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What is Social Engineering? A guide to Ethical Hacking

“Hacking” ooooh… sounds so mysterious, doesn’t it? 

 

This mystery is exactly the reason behind so many searching for an answer to how to become an ethical hacker. It might also be something that made you crave for an introduction to ethical hacking in the first place. 

But if in case you haven’t, here it is… 

Ethical hacking is hacking but without any malicious intents like stealing or deleting data as well as with proper authorization. Moreover, ethical hackers use the means of hacking to break into the security of a system and report the vulnerabilities so that they can be improved upon. 

While the above was an intro to ethical hacking for beginners, this article focuses on a type of hacking attack used in both ethical and unethical hacking – social engineering. 

 

So what is social engineering?

Social engineering is obtaining information regarding an organization or a computer system by manipulating the end-users. In other words, social engineering refers to exploiting human emotions like greed or curiosity to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information. 

To accomplish this goal, hackers use a set of social engineering tools and techniques that we will be discussing later in this article. 

For now, know this…

In order to protect their network, it is important for someone aspiring to become an ethical hacker to understand social engineering and how its attacks are orchestrated. 

 

Let’s get started…

 

Phases of a social engineering attack

The cycle of a social engineering attack typically has four phases. Here they are:

  • Research: The first phase is to gather as much information regarding the company or the organization as possible. Hackers use the internet, social engineering tools, as well as methods of footprinting to do so.
  • Selecting the victim: since social engineering is all about manipulating an individual, this step plays an important role. The hacker determines a suitable target for the attack. One that is a part of the organization and is the most vulnerable to get manipulated. 
  • Getting closer: The third step is to get closer to the victim and try to make a relationship with him/her so that trust can be gained. 
  • Exploiting the trust: The final step is using that relationship to gather sensitive information.

 

Advantages of social engineering

Social engineering is one of the simplest cyberattacks and requires no knowledge of programming languages or coding to execute successfully. More than coding expertise, it requires the hacker to know about human behavior.

Nonetheless, the risk connected to being a victim of a social engineering attack is severe. 

The technique usually takes advantage of the weakest link of the organization and therefore, it is also known as “people hacking.” Hackers use social engineering so often because we as humans are inclined to trust. 

Our nature of believing each other is exploited to discover ways to hack into the system

Often times social engineering attacks are executed just with the purpose of information gathering. This information can then be used to plan a full-fledged cyberattack that can cost millions of dollars to an organization

The types of information hackers can gain using social engineering include:

  • Credentials of a user or an administrator
  • Security access to the building
  • Intellectual property such as design specifications, source codes, or other research-related documentation.
  • List of customers as well as sales prospects 
  • Sensitive network information that can be used to attack the security of the entire system

What is social engineering attack like?

A social engineering attack can be categorized into three types:

  • Human-based 
  • Mobile-based
  • Computer-based

Most social engineering attacks are human-based attacks. Meaning that they are executed by exploiting human behavior or emotions. 

Now let us take a look at the most common type of social engineering attack, Phishing

Phishing refers to sending out fraudulent or “phishing” emails that look legitimate enough for the victim to open it and click on the link or download the file attached to it. 

The file contains malware that can take control of the entire system. Moreover, the link redirects the victim to a made-up website that can be used to extract credit/debit card details as well as login credentials. 

There are two ways a hacker can trick you using the method of phishing:

 

Using a friend’s email

Using social engineering, if a hacker manages to take control of any one of your friend’s email he/she now has access to the contact list as well. 

You already have complete trust over a friend. As a result, the hacker has lesser work to do in the pursuit of phishing you. 

In other words, when a phishing email will be delivered to you from your friend’s mail id, you will be more prone to become a victim. 

 

Using a trusted source

Remember the countless emails you’ve gotten claiming that you’ve won a lottery or a travel package. 

Yeah… those are bad examples of phishing emails

Many hackers try to imitate a trusted source and create a completely logical scenario that asks a victim to give their login credentials. 

For example, if a person has an Instagram account (everyone does) the attacker can send a phishing email to the victim from a mail address that looks identical to the original Instagram’s mail ID. (“xxx@i.nstagram.com)

The attacker includes a completely made-up scenario in the mail that seems fully legitimate (“secure your account by logging in”)

The attacker now has your Instagram login credentials. But you may wonder what will the attacker gain by logging into your Instagram account. 

Well… most people use the same email and password everywhere. As a result, logging into your Instagram account to “secure” it costs you to become a victim of a social engineering attack. 

And if you are an employee of any organization, chances are, your organization will end up being under attack too. 

According to Verizon’s annual Data Breach Investigation Reports, social engineering attacks like phishing make up for about 93% of successful data breaches.

Other common types of social engineering attacks

Apart from phishing, there are many more types of social engineering attacks that trick many around the globe on a daily basis. Here they are:

 

  • Watering hole: This is a common type of attack being used by many hackers around the globe for a long time. A watering hole attack refers to injecting malicious code to a website that is often visited by the victim/s. Once the victim visits the website, a backdoor trojan gets installed automatically into his/her computer.
  • Whaling attack: A whaling attack is very similar to a phishing attack except for one thing. The victims are generally someone of significance like an executive of a large corporation. Whaling requires the attacker to show the hidden wordsmith within and carefully draft a fraudulent email just like in a phishing attack.
  • Pretexting: Refers to the attacker claiming to be someone else to obtain information. Attackers that become good at pretexting even try to manipulate victims into taking actions that can compromise the entire system from within the organization.
  • Tailgating: Tailgating involves the attacker to seek entry to a restricted area without authorization. A typical scenario would be the attacker dressed as a delivery guy that enters the building behind an employee.

Precautions you can take

Reading the above you know what is social engineering as well as how important it is to understand if you wish to become an ethical hacker. Moreover, you may have also noticed how only a few social engineering tools are required to successfully execute an attack.

It’s time to take the necessary precautions to lower the chances of a virus entering our system.

An individual can minimize the risk of being attacked by:

  • Start recognizing that an offer promising you to move abroad or winning a jackpot is obviously fake
  • Delete any requests that ask you to give your personal information.
  • Look at your email program’s setting, locate spam filters, and set them on high. 
  • Keep your operating system updated on your computer as well as your smartphone
  • Install antivirus, spam filters, as well as firewalls in your computer and mobile devices. 

An organization can take these precautionary steps:

  • Perform regular and unannounced security-firework check
  • Make employees undergo proper training that will help them defend against hacker
  • Establish strict security policies and protocols. For example, outside USB devices are not allowed inside the office. 
  • Use a proper waste management system ensuring that the hackers do not get their hands of used hard drives. 
  • Establish trusted security frameworks for staff, employees, as well as personnel. 

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