What is a Social Engineering Attack? How to Protect Yourself and Your Data

It’s much easier to fall victim to a cyber attack than most people would like to admit. You hear about breaches all the time. Google. Marriott. Yahoo. They’ve all had their turns falling victim to scammers, and the techniques used to trick them are usually very simple.

Social engineering is about using ploys that play into your emotions to trick you into making choices you otherwise wouldn’t. Millions fall victim to a manipulative and nefarious scheme every year. This article covers various social engineering schemes and details how to keep yourself safe.

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What is a Social Engineering Attack?

what is social engineering attack

Between 2013 and 2015, Google and Facebook, two of the largest companies to ever exist, fell victim to a nefarious social engineering attack issued by Lithuanian national Evaldas Rimasauskas. The attack was simple but incredibly effective.

Rimasauskas set up a fake website that correlated with a real business that manufactured computers and other hardware that both Google and Facebook were legitimately using.

He then began to invoice the two tech giants for products they were using. However, when they paid their invoices, the money went not to the company supplying them with the services but to fraudulent accounts accessible only to Rimasauskas.

During the two years this heist took place, he could steal almost $100 million. The scale of this fraud is outrageous— you need a pretty serious mark to get away with two years of fake invoices.

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However, things like this happen on a smaller scale daily—social engineering scams work by playing on a person’s psychology. The idea isn’t to break into their computer through malware— not at first, anyway— but to trick the victim into divulging information they would otherwise keep private.

For example, you might get an email that looks like it came from Netflix. The email says that they were unable to process your last payment. Consequently, your account is suspended until the payment method is updated.

“But I’m only halfway through The Queen’s Gambit!” You think as you fumble for your wallet. In your haste to keep up with Beth Harmon’s trials and tribulations, you don’t recall that your Netflix payment showed up on your card just last week.

Different types of social engineering attacks

Social engineering attacks tend to work best when they can trick a person into using poor judgment. There are many different types of schemes that bad actors will use to access your money or personal data.

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1. Phishing

Phishing is probably the most common type of social engineering attack because it is straightforward for the lousy actor to use. You get an email encouraging you to take actions that might feel routine and simple enough. It could ask you to follow a link, download a program, or update your payment information.

The Netlfix scenario that we described above is a form of phishing. The Google/Facebook scam may also qualify, though additional layers to the scheme make it more complicated than most phishing scams.

While most people feel immune to this type of scam— you’re a millennial, you know not to open emails from strangers— they can be tricky and convincing. Many of the most infamous data breaches in human history— Yahoo, Marriot, the Irish healthcare network fiasco— were all the product of clever phishing scams.

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2. Whaling

Whaling is a variation of the phishing scam technique specifically targeting high-ranking individuals within a business or government agency. The attacks above, Marriot, Yahoo, etc., resulted from mistakes made by relatively low-ranking employees within an organization.

With whaling schemes, the messages are usually more carefully crafted and personalized. The scammer may set up a dummy email address that looks like it is coming from someone the “whale knows.

In these scenarios, the scammer is typically looking for specific information. For that reason, it is a common technique in espionage and cyber-terrorism.
A weird variation of this scheme took place a few years ago.

A scammer created a fake email address that was modeled off of one belonging to a well-known literary agent. They then messaged many high-profile authors asking for copies of their work-in-progress. A surprising number of people fell for it.

Most whaling schemes are about more than getting early access to good books.

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3. Diversion Theft

Diversion theft is a classic criminal technique that has existed since well before the internet. For example, a person using a dummy phone number/name might order a delivery to a home address. While the driver is en-route, they may make a call.

“I’m on the other side of town. So sorry—could you meet me at X.”

It’s against company policy for the driver to go to X— or any portion of the latter half of the alphabet. For security reasons, they should only do home deliveries to verified addresses  But, they are already out…

They get robbed.

The online variation of this theft technique may trick people into venturing off a good website through a pop-up that looks official. Same idea. They leave the safe spot and voluntarily go to a location where their information is vulnerable.

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4. Baiting

Congratulations! You’ve won a $100 gift card to Amazon. Please take this short survey to claim your prize. Oh boy. Guess what’s waiting on the other end of that link. It’s not an Amazon gift card; we can tell you that much.

The survey itself might exist. After all, this scheme works best if you don’t immediately realize that you were tricked. However, what’s happening is that a bad actor is using your credentials for—well. Use your imagination.

Baiting schemes work by luring you into unsafe territory with an appealing offer. This is another trap that most people think they are too clever to fall for. However, it’s easier than you think to make the wrong choice.

That $100 gift card offer looked like Amazon sent it. You clicked the link without thinking twice in your excitement to afford a Nintendo Switch finally.

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5. Honey Trap

This is a sad one. Older adults fall for it the most, but it can happen to anyone. A honey trap happens when someone online pretends to be someone else. They act as though they are romantically interested in a person and initiate an online romance with the person. Then, they trick the person into giving them money.

They may even blackmail them for it using personal information they have accumulated during the “relationship.”
If you’ve seen the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” you’ve watched a fictional depiction of a physical variant of the “honey trap.”

6. Pretexting

Have you ever seen someone at your door claiming to be from the power company? Except they don’t look quite right. Their shirt is nice, but it doesn’t have a company logo. They are holding a clipboard, but it looks like something they sell at Target in the bargain office supply area, and— where’s their car?

They want a minute of your time to discuss—well. Hopefully, you’ve closed the door and never learned what they are there to discuss. Chances are, they were performing a scheme called “Pretexting.” They contacted you to discuss your experiences with the power company.

But they don’t want to know how satisfied you are with your service. They want personal information. There are many online variations of this technique, in which you are contacted by someone who sounds official. An IRS agent, say, who needs your social security number?

Please don’t give it to them.

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7. SMS Phishing

A text-based variation on typical phishing schemes, SMS phishing is used by bad actors to take advantage of the proliferation of cell phone-based communication in the world of business. An employee may receive a text message that asks them to verify their access to the network.

Well! They certainly don’t want any workflow interruptions, and the text message seems official enough. But the phisher gains access to their device when they follow the link.

It’s a simple scheme that is easy to fall victim to.

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8. Scareware

Scareware is malware that is designed to induce a panic response. You may experience it while visiting a perfectly innocuous website. Suddenly you get a pop-up. “Your computer has a virus! Click here to download the solution!” The message may even have a countdown feature, adding urgency to the situation.

Sometimes scareware will include embarrassing details— you got this virus visiting Bthe LANK unsavory website. And it doesn’t matter that you’ve never been to that website. You want to get the message cleared away before a coworker sees it.

Of course, there is no virus. All you have to do is exit the browser to be free of the message. But because you feel panicked, you might fall victim to the message’s urgency and click a link you otherwise wouldn’t have.

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How to Avoid Social Engineering Attacks

Scared? You don’t have to be. The good news is that social engineering attacks are easy to avoid. Awareness is an enormous first step in keeping yourself safe. We’ve got that base covered. Below, you will find a few more tips that will help keep you safe from social engineering attacks.

1. Regard Unsolicited Communication with Extreme Scrutiny

If a message seems suspicious, it probably is. If you receive an email that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t follow any links or downloads. Instead, reach out to the company ostensibly responsible for the message directly.

They will be able to tell you if the message is legitimate. Most businesses have a strict policy against asking for personal information over email, which will indicate if a message is trustworthy.

2. Don’t Download…Anything

Ok. You can download some things. But only from verified sources and only when you want the thing that is being downloaded.

When a stranger reaches out from the inky ethers of the internet, encouraging you to download something you’ve never heard of, they always have a nefarious agenda.

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3. Verify

Before you divulge sensitive information to someone online, verify their identity through secondary means. For example, if a coworker asks you for BLANK, call them before sending the information.

4. Hover Your Mouse Over the Links

This is a silly trick, but it can work. Before you click any link, hover the mouse over it. Sometimes, this will give you a pop-up window determining whether the address is valid.

Depending on what sort of anti-fraud software you have installed, it may even give your system a chance to scan and evaluate the link.
It’s a simple trick that takes about four seconds of your time.

Hmm…This all sounds a little bit….

Tedious? Annoying? Undesirable? It is. And that’s how they get you. Most people don’t want to interrupt their lives or workflow to verify every email and text message.

That’s why scammers can use simple tricks to get into big corporations like Google. They are banking on the fact that you don’t want to take the simple steps required to keep yourself safe.

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Vigilance takes time and effort, but it is an essential part of keeping yourself safe in the age of digital technology. Business leaders can increase online safety by standardizing best practices within their training and company policy.

When companies constantly encourage best practices in cyber security, it can go a long way toward ensuring that people make sensible decisions. Remember that bad actors only need a small opening to get in. Ensuring everyone understands what is expected of them, you can keep yourself and your business safer.

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