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The Anatomy Of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks” refers to tricking people into giving up sensitive information or access to systems. In many cases, social engineering attacks are far more successful than traditional hacking techniques because they exploit human weaknesses instead of technical vulnerabilities.

This is because while more organizations are aware of the numerous threats posed by hacking, they’ve mostly upgraded their systems ? i.e., the technical aspect, and forgotten about the key and most vulnerable factor, humans?the most crucial cog in any enterprise or organization.

Unlike computer hardware/software, humans have emotions that greatly influence their actions. For instance, a policy may prohibit downloading or opening attachments on company computers. 

However, the urge to follow instructions from superiors may compel junior staff to download an attachment, even when they know organizational policy. In most cases, there’s the fear of being reprimanded for insubordination or the assumption that superiors know better and that their instructions/orders override standing policy. This is the gap/weakness attackers know and exploit.

Attackers often use various forms of deception to gain their victim’s trust. They may pose as a customer service representative, for example, or pretend to be someone from the victim’s company. Once they’ve gained sufficient trust, they can start collecting sensitive information or gain access to an organization’s systems.

Whereas soft-handed tactics have been the norm, attackers are getting bolder. They may employ brutal tactics like blackmail to force or manipulate victims into providing information or granting access to an organization’s systems. 

All types of social engineering attacks share one common goal: trick or manipulate victims into knowingly or unknowingly revealing information or granting access that they would not typically give.

Types Of Social Engineering Attacks

They can broadly be categorized into four main types:

  1. Phishing attacks
  2. Vishing attacks
  3. Smishing attacks
  4. Impersonation attacks

Each type of attack has its unique characteristics. Still, all are designed to trick victims into providing compromising information or carrying out an action that would grant the attacker access to an organization’s data or systems.

Phishing attacks are the most prevalent social engineering attacks. They typically involve attackers sending out mass emails that look like they’re from a legitimate company or organization. Such emails usually contain malicious links that direct victims to login into what they believe are genuine sites, but in essence, the code would direct their login credentials to the attacker’s server. 

Vishing attacks are similar to phishing attacks, but instead of using email, attackers will use phone calls to try and trick victims. They might pose as a customer service representative from a bank, credit card company, or IT support firm associated with the victim’s organization.

Smishing attacks are social engineering attacks that use text messages instead of email. The ploy is that the message is from a trusted organization like a bank or government agency, and they usually contain a link that leads to a fake website.

Impersonation attacks are more targeted than phishing or smishing attacks. In these attacks, attackers will pose as a trusted individual, like a co-worker or friend, and try to manipulate the victim into divulging privileged information or carrying out an action, i.e., clicking on a malicious link. Similarly, attackers may disguise themselves as IT support staff or maintenance crew to gain physical access to a company’s systems.


One way to spot a social engineering attack is to look for red flags in the message or communication. For example, does the message contain spelling or grammatical errors? Is the sender using a generic greeting like “Dear Sir/Madam” instead of addressing you by name? Is the sender asking for personal or sensitive information? If any of these red flags are present, be suspicious and do not respond to the message.

If uncertain about an email or text message, there are a few things that can be done to verify authenticity. First, try hovering over any links in the message. If the URL appears to differ from what you were expecting, it could be a phishing attack. 

Look up the supposed company or sender’s name on various search engines to see if there have been any reports of phishing attempts. Finally, you can contact the company or individual directly to confirm that the message is legitimate.

Everyone in an organization must take action immediately if they’re aware or suspect that they’ve been compromised. They should inform their supervisor or contact their organization’s IT team and provide all details surrounding the attack. 

Change all passwords, and if the same password has been used on multiple accounts, they should all be changed. 

After an attack or suspected attack, organizations should monitor their systems closely for any unusual activity. If anything seems suspicious, it should be reported to relevant superiors, and the organization’s IT team, or relevant authorities immediately.

How Organizations Can Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

While it isn’t possible to eliminate this threat vector, these tips can help prevent or minimize the damage from social engineering attacks:

  1. Educate employees about social engineering techniques and how to spot them. Employees should be aware of social engineering attacks and what to look for. There should also be a policy prohibiting employees from sharing information, no matter how irrelevant it may seem unless they are sure that the person they are speaking with is legitimate.
  2. Implement security measures such as two-factor authentication. This utility adds an extra layer of security by requiring the user to have something else besides their password to log in. This could be a physical token, such as a key fob, or a code generated by an app on their smartphone.
  3. Keep systems and software up to date. Attackers often exploit vulnerabilities in outdated software and hardware to access systems. Updating your hardware and software components can help seal any potential gaps an attacker might exploit.
  4. Back up data regularly. If systems are compromised, having regular backups can help minimize the damage and downtime. Backups should be stored offline in a secure location to protect them from being accessed by attackers.
  5. Monitor systems for unusual activity. Organizations should have monitoring in place to detect suspicious activity on their systems. This could include things like unexpected changes to files or unusual network traffic. IT support should investigate if something suspicious is detected to determine if there has been any unauthorized access or activity.
  6. Advise staff to avoid giving out personal information. Despite the urge to post things about themselves on social media, it’s advisable that they keep it at a minimum or, at best, blur out the details. Attackers can and will use personal information to exploit anyone’s trust and trick them into revealing even more sensitive information.
  7. Beware of phishing, smishing, or vishing campaigns. Educate employees to be constantly suspicious of any correspondence that asks them to click on a link, download an attachment, or provide privileged information, even if it seems to be from a legitimate source. They should confirm directly with the relevant person or authority before acting on any instruction or suggestion. 

Final Thoughts

Remember that social engineering is all about manipulation. The bad guys are experts at reading people and knowing how and when to push their buttons. They will use whatever leverage, including emotions, to get what they want.

Secondly, employees should always be aware of their surroundings and who they’re talking to. If something feels off, it probably is.

Finally, don’t forget that social engineering can happen anywhere, at any time. Be vigilant and stay alert to protect your organization from these heartless criminals.

Protecting your organization against malicious social engineering attacks may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be with the right IT support partner.

Contact us today, and take the first step to shield your organization from this threat vector and others.


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