In the context of IT Security, the Oxford Dictionary defines social engineering as “the use of deception to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential or personal information that may be used for fraudulent purposes.”

Social engineering is often a confidence trick done to obtain access to systems and confidential data that can be part of a bigger scheme. It is still on the rise and is now the No. 1 cause of breaches, according to Verizon’s 2019 Data Breach Investigation Report (DBIR).

Fraudsters can trick people by playing on their emotions and getting people to act before they think, something people often do in an emotional state.

Social Engineering takes advantage of your:

  • Desire to please: Pretending to be your boss or other authority figure and telling you to do something that is critical, right away.
  • Trust: Pretending to be a close friend or relative.
  • Fear of scarcity: Saying offers are limited and/or will end soon.
  • Threats to wellbeing: Pretending that access to critical resources such as your bank account or paycheck is about to be cut-off.
  • Euphoria/Greed/Entitlement: Saying you won something or you are getting a free gift.

Types of Social Engineering attacks include:

  • Phishing: The most common form of social engineering, phishing uses emails that appear to come from legitimate sources to trick people into providing their information or clicking on malicious links. They frequently employ the tricks that put end users into one of the emotional states that causes them to act without thinking.
  • Vishing: uses social engineering over the telephone, sometimes with a rogue interactive voice response (IVR) system to mimic a legitimate institution to persuade you to supply your credentials and other data.
  • Smishing: uses SMS text messaging to make you divulge information or click on a malicious link.
  • Spear Phishing: similar to phishing, but the attacker customizes the email specifically for an individual to make the phish seem more real. They often target key employees with access to critical and/or confidential data.
  • Quid Pro Quo: pretends to be a service provider who keeps calling people until they find someone who actually requested or needs the service.
  • Baiting: Baiting relies on the greed or curiosity of the victim. For instance, leaving malware-infected USB sticks strategically lying around public areas is a common tactic that exploits human curiosity. Once the infected stick is inserted into a user’s computer, it installs the malware. Surrendering login credentials for free online music or movies is another offer that users often cannot resist.

Social engineering continues to plague the education and health care sectors, according to the Verizon report. Patients, students, staff, and faculty have suffered losses from disclosure of personal data and research to unauthorized parties. Knowing what you're up against can help you be more secure.

Here are a few actions you can take to guard against social engineering attacks:

  • Limit what you share online. The less you share about yourself, the smaller the target you are for a social engineering attack. Cybercriminals use information you post online to learn how to gain your trust.
  • Answer security questions with information that is not easily discerned. For example, if a possible security question is “What’s your brother’s name” and you’ve listed him on your Facebook page as your brother (or even got tagged in a pic by him, “Me and my little sis”), you’ve just given away that question to anyone who does a little research. Since websites still insist on using security questions like these, one alternative is to make up answers. You could base them on your best friend’s family, your second-favorite TV show, or another theme that’s easy to remember. For example: My childhood best friend? Spock. My high school? RCHS. My first pet? Pebbles). You can still answer the questions, and it’ll be harder for someone to social engineer or even guess the answers.
  • Protect your credentials. No legitimate company or organization will ever ask for your username, password, or other personal information via email, phone, or text. The university definitely won't.
  • Beware of attachments. Email attachments are the most common vector for malicious software. When you get a message with an attachment, delete it unless you expect it and are absolutely certain it is legitimate. If you’re not sure, check by calling the sender at a number you know is legitimate.
  • Confirm identities. Phishing messages can look official. Cybercriminals steal organization and company identities, including email addresses, logos, and URLs that are similar to the links they're trying to imitate. There's nothing to stop them from impersonating the university, financial institutions, retailers, a wide range of other service providers, or even someone you know.
  • Trust your instincts. If you get a suspicious message that claims to be from an agency or service provider, use your browser to manually locate the organization online and contact them via the website, email, or telephone number that you researched – not what was provided in the message.
  • Check the sender. Check the sender's email address. Any correspondence from an organization should come from an organizational email address.
  • Take your time. If a message states that you must act immediately or lose access, do not comply.
  • Don't click links in suspicious messages. If you don't trust the email (or text message, or post), don't trust the links in it either. Beware of links that are hidden by URL shorteners or text like "Click Here." They may link to a phishing site or a form designed to steal your username and password.

This article has been adapted from an Educause Review blog, “Don't Let a Phishing Scam Reel You In”. © EDUCAUSE, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license