What Is a Social Engineering Attack — The Basics

Social engineering is one of the most popular techniques used in cybercrime today. In fact, Firewall Times reports that, “98% of cyber attacks involve some form of social engineering.” Why is social engineering effective against even the most secure organizations? It’s simple. Social engineering tactics take advantage of our inherent kindness and trusting nature to benefit the people-savvy hacker — the social engineer. 

Social engineers are threat actors who manipulate targeted victims into giving information or performing an action that furthers the despicable objectives of the engineer. Often, social engineers trick employees into providing access into the internal systems of an organization. 

Once inside, the engineer can steal data, infect your systems with ransomware, and cause major disruptions in your operations, which could cost millions of dollars in damage. Below, we’ll take a close look at what it is, and how to recognize social engineering attacks so you can protect your organization.


How Do Social Engineering Attacks Happen?

Social engineering attack examples are not hard to come by, but it can be difficult to avoid an attack on your own organization without the right tools and knowledge. There are many different types of social engineering attacks, but most of them follow a similar attack pattern involving the following four steps:

Step One: Target Identification and Investigation

Before a social engineer can begin, they have to learn about their target. They may identify which members of an organization will make the best targets by researching online and finding relevant information to use from company websites, online profiles, and social media accounts. 

During an attack, a social engineer may pretend to be someone else — such as a friendly IT guy supposedly sent over from your organization’s tech department — and it would make their story more believable if they could reference someone from the tech department by name.

Step Two: The Hook

Once the engineer has done their research on a target, they will proceed with an interaction. This could be in the form of an online attack such as a phishing email. or a physical attack in which the social engineer attempts to interact with their target in-person or over the phone. At this stage, the social engineer will use human emotions to gain their victim’s trust — often through pretexting — which includes just enough real information to make the whole interaction seem credible. 

For example, a popular spear phishing attack involves tricking a target into believing that their social media account is compromised, and the only way to resolve the issue is by clicking on the link in the email and resetting their password. The victim may be afraid of losing their account, and so wouldn’t stop to think about the legitimacy of the email.

Step Three: The Payoff

The attack is carried out — often as soon as the victim has performed the desired action or given the required information — without the victim even being aware that anything is wrong. In some cases, the social engineer may even fool the victim into thinking that an issue was resolved. 

On August 7, 2022, Twilio announced that private user data was stolen through a sophisticated social engineering attack using SMS phishing messages. The threat actors have not been caught, partly because they “have continued to rotate through carriers and hosting providers to resume their attacks.”   

Step Four: The Exit Strategy

Social engineering doesn’t stop once the attack is carried out. To avoid being discovered in the future, they will remove any traces of suspicious activity. This could be as simple as removing an infected USB stick from the company computer before leaving the premises. Once the attack has been completed from start to finish, the social engineer has what they were after (usually data or money).


How To Recognize Social Engineering Attacks 

Knowing what to look for can help an organization from becoming falling prey to social engineering attacks. Some warning signs include:

Unknown senders. It’s important to check the send field of any email you receive, but that may not be enough. With many email applications, you can click the drop down arrow to see the full email address of the sender to make sure they are who they say they are. You can avoid phishing scams by only opening emails and their attachments from trusted, known sources. Additionally, be careful about giving sensitive information over the phone to people you don’t know personally.

Grammar mistakes. Frequent grammatical errors may indicate a standard phishing email that has been sent to hundreds of thousands of email addresses in hopes that someone will be fooled, even if the language of the content isn’t quite right. 

This can also be something to watch out for in a physical attack. A “new employee” could enter the building with an employee ID card that looks different from the norm or contains obvious differences in spelling and placement of information on the card. This may be a social engineer attempting to directly access your systems and computers.

Suspicious logos and company names.  Similar to grammar mistakes, there may be issues with company logos and names in an email. The logo may be in the wrong spot, too small or too large, or could be missing entirely. This is also something to look out for on ID badges of employees and 3rd party companies that interact with your organization.

A bad gut feeling. Sometimes, an interaction just doesn’t feel quite right. For example, you may receive a warning about your social media account when you don’t have an account on the platform specified in the email. Another “gut feeling” warning could be a suspicious email domain that has extra numbers and letters or a company name that is misspelled.   


How To Protect Your Business Against Social Engineering Attacks

What is a social engineering attack? It’s a real threat to you, your employees, and your business. Social engineers can cause operational disruption, data breaches, and financial losses even when an organization has top-notch cybersecurity systems in place. Protect your business through security training, enforcing security processes, and testing your company’s readiness through penetration testing.

For more information, download your free guide, Learn to Avoid Cyber Threats in 5 ½ Easy Steps.

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Topics: Social Engineering

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