Social engineering, in the context of information security, refers to psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. A type of confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional "con" in that it is often one of many steps in a more complex fraud scheme.
The term "social engineering" as an act of psychological manipulation is also associated with the social sciences, but its usage has caught on among computer and information security professionals.
Social engineering is an attack vector that relies heavily on human interaction and often involves tricking people into breaking normal security procedures.
A social engineer runs what used to be called a "con game." Techniques such as appeal to vanity, appeal to authority and appeal to greed are often used in social engineering attacks. Many social engineering exploits simply rely on people's willingness to be helpful. For example, the attacker might pretend to be a co-worker who has some kind of urgent problem that requires access to additional network resources.
Popular types of social engineering attacks include:
- Baiting: Baiting is when an attacker leaves a malware-infected physical device, such as a USB flash drive in a place it is sure to be found. The finder then picks up the device and loads it onto his or her computer, unintentionally installing the malware.
- Phishing: Phishing is when a malicious party sends a fraudulent email disguised as a legitimate email, often purporting to be from a trusted source. The message is meant to trick the recipient into sharing personal or financial information or clicking on a link that installs malware.
- Spear phishing: Spear phishing is like phishing, but tailored for a specific individual or organization.
- Pretexting: Pretexting is when one party lies to another to gain access to privileged data. For example, a pretexting scam could involve an attacker who pretends to need personal or financial data in order to confirm the identity of the recipient.
- Scareware: Scareware involves tricking the victim into thinking his computer is infected with malware or has inadvertently downloaded illegal content. The attacker then offers the victim a solution that will fix the bogus problem; in reality, the victim is simply tricked into downloading and installing the attacker's malware.
Security experts recommend that IT departments regularly carry out penetration tests that use social engineering techniques. This will help administrators learn which types of users pose the most risk for specific types of attacks while also identifying which employees require additional training. Security awareness training can go a long way towards preventing social engineering attacks. If people know what forms social engineering attacks are likely to take, they will be less likely to become victims.
What is Social Engineering?
Social engineering is the art of manipulating people so they give up confidential information. The types of information these criminals are seeking can vary, but when individuals are targeted the criminals are usually trying to trick you into giving them your passwords or bank information, or access your computer to secretly install malicious software–that will give them access to your passwords and bank information as well as giving them control over your computer.
Criminals use social engineering tactics because it is usually easier to exploit your natural inclination to trust than it is to discover ways to hack your software. For example, it is much easier to fool someone into giving you their password than it is for you to try hacking their password (unless the password is really weak).
Security is all about knowing who and what to trust. Knowing when, and when not to, to take a person at their word; when to trust that the person you are communicating with is indeed the person you think you are communicating with; when to trust that a website is or isn’t legitimate; when to trust that the person on the phone is or isn’t legitimate; when providing your information is or isn’t a good idea.
Ask any security professional and they will tell you that the weakest link in the security chain is the human who accepts a person or scenario at face value. It doesn’t matter how many locks and deadbolts are on your doors and windows, or if have guard dogs, alarm systems, floodlights, fences with barbed wire, and armed security personnel; if you trust the person at the gate who says he is the pizza delivery guy and you let him in without first checking to see if he is legitimate you are completely exposed to whatever risk he represents.
Common social engineering attacks
Email from a friend. If a criminal manages to hack or socially engineer one person’s email password they have access to that person’s contact list–and because most people use one password everywhere, they probably have access to that person’s social networking contacts as well.
Once the criminal has that email account under their control, they send emails to all the person’s contacts or leave messages on all their friend’s social pages, and possibly on the pages of the person’s friend’s friends.
These messages may use your trust and curiosity:
- Contain a link that you just have to check out–and because the link comes from a friend and you’re curious, you’ll trust the link and click–and be infected with malware so the criminal can take over your machine and collect your contacts info and deceive them just like you were deceived.
- Contain a download–pictures, music, movie, document, etc., that has malicious software embedded. If you download–which you are likely to do since you think it is from your friend–you become infected. Now, the criminal has access to your machine, email account, social network accounts and contacts, and the attack spreads to everyone you know. And on, and on.
These messages may create a compelling story or pretext:
- Urgently ask for your help–your ’friend’ is stuck in country X, has been robbed, beaten, and is in the hospital. They need you to send money so they can get home and they tell you how to send the money to the criminal.
- Asks you to donate to their charitable fundraiser, or some other cause – with instructions on how to send the money to the criminal.
- Phishing attempts. Typically, a phisher sends an e-mail, IM, comment, or text message that appears to come from a legitimate, popular company, bank, school, or institution.
- These messages usually have a scenario or story:
- The message may explain there is a problem that requires you to "verify" of information by clicking on the displayed link and providing information in their form. The link location may look very legitimate with all the right logos, and content (in fact, the criminals may have copied the exact format and content of the legitimate site). Because everything looks legitimate, you trust the email and the phony site and provide whatever information the crook is asking for. These types of phishing scams often include a warning of what will happen if you fail to act soon, because criminals know that if they can get you to act before you think, you’re more likely to fall for their phish.
- The message may notify you that you’re a ’winner’. Maybe the email claims to be from a lottery, or a dead relative, or the millionth person to click on their site, etc. In order to give you your ’winnings’ you have to provide information about your bank routing so they know how to send it to you, or give your address and phone number so they can send the prize, and you may also be asked to prove who you are often including your Social Security Number. These are the ’greed phishes’ where even if the story pretext is thin, people want what is offered and fall for it by giving away their information, then having their bank account emptied, and identity stolen.
- The message may ask for help. Preying on kindness and generosity, these phishes ask for aid or support for whatever disaster, political campaign, or charity is hot at the moment.
Baiting scenarios. These socially engineering schemes know that if you dangle something people want, many people will take the bait. These schemes are often found on Peer-to-Peer sites offering a download of something like a hot new movie, or music. But the schemes are also found on social networking sites, malicious websites you find through search results, and so on.
Or, the scheme may show up as an amazingly great deal on classified sites, auction sites, etc.. To allay your suspicion, you can see the seller has a good rating (all planned and crafted ahead of time).
People who take the bait may be infected with malicious software that can generate any number of new exploits against themselves and their contacts, may lose their money without receiving their purchased item, and, if they were foolish enough to pay with a check, may find their bank account empty.
Response to a question you never had. Criminals may pretend to be responding to your ’request for help’ from a company while also offering more help. They pick companies that millions of people use like a software company or bank. If you don’t use the product or service, you will ignore the email, phone call, or message, but if you do happen to use the service, there is a good chance you will respond because you probably do want help with a problem.
For example, even though you know you didn’t originally ask a question you probably a problem with your computer’s operating system and you seize on this opportunity to get it fixed. For free! The moment you respond you have bought the crook’s story, given them your trust and opened yourself up for exploitation.
The representative, who is actually a criminal, will need to ’authenticate you’, have you log into ’their system’ or, have you log into your computer and either give them remote access to your computer so they can ’fix’ it for you, or tell you the commands so you can fix it yourself with their help–where some of the commands they tell you to enter will open a way for the criminal to get back into your computer later.
Creating distrust. Some social engineering, is all about creating distrust, or starting conflicts; these are often carried out by people you know and who are angry with you, but it is also done by nasty people just trying to wreak havoc, people who want to first create distrust in your mind about others so they can then step in as a hero and gain your trust, or by extortionists who want to manipulate information and then threaten you with disclosure.
This form of social engineering often begins by gaining access to an email account or other communication account on an IM client, social network, chat, forum, etc. They accomplish this either by hacking, social engineering, or simply guessing really weak passwords.
- The malicious person may then alter sensitive or private communications (including images and audio) using basic editing techniques and forwards these to other people to create drama, distrust, embarrassment, etc. They may make it look like it was accidentally sent, or appear like they are letting you know what is ’really’ going on.
- Alternatively, they may use the altered material to extort money either from the person they hacked, or from the supposed recipient.
There are literally thousands of variations to social engineering attacks. The only limit to the number of ways they can socially engineer users through this kind of exploit is the criminal’s imagination. And you may experience multiple forms of exploits in a single attack. Then the criminal is likely to sell your information to others so they too can run their exploits against you, your friends, your friends’ friends, and so on as criminals leverage people’s misplaced trust.
Don’t become a victim
- Slow down. Spammers want you to act first and think later. If the message conveys a sense of urgency, or uses high-pressure sales tactics be skeptical; never let their urgency influence your careful review.
- Research the facts. Be suspicious of any unsolicited messages. If the email looks like it is from a company you use, do your own research. Use a search engine to go to the real company’s site, or a phone directory to find their phone number.
- Delete any request for financial information or passwords. If you get asked to reply to a message with personal information, it’s a scam.
- Reject requests for help or offers of help. Legitimate companies and organizations do not contact you to provide help. If you did not specifically request assistance from the sender, consider any offer to ’help’ restore credit scores, refinance a home, answer your question, etc., a scam. Similarly, if you receive a request for help from a charity or organization that you do not have a relationship with, delete it. To give, seek out reputable charitable organizations on your own to avoid falling for a scam.
- Don’t let a link in control of where you land. Stay in control by finding the website yourself using a search engine to be sure you land where you intend to land. Hovering over links in email will show the actual URL at the bottom, but a good fake can still steer you wrong.
Curiosity leads to careless clicking–if you don’t know what the email is about, clicking links is a poor choice. Similarly, never use phone numbers from the email; it is easy for a scammer to pretend you’re talking to a bank teller.
- Email hijacking is rampant. Hackers, spammers, and social engineerers taking over control of people’s email accounts (and other communication accounts) has become rampant. Once they control someone’s email account they prey on the trust of all the person’s contacts. Even when the sender appears to be someone you know, if you aren’t expecting an email with a link or attachment check with your friend before opening links or downloading.
- Beware of any download. If you don’t know the sender personally AND expect a file from them, downloading anything is a mistake.
- Foreign offers are fake. If you receive email from a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, money from an unknown relative, or requests to transfer funds from a foreign country for a share of the money it is guaranteed to be a scam.
- Set your spam filters to high. Every email program has spam filters. To find yours, look under your settings options, and set these high–just remember to check your spam folder periodically to see if legitimate email has been accidentally trapped there. You can also search for a step-by-step guide to setting your spam filters by searching on the name of your email provider plus the phrase ’spam filters’.
- Secure your computing devices. Install anti-virus software, firewalls, email filters and keep these up-to-date. Set your operating system to automatically update, and if your smartphone doesn’t automatically update, manually update it whenever you receive a notice to do so. Use an anti-phishing tool offered by your web browser or third party to alert you to risks.