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As organizations across every sector come to rely more and more heavily on digital data storage, digital work platforms, and digital communications, cyber attacks are becoming increasingly common. Enterprising cyber attackers see opportunities abound with the widespread digital transformation across industries. Social engineering cyber attacks present a particularly potent threat to organizations. 

In this article, we will take a look at why training your employees to become aware of social engineering cyber attacks is key to protecting your business. We will explore the most common forms of social engineering attacks. Finally, we’ll also share key actionable advice to help educate and defend your employees against social engineering schemes. 

Why cybersecurity awareness is important

Oftentimes the most vulnerable element in any organization’s cybersecurity defense system is an unaware employee. When someone does not know the common features of a social engineering cyber attack they can easily fall for even the most widespread cyber attack schemes. 

Educating employees on signs to look out for that might indicate a hidden cyberattack attempt and training employees on security policies and appropriate responses is essential to creating a resilient company-wide cybersecurity policy. 

Three common types of social engineering attacks

To understand how to identify, trace, and respond to social engineering cyber attacks, it is important to get to know the most common forms that social engineering attacks can take. 

A social engineering attack occurs when a bad actor contacts an unsuspecting individual and attempts to trick them into providing sensitive information (such as credit card details or medical records) or completing a particular action (such as clicking on a contaminated link or signing up for a service). 

Social engineering attacks can be conducted over the phone, or via email, text message, or direct social media message. Let’s take a look at the three most common types of social engineering cyber attacks:

  • Phishing

Phishing is a type of social engineering attack that has bad actors posing as legitimate, and oftentimes familiar, contacts to extort valuable information from victims, such as bank account details or passwords. 

Phishing attacks can come in the form of emails claiming to be from legitimate sources- such as a government body, software company you use, or relative. Bad actors can hack someone’s legitimate account, making the communication seem more convincing, or they can impersonate an official organization, copying their logo and content style. 

  • Pretexting

Pretexting attacks occur when a bad actor invents a story to gain an unsuspecting victim’s trust. The bad actor then uses this trust to trick or convince the victim into sharing sensitive data, completing an action, or otherwise accidentally causing harm to themselves or their affiliated organizations. 

Bad actors may use pretexting to manipulate an individual into downloading malware or compromised software, sending money, or providing private information, including financial details. 

  • Baiting

Baiting is a similar type of social engineering attack to pretexting. While in a pretexting attack the bad actor lulls a victim into a sense of false security with a compelling narrative, a baiting attack uses enticing promises to trick a victim into completing an action or providing information. 

Essentially baiting involves a bad actor setting a trap for victims. This trap could be an email attachment or file sent through social media messaging that at first seems legitimate, but includes malware. Victims may not even be aware that they have fallen for a baiting scheme, as the malware could be downloaded onto their device without them knowing about it. Bad actors can also use baiting to steal bank details or other personal data from victims. 

How to educate employees to recognize social engineering attacks

Each employee should be able to adequately recognize and respond to social engineering attack attempts; when every employee knows how to do this your organization will have a robust level of human security defending the organization against cyber breaches. 

  • Conduct regular security awareness training

Make sure that cybersecurity is a priority for employee education. The more your employees are reminded of the importance of cybersecurity, the more likely they will be to remember the correct course of action to take in the event of an attack attempt. Include cybersecurity information posters on the walls of your office, upon which you can try integrating QR codes to provide a multimedia and more secure way for employees to access this information while on the go. 

Encourage employees to read up on the latest cybersecurity protocols and attack methods. And schedule regular mandatory cybersecurity training sessions to refresh employees on how to stay vigilant against cyber attacks and where to report suspicious activity when it occurs. 

  • Utilize Multi-factor Authentication

Multi-factor Authentication, or MFA, maintains a higher level of security against each attempt to access your company networks and files. Multi-factor authentication can require employees to answer security questions, provide a one-time-only code that is sent to their email or phone number, or pass through secure restricted access digital gateways using another method that verifies their identity and right to access that digital space. 

With multi-factor authentication in place, hackers who successfully access one employee’s phone number, login info, or email address will still not be able to compromise the security of the entire organization. 

Track company KPIs

Your organization should create a shared checklist that employees can consult and reference in the event of a suspected (or successful) cybersecurity breach. 

This document should contain all relevant security KPIs, or key performance indicators, that provide measurable metrics. Employees will be able to trace and evaluate the robustness of your organization’s security system based on whether or not these individual metrics are performing at the appropriate level. 

  • Implement strong password requirements

Ensure that every employee is maintaining good password hygiene. Each employee should utilize a unique combination of letters, numbers, and symbols, including both uppercase and lowercase levels. 

Employees should never use the same password for multiple accounts, and they should avoid using any phrases or words that may be easy for hackers to guess. Birthdays, anniversaries, pet names, and song lyrics should never be used as passwords. 

  • Establish company-wide cybersecurity policies

Confusion about your organization’s expectations and standards can lead to further weak spots, vulnerable points, and openings for enterprising cyber attackers to exploit. Make sure every employee has a clear understanding of company policies surrounding cybersecurity. 

Organizations that are hiring freelance employees, for example, will need to be on extra high alert. Freelancers or independent contractors your company works with may not always comply with the basic security guidelines and expectations that full-time employees hold to. 

To avoid this, establish clear cybersecurity expectations from the start of the professional working relationship by laying out cybersecurity policies in the freelancer contract. Look for freelancing contract templates that come with flexible customization options, so you can be sure to include the relevant section about cybersecurity policy agreements for freelancers and contractors. 

  • Use common sense

It may sound obvious, but following up on a hunch to double-check whether or not an offer or request seems legitimate is a great way to defend against social engineering scams. If you receive an email that seems suspicious, for example, try contacting the original sender- whether that was a colleague, a friend, or a company. Use another method to contact them and double-check whether it was indeed them trying to contact you. 

If a request seems suspect, there is a good chance it is a scam. If a bad actor is trying to scam you, then taking the extra time to verify can save you hours of cleanup, not to mention financial damages and reputation loss. Employees can report suspicious phone calls or text messages directly to their phone carriers, who may be able to track the perpetrator and restrict their access. Or employees can file a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

Final thoughts

Defending against sophisticated social engineering attacks can be a daunting challenge for any organization. The best method of protecting sensitive data and preventing unwanted access to restricted organization networks is to implement a multilayered approach to cybersecurity. 

Provide each employee with the training and education that will eliminate accidental individual cybersecurity slip-ups and you will have a more robust, well-rounded, and dynamic cybersecurity defense system. 

Make use of common sense, encourage employees to report suspicious activity, conduct frequent employee security training sessions, track KPIs with shared checklists, and establish clear company-wide security policies. Ensure that every employee knows how to create a secure password, and set up multi-factor authentication procedures. 

With a highly aware workforce, your organization will be better equipped to prevent phishing, pretexting, baiting schemes, and other forms of social engineering cyber attacks.