There are so many ways for hackers to infiltrate your network and steal data. Cybercriminals are often masters of their craft, and their sophistication continues to improve. An old tactic they’ve used for decades, phishing, has an entirely new and very modern iteration—social engineering. Hackers use manipulation and trickery via phishing to get unsuspecting users to make security mistakes or divulge secret information.
Social engineering has become a critical tool for cybercriminals, and they use people’s online presence to set the trap. As a result of the rise in these incidents, your organization should consider social engineering penetration testing.
In this post, we’ll review the state of social engineering, how hackers use it to attack, how a pen test like this works, the benefits of conducting one, and more best practices.
What Is Social Engineering?
Social engineering can involve a lot of different malicious activities. The attack can be one or more steps, starting with the perpetrator identifying a victim or victims. Thus begins the investigation phase.
The hacker’s following move is to investigate these chosen targets. They’ll collect background information. They’ll also do an initial analysis of the potential for weak security protocols or unprotected endpoints. With what they gather, the perpetrators will select an attack method.
The next phase is about earning trust and seeming legitimate. Cybercriminals engage with the target and attempt deception. They begin with a story that could seem credible and ultimately want to take control of the interaction.
Social engineering depends on building some type of relationship over time. When culprits do this, they can expand their foothold on the victim. The attack happens at this juncture, and a breach or disruption to business follows.
Once the hacker has what he wants, it’s time to exit the system. They remove the malware and cover their tracks. The exercise is over, and the cybercriminals have won the game.
Social engineering is such a complex and compounding threat. It’s not dependent on technical or system vulnerabilities. Rather, its Achilles’ heel is human weakness. Those that carry this out want personal information for financial gain primarily. Other times, it’s part of a large-scale cyberattack that starts with getting people’s credentials.
Social engineering may also be a tactic for hacktivists to gain access to organizations or governments they deem as hostile. Next, we’ll look at common techniques in social engineering.
Common Social Engineering Techniques
So, how common is social engineering? It was the number one attack type in 2022, and organizations face over 700 of these annually. Hackers have been successful because they target people rather than technology. In fact, 90% of cyberattacks fall into this bucket. Here are the ways cybercriminals leverage social engineering to cause havoc.
- Posing as a trusted and known brand: This involves someone masquerading as an organization and spoofing to appear as a company familiar to the target. It doesn’t seem odd that people would receive an email from the entity and often follow instructions without questioning them. There are even kits that enable hackers to stage fake websites.
- Impersonating a government agency: Most people are afraid of or respect authority, and social engineering assailants use this to their advantage to get people to break security protocols.
- Using fear and urgency: Many times, the attack creates a situation where victims need to make fast and rash decisions or suffer some consequence. As a result, they become fearful and have lapses of judgment in making decisions.
- Appealing to the human helpful nature: Hackers also like to pull heartstrings and go for an approach that motivates the target to help. For example, they could imitate a friend or colleague that needs assistance, with many people falling for the scam in their pursuit to do the right thing.
Cybercriminals carry out these techniques in sever channels. Let’s look at social engineering attack types.
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
There are several avenues that hackers can take to launch their attacks. The most common is phishing, and it’s evolved over time.
Phishing can occur via email, text, messaging apps, or voice. The messages they send can look very convincing—a big step forward from the days of misspellings and broken English. There are several subcategories of phishing:
- Bulk phishing emails: These messages hit millions of people at a time and appear to come from a reputable institution like a bank. There’s typically an element of error in the content, and it urges people to take specific steps to remedy it.
- Spear phishing: This type of attack focuses on a specific target, typically someone who has access to data, funds, or other valuable information. The hackers craft messages based on their research to look like it’s coming from someone they know and trust.
- Business email compromise (BEC): In BEC, a cybercriminal has compromised credentials and sends an email message from the authority figure’s actual email account, which makes it even more likely for people to respond.
- Voice phishing: This type of scam uses phone calls to lay the trap of urgency and threats.
- SMS phishing: Hackers use text as the channel in these scenarios.
- Angler phishing: This is phishing via fake social media accounts that pretend to be accounts of a legitimate company’s customer service or support teams.
Baiting lures targets into unknowingly or unwillingly revealing sensitive information. It could also include a valuable offer accessible with a click, which then downloads malware. The Nigerian Prince scam is the best-known example of this. Modern interpretations continue to be problematic and may involve free games, music, or software downloads with malicious code.
In this situation, hackers construct a fake event and pose as the person to rectify it for the victim. Much of the time, the scammers claim the target was breached, and they’ll help them recover information or “fix” the problem.
With so many available ways to attack and spin a web of lies that play on human emotions, your organization likely has defenses for these in place. You train your people to recognize phishing, have access control policies, and use spam filtering and secure email gateways. These are a great foundation, but you may not know all the vulnerabilities unless you conduct a social engineering penetration test.
What Is a Social Engineering Penetration Test?
Penetration tests simulate the actions of hackers to evaluate your defenses and identify weaknesses. They are a critical part of any cybersecurity program. With a social engineering penetration test, you partner with ethical hackers, and they carry out common social engineering attacks to test your defenses.
These actions can include:
- Using social engineering to infect a user’s computer
- Sending out phishing emails to trick users into giving up confidential information
- Voice phishing traps to mislead users and prompt them to disclose sensitive data, like usernames and passwords
In the penetration test, those performing it mimic how a cybercriminal would manipulate the human component. It’s one of the only ways you can understand how susceptible your people are to becoming victims. Remember, social engineering is different from other types of cyberattacks. It’s all about how aware and astute your employees are, not your technology.
What Are the Benefits of Social Engineering Penetration Tests?
You can realize many positive benefits that will improve your security posture by instigating a penetration test via social engineering. Here’s what you can gain.
- Measure the effectiveness of your Security Awareness training: You invest in this for employees as part of compliance and security programs. With a pen test, you can evaluate if the training made a difference in employee behavior.
- Get clarity on security policy adherence: In addition to training, you have security rules that your staff should follow. Pen testing can evaluate how well they are doing so (or not), and the findings can inform future training and policy.
- Build a remediation plan: You’ll receive a comprehensive report from the pen test. Inside will be details about attacks launched and how successful they were. You’ll also receive remediation recommendations to strengthen your defenses against social engineering.
- Attain a new perspective on security: So much of pen testing and proactive stances focus on the technology and processes. Social engineering is about the people. When you have both sets of information, you can have a better 360-degree view of security flaws. The report you receive highlights the tactics and what information they were able to collect from these. It’s a unique and transparent view of the real-time decisions people make under duress.
Social Engineering Penetration Testing Should Be Part of Your Cybersecurity Program
Social engineering penetration tests help you understand the often-weak link of human behavior. Through simulated attacks, you can discover what’s working and what needs improvement. It’s valuable information not available through any other testing.
You should incorporate it into your cybersecurity program, and we can help. Our expert social engineering pen testers are ready to engage and assess how security-minded your employees are. Learn more about the service by scheduling a chat with us.