How cybercriminals exploit human psychology

Cybersecurity experts explain how anyone can fall victim to a social engineering attack 

Christopher Hadnagy, the founder and CEO of Social-Engineer, and Carlos Salas, a cybersecurity expert at NordLayer,  explore the nature of human psychology, shedding light on the evolving landscape of social engineering, vulnerabilities, and future trends in cyberattacks.

Hadnagy highlights how no one is immune to social engineering attacks and reveals why industries emphasize the human element in cybersecurity the most. He also underlines the importance of recognizing emotional vulnerabilities in addition to intelligence.

What is social engineering?  

Salas says one of the simplest ways to obtain sensitive data is through social engineering, particularly if organization members are not taught how to see and avoid it. Strategies learned through engaging  educational training can prevent these attacks because every employee in the company has the potential to be a target.

Hadnagy says, “Social engineering is a type of attack which targets our emotional responses, not our intelligence or lack thereof. If an attacker aligns their approach with something personal and emotionally significant — and times it perfectly — anyone can fall victim.”

What are the most common social engineering tricks?

“Phishing attacks are the most common reason behind breaches, and they evolve constantly,” says Hadnagy.  

Another growing threat is impersonation. Someone can pretend to be an employee or colleague to gain access to a business. “Catphishing” is a different type of impersonation, usually done via social media, for example, using fake LinkedIn profiles. A previous NordLayer study showed that 38% of Americans were contacted via a fake LinkedIn profile or attempted to be scammed more than once, compared to 43% in Canada and 44% in the UK.

AI’s role in social engineering

AI-powered tools like chatbots have the ability to create convincing scripts or dialogues that can trick users into revealing private information or carrying out specific activities.  Scammers can also use AI for voice cloning for scams and creating deepfakes.  

Which industries are currently most vulnerable to social engineering attacks?

The medical field, banking, and utilities are the industries particularly susceptible to social engineering attacks. “The healthcare industry, for instance, struggles with cybersecurity training, often choosing inappropriate times or methods, leaving staff unprepared for social engineering tactics,” says Hadnagy.

“In the medical field, awareness is paramount. Training our staff to recognize the subtle signs of social engineering, like phishing emails or unauthorized access attempts, is crucial to safeguarding patient confidentiality and data integrity. Also, by implementing strict access protocols and employing multi-factor authentication, we can ensure that only authorized personnel have access to sensitive medical records, mitigating the risk of social engineering attacks” says Salas.

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