Social engineering attacks are on the rise, and despite increased awareness, human error is still the most successful gateway for most data breaches today. 

No matter how many security tools security leaders deploy and maintain to safeguard data or an organization, the biggest vulnerability lies in the people. Hackers are evolving even as security leaders invest in another cybersecurity training — they’re getting sneakier, smarter and more sophisticated. 

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is an attack that uses deception or manipulation to access confidential information or systems. It's a kind of ploy, and its goal is to make users give up their passwords or other private information through phone calls, messages, or emails. Social engineers may also use legitimate credentials from other sources, such as the dark web or social media, to tailor their attacks to their victims.

Phishing and pretexting

The two most common types of social engineering attacks today are phishing and pretexting. 

Phishing is a deceptive technique where cybercriminals impersonate someone known or a trusted organization to trick them into revealing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, or personal identification information. 

Pretexting is more elaborate and involves the creation of a fabricated scenario or pretext to manipulate users into disclosing sensitive information. Unlike phishing, which usually relies on impersonation, pretexting often consists of building a false narrative or story to gain a person's trust and access to their data.

While phishing and pretexting are distinct tactics, they often overlap. For instance, a phishing email may incorporate pretexting elements by including a fabricated story or scenario to request more legitimate and convincing information. In such cases, the attack can be described as a blend of both techniques.

The psychology of social engineering

Social engineering attacks are often successful because they exploit human weaknesses. They rely on the attacker or attackers manipulating emotions or using deception to get what they want.

Building trust

A social engineer will use many tactics to build trust with their target so they can be tricked into giving out information more easily. They might talk about family or ask about a user’s life to create a bond. Worse still, they may come prepared with this information (collected from the internet or previous social engineering attacks) and know exactly who someone is and how they might respond. The attacker can also pretend to be a colleague in another department within your organization. 

Exploiting emotions

Social engineers know that people are more likely to give out information when they feel like they’re helping someone else, even if it means putting themselves at risk. They also exploit emotions such as sympathy or panic, which can cloud your judgment and make someone more likely to do what the attacker asks them to do. For example, suppose someone was pretending to be a police officer calling about credit card fraud. A user might feel pressured to provide them with information and even agree to transfer money.

The factors influencing human vulnerability

Social engineering attacks take advantage of human vulnerabilities, but there are other factors that cybercriminals count on whenever launching an attack. One is ignorance, and the other is arrogance. 

Lack of cybersecurity awareness

A lack of cybersecurity awareness is one of the main contributors to social engineering attacks. Users won't take precautions if they don't know they're at risk. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Intel in 2022, 97% of individuals around the globe are unable to identify a sophisticated phishing email, and one out of five small and medium business owners did not know what the word phishing means.

Overconfidence in technology

People believe that technological solutions alone can protect them from social engineering attacks. However, even strong passwords and two-factor authentication cannot protect security leaders from human nature and the possibility of making a mistake, especially when they are overworked or distracted. The secret ingredient of many social engineering attacks, urgency, can make them click on the link in the email without stopping to think first.

Mitigating the human factor 

While there’s not much security leaders can do about their human nature (which is just as great as it isn’t), they can train their instincts, change their habits and strengthen their cybersecurity defense mechanisms. In other words, they can make thei responses less impulsive. There are several ways to help security leaders mitigate the risks.

Cybersecurity training and education 

Training should not be limited to technical staff but should also include management and other employees who might come into contact with sensitive data or systems. The training should consist of practical exercises that simulate real-world scenarios so that employees can learn how to respond when faced with a real-life situation. Run these regularly and measure how well the team performs.

Implementing strong authentication methods 

Robust authentication methods ensure that only authorized individuals can access information or systems, thus reducing the risk of unauthorized access by insiders or hackers who may attempt to impersonate others by guessing passwords or using stolen credentials. Solid authentication methods include multi-factor authentication (MFA), biometrics, physical tokens and knowledge-based questions (KBQ).

Raising awareness through simulations and drills

Run drills in which employees practice recognizing suspicious behavior and reporting it immediately. Security leaders can also routinely perform "fake" social engineering attacks and check how their team responds. Follow each one of these with an in-depth feedback session. In addition to raising awareness, it will make employees more suspicious when opening an email or picking up their phone, as they should be.

Take care of the personal information available to hackers

There’s a lot to take care of. Personal information, including an address, phone number and age, can be easily found on people search sites. In addition, criminals can find out where they work and what they're interested in thanks to social media profiles and cookie tracking information (readily available on the dark web). This makes performing a successful pretexting attack way easier. 

Future social engineering trends

As technology advances, so do the techniques employed by cybercriminals in social engineering attacks. Attackers continually refine their methods, making detecting and defending against such threats increasingly challenging. The future will likely see the development of more sophisticated and convincing social engineering tactics, including deep fakes, AI-generated content, and novel psychological manipulation approaches.

The role of artificial intelligence and machine learning

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are becoming integral to both cyberattacks and defense strategies. Attackers can leverage AI and ML to automate and personalize their social engineering campaigns, making them more effective. Conversely, AI-driven tools are also used to detect and respond to social engineering attacks in real-time. However, this cat-and-mouse game raises concerns about the potential for AI to be weaponized by malicious actors.

Privacy concerns and ethical considerations

Social engineering attacks often involve the manipulation of personal information. As data privacy concerns continue growing, the ethical implications of collecting and using personal data for legitimate and malicious purposes become more pronounced. Striking a balance between security and privacy will be a crucial challenge in the future. Security leaders will need to come up with responsible data handling practices and robust legal frameworks to protect individuals from social engineering exploits while safeguarding their privacy rights.

People are the weakest link in an organization's security strategy. While many successful engineering attacks rely on greed ("click here to win"), even more exploit their impulse to help, cooperate and contribute.