Social Engineering Attacks: How to Defend Your Data

Social engineering describes one method hackers use to gain access to your sensitive information. As the name suggests, this type of scam uses information found on social media platforms to impersonate a specific individual for malicious purposes. In this article, we will take a deeper look at the keys to identifying social engineering tactics and protecting yourself from these cybersecurity risks.

What is a social engineering attack?

Social engineering refers to a kind of attack accomplished through psychological manipulation and human interaction. Other kinds of online attacks, like DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks, rely on technology to get into a system and accomplish the end goal. Social engineering techniques, on the other hand, require communication and manipulation. Attackers lean into the victim's kindness, gullibility, or fears in order to get what they want.

Many social engineering attacks aim to create a sense of urgency in order to get the victim to act fast. They want the victim to give up information, whether it be bank account and credit card information, Social Security numbers, or account passwords. They will say whatever is necessary to convince the victim to give it.

What does a social engineering attack look like?

Just as with all scams, social engineering attacks take many forms. However, the nature of social engineering attacks is that they take advantage of the victims' trusted relationships. Many social engineering attacks look like an email, text message, social media message, or call from a friend or trusted source.

When a hacker gains access to a person's account, they also gain access to their entire contact list. Therefore, if you receive a message from a friend that contains a link or prompt to download something, think twice before clicking. If one of your friend's online accounts has been compromised, you could be getting a message from a hacker, not from your friend. Reach out to the person to determine if it was a legitimate message or not.

Sometimes hackers in social engineering attacks pose as a trusted source such as a big company or a non-profit. You might get a call asking for your help, requesting that you donate to a charity or fundraiser, or notifying you that you're the winner of a fake contest. Then, they ask you to verify your information in order to solve a problem or get your prize. Because you trust the company, you might give over your information - but this is a mistake. Always ignore any request for your financial or personal information unless you can verify that the person contacting you is authentic.

Graphic with the words "social engineering"

Types of social engineering attacks

There are several types of social engineering attacks. Because social engineering refers more to the methodology of the attack, many well-known types of attacks - like phishing attacks and scareware attacks - can fall under this category. The following are a few common types of social engineering attacks:

  • Phishing attacks - Phishing scams are, unfortunately, quite common. In these types of attacks, a cybercriminal sends a message to the victim using something like a spoofed email address, a malicious link, or a hidden malware download. They trick users into providing login information or personal data, which then results in losses.
  • Watering hole attacks - Watering hole attacks are when malware is installed onto a legitimate site regularly visited by users in order to infect computers in an organization or network. The attacker knows that victims will come to the "watering hole," so all they have to do is wait.
  • SMS attacks - SMS attacks happen via text. The victim receives an SMS message with a malicious link or image; once clicked or downloaded, the hacker has access to the victim's device. In some SMS attacks, the hacker reaches out to the victim posing as someone else and convinces the victim to share personal information.
  • Scareware - Scareware tricks users into purchasing or downloading something that they don't really need. This is in order to get malware or other dangerous software onto their device. For example, users may get a pop-up telling them their computer is infected and they need to download antivirus software to stay safe. In reality, the "antivirus software" is the malware.
  • Pretexting - In a pretexting attack, the cybercriminal uses a fake story - a pretext - to evoke sympathy or gain trust from a victim. Once they have the victim's trust, they can manipulate the victim into doing things for them or giving them money, information, or other assistance.
  • Baiting - In these types of attacks, cybercriminals use a false premise to try to draw victims to a scam. They attempt to pique victims' curiosity or provide an offer that seems too good to be true. This makes victims much more likely and willing to provide their information in order to satiate their curiosity or get in on a great deal. Some attackers even use physical "bait," like a USB drive. They leave the item where someone else will find it. Then, the victim picks it up and puts it into their computer to see what's on it without thinking twice.

Be on the lookout for any of the above scams. Keep in mind that social engineering attackers rely on human connections to commit their crimes. Try to guard yourself, even when communicating with another person.

Why is social engineering so dangerous?

Social engineering is dangerous because it's easy to be tricked using social engineering methods. Most of the time, cybercriminals have to try to breach a computer or computer system using malware or brute force. But with social engineering attacks, the victim does the work for the cybercriminal. The victim provides information, passwords, and other crucial data to their attacker without even realizing it.

Furthermore, social engineering attacks are only growing more sophisticated. Many falsified websites look almost identical to legitimate companies' sites. This makes it even harder for victims to tell when they're being scammed. Social engineering also makes it possible for a hacker to take down an entire network with one person. If the victim provides enough information to the hacker, the hacker can access the rest of a network and infect other devices and computers.

Tips to protect yourself against social engineering attacks

As devious as these kinds of attacks are, there are also ways to boost your safety and security in order to avoid becoming a victim. If you can identify when something seems off, you'll be in a much better position to defend yourself. Here are six tips to protect your online privacy and guard against a social engineering attack.

  • Be suspicious. Unless you know for sure, never assume the person you're speaking with is who they say they are. Catfishing is a serious danger. As a rule of thumb, if you think something online is too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Be wary of links and downloads. If you don't personally know the sender and aren't expecting the message, don't click. These attachments often contain hidden malware.
  • Ignore foreign messages. If you receive a message from a foreign sweepstakes or request for help, it's guaranteed to be fraudulent.
  • Be careful with what you post. Social engineering hackers can use everything you post on social media to gather information about you. If you wouldn't want a hacker to have access to the information, refrain from posting it on the internet.
  • Utilize your spam filters. Every email account comes with spam filter options. Keep your filters on high for the most protection. However, it's a good idea to periodically check your spam folder for legitimate emails that got put there by mistake.
  • Keep your devices secure. Stay current on antivirus software, firewalls, and operating system updates. All of these things help maintain your device's security.

Having an online presence means your personal information is always at risk. Therefore, you have the massive responsibility of protecting your personal information. Knowing what you are sharing and being able to identify suspicious behavior are both key in preventing a social engineering attack.