and keep it updated regularly. Back up your data regularly to safeguard against data loss.

 

  • Avoid plugging in unknown USB devices. When you find a USB drive, give it to a professional or discard it.

 

  • Disable Autorun on your computer to prevent programs from running automatically when a CD, DVD, or USB device is inserted.

 

  • Destroy sensitive documents regularly to protect against identity theft. Use a cross-shredder or dispose of sensitive documents in a locked receptacle.

Conclusion

Social engineering attacks are increasingly common in today’s digital age. Cybercriminals use psychological manipulation techniques to deceive individuals into divulging sensitive information or compromising their privacy or security. Falling victim to these attacks can lead to devastating consequences such as financial loss and identity theft.

The attacks are carried out in four phases: discovery and investigation, deception and hook, attack and retreat. Many types of social engineering attacks include phishing, smishing, vishing, and pretexting.

Defend yourself from social engineering attacks with the help of Imagine IT. We provide a range of cyber security services for small and mid-sized businesses.

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