Social Engineering Attacks

Social Engineering Attacks: A Blueprint for Robust Defense

Social Engineering Attacks

A Blueprint For Robust Defense

In today’s rapidly evolving threat landscape, cybersecurity remains a paramount concern for organizations across the globe. Among the multitude of attack vectors employed by cybercriminals, social engineering attacks stand out as a persistent and pervasive threat. Indeed, social engineering remains the top attack type in 2023, making it a prevalent cybersecurity threat. In daily life, a wide range of individuals, including scammers, journalists and various professionals, employ social engineering techniques to manipulate and better understand people, ultimately persuading them to achieve specific goals.

Organizations face over 700 social engineering attacks annually on average, highlighting the persistence of these threats (Barracuda’s 2021 Spear Phishing: Top Threats and Trends report). Beyond the most state of the art security solutions, social engineers use psychology to compromise organizational cybersecurity.

As cybersecurity professional, it is imperative to equip ourselves with a deep understanding of social engineering attacks, their evolving tactics, and robust defense strategies.

The Anatomy of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks are manipulative techniques used by malicious actors to deceive individuals or organizations into divulging sensitive information, performing specific actions, or providing access to systems or data. These attacks exploit psychological and behavioral aspects of human nature to gain unauthorized access or extract valuable information. 

Attackers use psychological tactics to make their attacks convincing and difficult to detect. Social engineering attacks exploit human characteristics. Psychologist Robert Cialdini identifies six vulnerabilities in human psychology in his book “Influence: Science and Practice.” These vulnerabilities are reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. Social engineers manipulate five emotions to exploit individuals such as greed, curiosity, urgency, helpfulness and fear.

Advanced social engineering attack techniques include spear phishing (targeted emails), vishing (voice phishing), pretexting (fabricated scenarios), baiting (enticements), quid pro quo (promises in exchange for data), tailgating (physical breaches), pharming (DNS manipulation), impersonation, AI-enhanced attacks, and deepfakes.

All forms of phishing are electronically delivered social engineering. Phishing is a cyber threat where adversaries send deceptive messages electronically to gain access to victim systems. It can take the form of targeted attacks known as spearphishing, focused on specific individuals, companies, or industries, or non-targeted attacks in mass spam campaigns. These messages often contain malicious attachments or links, aiming to execute harmful code on victim systems.

Phishing can also occur through third-party services, including social media, and involves social engineering techniques such as posing as a trusted source. Adversaries may manipulate emails or spoof sender identities to deceive both users and security tools. Victims may also be directed to call a phone number, leading them to malicious URLs, malware downloads, or remote management tool installations.

The Social Engineering toolbox attackers

Attackers often conduct OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) research and utilize specialized tools for their activities. Here are some key tools and techniques:

✅ Maltego: Developed by Paterva, Maltego is a versatile tool used for collecting and aggregating information about various targets, including individuals, networks, and machines. It streamlines the process of creating profiles or studying network topologies, saving time and providing valuable insights.

✅ Social Engineering Toolkit (SET): SET is a powerful tool designed to simplify phishing attempts. It integrates with the Metasploit framework, filling the gap in social engineering modules. It offers an intuitive interface and allows for various actions, such as generating PDF exploits, crafting deceptive emails, cloning web pages, creating malicious content, or developing payloads for Arduino.

✅ Mana Toolkit: This toolkit provides scripts for creating a Wi-Fi access point and manipulating connected victims, provided you have a compatible Wi-Fi card. It also includes the ability to duplicate a victim’s preferred SSID for replicating KARMA attacks. Depending on the chosen script, it can perform Man-In-The-Middle attacks, present deceptive portals, or attempt to crack EAP hashes.

✅ Browser Exploitation Framework (BeEF): BeEF is used for exploiting web browsers by injecting malicious code into them. It generates a JavaScript hook called “hook.js,” which can be executed on a victim’s browser through Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities on legitimate websites. Once the victim’s browser is compromised, attackers can extract information or execute commands on it. BeEF also offers modules dedicated to Social Engineering (SE), allowing attackers to deceive victims into revealing passwords or downloading and executing malicious binaries by presenting them as legitimate plugins or updates.

Why is social engineering important?

Social engineering attacks exploit human vulnerabilities, leading to data breaches, financial fraud, business disruption, privacy violations, reputation damage, legal consequences, compliance violations, and national security risks.

The average cost of a data breach initiated through social engineering surpassed $4.1 million (2022 Cost of a Data Breach report), indicating substantial financial consequences. Approximately 82% of data breaches involve human-related factors (2022 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), highlighting the significance of social engineering in cyberattacks. 90% of cyberattacks target employees rather than technology (2022 State of Cybersecurity Trends report), as attackers view them as the weakest link.

The biggest social engineering attack of all time (as far as we know) was perpetrated by Lithuanian national, Evaldas Rimasauskas, against two of the world’s biggest companies: Google and Facebook. It was a sophisticated cybercrime where Evaldas Rimasauskas targeted specific employees at Google and Facebook. Between 2013 and 2015, he posed as a vendor and sent fake invoices, convincing these employees to transfer around $100 million to his accounts.

In April 2021, a phishing attack targeting remote workers using cloud-based software emerged. The attack involves sending an urgent email to the target, requesting their signature on a document hosted in Microsoft Sharepoint. While the email appears legitimate with Sharepoint branding, the link leads to a phishing site aiming to steal user credentials. This attack underscores the growing trend of phishing attacks exploiting remote collaboration software, with a significant security vulnerability noted during the shift to remote work.

Effective Strategies to Defend Against Social Engineering Attacks

Awareness, education, and robust security measures are essential for defense against these advanced social engineering techniques. It’s important to secure devices so that a social engineering attack, even if successful, is limited in what it can achieve. The basic principles are the same, whether it’s a smartphone, a basic home network or a major enterprise system.

Did you know about this ?

Coping with phishing attacks as a company requires a multifaceted approach that combines technology, education, and proactive measures to mitigate the risks effectively. CIS Controls and MITRE ATT&CK can be used in conjunction to create a more robust cybersecurity strategy that encompasses both proactive security measures (CIS Controls) and an understanding of adversary tactics and techniques (MITRE ATT&CK). Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to cope with phishing attacks based on 9 of the CIS Controls framework.

Best 8 ways to prevent the impact of Social Engineering Attacks

How CIS Controls Can Help You Cope With Phishing Attacks?

The CIS Controls are a set of best practices and guidelines designed to enhance an organization’s cybersecurity posture. They provide a structured framework that can be tailored to meet an organization’s specific needs. The CIS Controls cover a wide range of security domains, ensuring that all potential avenues for phishing attacks are addressed. This holistic approach helps organizations create a more robust defense against phishing attempts. Here’s how CIS Controls can aid in mitigating phishing attacks:

Control 6 _ Access Control and Management

It is highly recommended to implement strong authentication by adding one (or even multiple) factor(s) in addition to the traditional login/password combination. Require MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication) for accessing sensitive systems, privileged accounts, email accounts, and applications. MFA adds an extra layer of security by requiring multiple forms of verification. Adaptive authentication, combined with these various and diverse factors, significantly complicates the task for attackers attempting to impersonate your identity and compromise your accounts. However, not all MFA methods are equally resistant to phishing attacks: SMS codes, app-generated codes, and physical tokens can be compromised. For instance, hardware keys are highly secure, confirming unique cryptographic keys in possession.

Control 9 _ Email and Web Browser Protections

This control focuses on securing email systems and web browsers, which are common entry points for phishing attacks. Implementing strong email filtering, anti-phishing technologies, and web browser security settings can help detect and block malicious content. Configure SPF and DMARC policies to verify the authenticity of email senders and reduce the risk of spoofed emails.

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Control 8 _ Maintenance, Monitoring, and Analysis of Audit Logs

Timely monitoring and analysis of audit logs can help organizations identify suspicious activities, including phishing attempts. By tracking user behaviors and system events, potential threats can be spotted and addressed promptly.

Control 1 & 2 _ Inventory and Control of Hardware and Software Assets

Ensuring that all assets is up to date with the latest security patches is crucial in mitigating vulnerabilities that phishing attacks may exploit. CIS Controls emphasize the importance of keeping an inventory of your assets to manage updates effectively.

Control 3 _ Data Protection

Protecting sensitive data is vital, as phishing attacks often seek to steal valuable information. Employ encryption, access controls, and data loss prevention measures to safeguard data from falling into the wrong hands.

Control 10 _ Malware Defenses

Phishing attacks frequently deliver malware payloads to compromise systems. Implement robust malware defenses, including antivirus software and intrusion detection systems, to detect and neutralize malware threats.

Control 17 _ Incident Response and Management

In the event of a successful phishing attack, having an effective incident response plan in place is essential. The CIS Controls stress the importance of having an incident response team ready to investigate and mitigate security incidents promptly.

Control 14 _ Security Awareness and skills training

Regularly train employees to recognize phishing attempts. Phishing tests can be helpful to protect users, using questionable tactics has the potential for harming relationships between a company and its employees. Use real-world examples to teach them how to identify suspicious emails, links, and attachments. Employees should be encouraged to always check the source, be cautious if the source lacks expected information about them and to take a moment to think and verify requests through official channels. By providing these guidelines and regularly conducting security awareness training, security teams can help employees become more vigilant and resilient against social engineering attacks.

As cybersecurity professional, your responsibility extends beyond implementing security measures; you must also foster a cybersecurity-aware culture within our organizations. Social engineering attacks are adaptable and persistent, but with a combination of employee education, robust technical defenses, and a well-defined incident response plan, you can significantly reduce the risk and impact of these threats. Staying one step ahead of cybercriminals is an ongoing effort, and a vigilant and educated workforce is your most potent defense against social engineering attacks.

The adoption of CIS Controls offers organizations a powerful means to bolster their cybersecurity defenses against the ever-evolving threat of social engineering attacks. By providing a structured framework that encompasses a wide array of security domains, the CIS Controls ensure a comprehensive and proactive approach to safeguarding sensitive data and systems.

As organizations strive to protect themselves from the insidious tactics of social engineers, partnering with cybersecurity experts like Stroople can be a game-changer. Stroople, a pure player in the cybersecurity realm, brings specialized knowledge and tools to the table, helping organizations stay one step ahead of cyber threats. Whether it’s implementing advanced monitoring systems, conducting security assessments, or providing tailored training programs, Stroople empowers organizations to face social engineering challenges head-on.

In today’s digital landscape, where social engineering attacks continue to pose a significant risk, the combined forces of CIS Controls and the expertise of Stroople offer a robust defense strategy. Together, they provide organizations with the resources and insights needed to fortify their cybersecurity posture and protect against the relentless onslaught of social engineering threats. By leveraging these resources, organizations can navigate the complex cybersecurity landscape with confidence and resilience.

CEO & founder Stroople