Despite Equifax Breach Causes, Social Engineering Still Biggest Threat to Data Security

It’s now been widely reported that the cause of the recent Equifax data breach, which compromised the personal data of perhaps as many as 143 million people, was the result of the company’s alleged failure to apply a patch to fix a known security hole in some open source software (OSS), known as Apache Struts.  But there is now some controversy about whether those reports are accurate or reliable, and some of the early reports have since been retracted.  There is technical complexity about security holes in OSS and application of patches that have led to conflicting viewpoints on how likely it is that the source of the vulnerability exploited by the Equifax hackers was Struts.

All of this technical hub-bub prompts an important reminder, which is that most security breaches are not the result of sophisticated technical hacks.  The fact is that social engineering is the top method of gaining access to corporate computer systems and the sensitive data they hold, according to a survey conducted in 2016. 

So perhaps a little primer recapping for our readers exactly what social engineering is would be helpful.

What Is Social Engineering?

Social engineering, in the context of information security, is the act of tricking people into divulging confidential information (such as passwords or ID numbers), or taking actions (such as clicking on an attachment to an e-mail that contains malicious code) that give the attacker access to computer systems containing valuable personal data.  Social engineers have the same goal as a computer “hacker,” but they accomplish their goal through deception rather than by breaking into networks through some technical method like finding an unpatched hole in OSS.  Social engineering is usually a type of “confidence trick” – or an old-fashioned “con job” that manipulates the target of the attack into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do, because he mistakenly trusts the source of the request for the doing of that particular thing.

In part, social engineering relies on the principle that people have a basic tendency to trust others.  In the context of scamming employees to access corporate data, it is also based on the premise that every employee has valuable information.  At the very least, just about every employee these days has access to corporate technology networks, through a desktop computer or company-issued mobile device, and attackers can exploit that access if they can trick an unsuspecting employee into giving them physical access to restricted areas, disclosing their network credentials, or clicking on an e-mail or text attachment or hyperlink that contains a malicious piece of executable code.

Wikipedia lists a dozen or so common types of social engineering tactics, including things like “spear phishing” and “water holing.”  But it’s not an exhaustive list.  Although some tactics are tried and true and used successfully again and again, social engineers are creative, and they are continually coming up with brand new “cons,” or slight twists on the old reliables.

There are three basic categories of social engineering attacks: (1) those that occur in person; (2) those that occur online or through other electronic communications or over the phone; and (3) those that are passive (or even “low tech.”)

A quick review of some tactics included in each category is useful.

In-person Social Engineering Tactics

A social engineer may visit a location and gain physical access to a restricted area either by using a false identity or simply by “blending in” or relying on people’s tendency to “lend a hand.”

For instance, a “lurker” stands in the hallway on a non-lobby floor outside of a keycard-controlled entrance to your company’s office, with a number of boxes in his hands, stacked one on top of another.  As you approach, he appears to clumsily reach for his key-card.  You swipe yours instead, kindly holding the door for him as he walks in with his boxes.  A con job like this gives the innocent looking “lurker” access to files, the network, or other sensitive information or infrastructure.

It’s simple impersonation.  It works because, every day, we regularly interact with people we don’t know, and we trust a surprising percentage of these strangers.  We’re actually trained from childhood to trust credentials – a uniform, a badge or an ID card – but these markers of legitimacy can pretty easily be faked.

Impersonators usually play one of a few common roles:

  • A fellow employee (especially a new employee, seeking help)
  • Someone from another office in the company
  • A vendor
  • Someone in authority (i.e., building “management” or “security”)

The social engineer’s goal is to look like someone who belongs.  The key to avoiding being a victim, in the words of President Regan, is “trust but verify.”

On-line and Telephone Social Engineering Tactics

Fake and fraudulent phone calls and messages, such as phishing emails and fake texts (“SMiShing”) seek to seduce, deceive or scare users into divulging personal data or credentials or clicking on an executable that contains malware that will compromise the security of the victim’s computer or other electronic device.

Here are examples of some common phishing or SMiShing schemes:

  • A forgery of the common message notification received when a Google Doc is shared, inviting you to click on the “Open in Docs” button that normally appears in a legitimate sharing notification;
  • A message appearing to come from your bank or favorite payment app telling you that your account has been frozen because of unusual activity, and asking you to “click here” to reset your password or unlock your account;
  • An e-mail message appearing to be the common message notification received when a document is shared using Dropbox, including the authentic looking Dropbox logo, asking to you to click the “View File” link.

Other common social engineering attacks using e-mail, social media or text messages include: unexpected pop-ups, fake apps or games requesting your profile information or including malware, messages that promise rewards for contests, and unusual-looking links in social media posts.

Typically, phony messages have many tell-tale signs that they are fake.  Here’s a good list of ways to tell if an e-mail message is really a scam.  Some of the same markers apply to texts and phone calls.

Amazingly, these schemes still work.  In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that users are getting suckered by fake messages more and more every year.  According to Verizon’s 2016 Data Breach Investigation Report, 30% of phishing messages were opened by their intended target, and about 12% of recipients went on to click the malicious attachment or link that enabled the attack to succeed, and these stats were worse than the previous year.

Phone scams vary widely, but one well-known tactic is the infamous CEO/Manager scheme.  Attackers gather publicly-available information, often through LinkedIn and other public databases (i.e., Spokeo or Intelius) about the target company, the CEO of the company, and those managers and employees who may be authorized to handle cash transfers (i.e., “billing specialist” or “assistant controller”).  The schemers use this data to make a call to a target employee, impersonating the CEO, and coercing the employee into making an urgent and high-dollar cash transfer to a designated bank account.  You may ask yourself, “Who would fall for this?”  But it works far more often than you might expect.

Passive or Low-Tech Social Engineering 

Not all social engineering attacks are sophisticated or high-tech. “Dumpster diving” is probably the oldest social engineering tactic in the book.

Other passive tactics include things like “shoulder surfing.”  You don’t notice that the guy who comes into your office to water your plants is peering over your shoulder as you login to your desktop.  Unbeknownst to you, he’s practiced at memorizing your username that appears on your screen, and you’re using one of the two most common passwords – “password” or “123456.”  As soon as he ducks into the maintenance closet, pulls out his iPad and gets access to the company Wi-Fi, he’s on the main network, using your credentials.

Regardless of the type of social engineering – in person, online/phone or passive – almost all social engineering depends on establishing a level of familiarity or authority in order to build a level of trust that enables the scammer to get your information.  Common things to be on the lookout for include use of company lingo, or details that seem to verify the claimed identity but, with a little further investigation, actually don’t.  Social engineers like to try to create a sense of urgency, so the victim will act faster than usual and make the mistake the attacker is banking on.  Most often, if the target will take a few seconds to think it through, he or she will get the feeling that something’s not quite right, and that instinct is usually correct.  Or if the target will make that one extra call to verify, the scammer claiming to be from “building maintenance” will suddenly disappear.

Most of all, it’s important to be aware that social engineering is still very much alive, and your company’s most likely to be hit by a debilitating data breach because your employee base isn’t well-enough-equipped to recognize social engineering when it happens.  That leaves your company at serious risk, regardless of how up-to-date your technical systems are. Regular and high quality training is readily available, and it is absolutely essential.

For more information about preventing social engineering, visit

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