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Understanding Cyber Threats in Today’s Digital Landscape – Social Engineering

Cybersecurity is a hot topic in today’s interconnected digital economy, and with good reason! Modern-day threat actors use sophisticated tactics and tools to steal, corrupt and exploit the valuable data almost all businesses store on their IT systems, and the data suggests these attacks are becoming more common and damaging.

However, while some cybercriminals use sophisticated techniques and hacking tools, many attackers are low-tech in their methods, using simple acts of deception to dupe their victims into compliance with their malicious demands. These opportunistic tactics are often referred to as “social engineering attacks,” and they account for a greater proportion of cyber breaches than any other cyber threat category.


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Based in Youngstown, Ohio, Cyber Express offers an extensive range of IT services designed to help businesses unlock the benefits technology can offer. From managed cybersecurity to revolutionary cloud solutions, we can help your business harness the power of technology to operate more efficiently, productively, and securely.

Recent years have seen a dramatic upsurge in the volume of active cyberthreats, with bad actors leveraging new capabilities to launch more damaging attacks than ever before.

In this short blog series, we want to introduce you to some of the most prevalent dangers in today’s online threat landscape, so you can take action to defend your business’s information assets.

Social engineering attacks represent the single biggest digital threat faced by businesses of all sizes and across all sectors of the economy. Let’s explore this threat in more detail, before outlining some practical steps you can deploy to defend your business’s assets.


Understanding Social Engineering Attacks – The Basics

Social engineering attacks are differentiated from other cyberattack methods by their reliance on human manipulation rather than on the exploitation of technical vulnerabilities in an IT system. Attackers use a variety of tricks to persuade users to divulge sensitive information, perform certain actions (such as making payments), or grant access to protected systems. Social engineering attacks come in a variety of forms, here are some you should be mindful of:


Email Phishing

Email phishing scams are the most common and widely recognized form of social engineering attack. In most cases, email phishing campaigns are indiscriminate, with criminals sending vast quantities of spam emails to thousands of potential victims. The email will often attempt to assume the identity of a trusted organization or individual and may contain a set of instructions, an appeal for sensitive information, or a request for payment. Malware (malicious software) can also play a role in email phishing attacks, with messages frequently containing harmful attachments, or links to malware-laden websites.

Email-based phishing attacks employ a range of methodologies, ranging from rudimentary, high-volume campaigns to more targeted and convincing attacks. Some of these include:

  • Business Email Compromise (BEC). BEC is a targeted form of email-based phishing, whereby an attacker infiltrates communications within a corporate email service, and attempts to impersonate either high-ranking executives or trusted third parties.
  • Malware-based Phishing. Cybercriminals often use phishing emails as a transmission vector for harmful malware programs, including the likes of keyloggers, spyware and ransomware. Often the malware will be delivered via an attachment, which may come masquerading as an important invoice or document from a colleague. Alternatively, an embedded link will attempt to redirect the target to a malware-infected website.
  • Clone Phishing. In a clone phishing attack, the attacker gains access to legitimate email communication within a company, either through a compromised email account, social engineering, or by exploiting security vulnerabilities. This enables them to copy the format, content, logo and other characteristics of authentic email messages, to create highly convincing phishing emails that stand a greater chance of success.
  • Spear Phishing. Spear phishing refers to any phishing attack that selectively targets an individual, group, or company. These more focused attacks typically perform better for threat actors due to them appearing more credible. Attackers will often scour social media sites, company websites, and other public-facing sources for any information that allows them to construct a convincing faux identity.


Email Isn’t the Phishing Scammer’s Only Attack Medium…

While email has become synonymous with phishing, it isn’t the only communication medium deployed in social engineering attacks. Stay alert to the dangers of phishing conducted via text, phone, and social media:



Smishing is any form of phishing attack conducted via SMS (short message service), more commonly known as text messages, on mobile devices. Smishing attacks often share the characteristics of email-based phishing scams, with rogue redirects to malicious sites, malware-packed attachments, and a sense of urgency commonly observed.



Vishing (short for “voice phishing) refers to social engineering attacks conducted over the phone or through voice communication channels. Vishing attackers usually attempt to masquerade as a trusted institution, such as a bank, IT company or government official, usually with the aim of extracting sensitive information or persuading the target to perform certain actions, such as granting access to protected systems or information.


Angler Phishing

In recent years, cybercriminals have turned their attention to social media sites as a mechanism for carrying out social engineering attacks. In angler phishing, an attacker will attempt to impersonate a recognized organization or a trusted individual on a social media website, using contextually relevant content to build trust among the online community before luring victims to credential-harvesting websites and distributing malware through infected attachments.


Take Action Now to Defend Your Business Against Social Engineering Attacks…

Using a combination of technical and organizational controls, you have the agency to effectively mitigate against the threat of social engineering attacks. Ensure you have the following three safeguards in place to minimize the risks and defend your data assets:


Staff Training

User awareness is key when it comes to countering the social engineering threat. Help your team stop the scammers in their tracks by encouraging the following best practices:

  • ID verification. Require your team to carry out ID verification when they encounter unusual requests or receive messages from unexpected sources.
  • Legitimacy Checks. Train your employees to perform email header inspections, so they’re able to validate the source of emails. Similarly, train staff to inspect website URLs, particularly when entering login credentials or other forms of sensitive data.
  • Exercise Caution on Social Media. Prohibit the sharing and discussion of business-related topics on social media, and recommend that employees set their personal accounts to “private.”
  • Require Secure Passwords. Prevent user accounts falling into the hands of bad actors by requiring staff to set complex, long passwords. Use multi-factor authentication where possible to create another barrier to unauthorized access.
  • Familiarize Staff with The Characteristics of Social Engineering Attacks. Train staff on the deceptive techniques used by phishing criminals, including the tone and language commonly found in their messages. Urge staff to take great care with any messages that seek to elicit an urgent response or that attempt to induce fear or panic.


Deploy Email Security Tools

Ensure your email accounts feature complementary, multi-layered security controls designed to mitigate against phishing threats, malware intrusion and malicious links. Apply the following as part of a broader cybersecurity strategy:

  • Email Filtering. Email filtering tools analyze the content, characteristics, and sender reputation of inbound mail in order to identify and obstruct potentially harmful messages.
  • Consider applying encryption protocols to safeguard email communication against hostile interception. Encryption scrambles the content of email messages into an unreadable format, making it unusable to anyone but it’s intended recipient.
  • Endpoint Protection. Use endpoint antivirus software to prevent email-borne malware infecting your network’s devices. For more advanced protection, consider using an extended detection and response solution, to enable real-time threat detection and remediation across your digital systems. Ensure that all software and operating systems feature the latest security updates to avoid known vulnerabilities being used as an entry point for malware injection.


Implement Effective Identity and Access Management


A compromised user account can provide a phishing attacker with a wealth of valuable company information, much of which can be useful for aiding the credibility of phishing attack campaigns. Observe the following best practices to keep your accounts secure and minimize takeover risks:

  • Role-based Access Rights and Privileges. User privileges and access rights should be granted on the basis of job role, ensuring users have the permissions they need to perform their tasks, while restricting access to unnecessary data and functionality. This principle is often referred to as “Role-based access control” (RBAC), a security concept that helps manage cybersecurity risks and maintain data confidentiality.
  • Review Access Rights Frequently. Audit user privileges and access permissions on a frequent, recurring basis to ensure that access corresponds with role-based duties and user needs on an ongoing basis. Withdraw access rights and permissions from staff that leave your business as a matter of urgency.
  • 2-factor Authentication. Reinforce user account authentication by implementing 2-factor authentication where you have this facility available. This requires users to submit an extra identifier when logging on to a service, such as a one-time passcode, fingerprint, or authentication token. 2-factor authentication further reinforces account security by providing protection against password theft and brute-force hacking attempts.


In Summary

With phishing accounting for around 22% of all data breaches according to a recent FBI report, social engineering is the biggest digital threat facing businesses today. However, by building a cyber-aware company culture, deploying effective technical deterrents, and managing account security diligently, you can keep your data and digital systems secure against this advancing online threat.


We’re Cyber Express – Exceptional IT Support, Cybersecurity and Technology Solutions for Ohio Businesses

From our home in Boardman, Cyber Express provides IT support, technology management, cybersecurity services and class-leading solutions to businesses across Youngstown, Mahoning County and the wider region. Our approach to IT support ensures our clients enjoy a proactive, friendly and tailored service that addresses key challenges and delivers growth-enabling technology. Get in touch today to discuss your IT support or computer repair needs. Our friendly team can’t wait to take your call.

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