Security 101: Avoiding Social Engineering, Phishing Attacks

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 @ 06:07 PM gHale


Social engineering is one of the new vectors cyber criminals employ to get the information they need to attack a system.

In and of itself the information may not be much, but the attacker is able to cobble that nugget of data with other pieces and before long he has the mother lode.

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That is why ISSSource will occasionally run a series of basics on what someone should do to avoid an attack.

This installment comes courtesy of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team and it focuses on tips to avoid social engineering and spear phishing.

The key takeaway from the whole process all companies should have a security plan in place and employees should have a working knowledge of what is in the plan. One of the first elements in the plan is do not give sensitive information to anyone unless you are they are who they claim to be and they should have access to the information.

First, we should define what social engineering is all about. In a social engineering attack, an attacker uses human interaction (social skills) to obtain or compromise information about an organization or its computer systems. An attacker may seem unassuming and respectable, possibly claiming to be a new employee, repair person, or researcher and even offering credentials to support that identity. However, by asking questions, he or she may be able to piece together enough information to infiltrate an organization’s network. If an attacker is not able to gather enough information from one source, he or she may contact another source within the same organization and rely on the information from the first source to add to his or her credibility.

Similarly, phishing is a form of social engineering. Phishing attacks use email or malicious websites to solicit personal information by posing as a trustworthy organization. An attacker may send email seemingly from a reputable credit card company or financial institution requesting account information, often suggesting there is a problem. When users respond with the requested information, attackers can use it to gain access to the accounts.

Phishing attacks may also appear to come from other types of organizations, such as charities. Attackers often take advantage of current events and certain times of the year, such as natural disasters; epidemics and health scares; economic concerns; major political elections, and holidays.

The following are some steps to take to avoid being a victim:
• Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from individuals asking about employees or other internal information. If an unknown individual claims to be from a legitimate organization, try to verify his or her identity directly with the company.
• Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain of a person’s authority to have the information.
• Do not reveal personal or financial information in email, and do not respond to email solicitations for this information. This includes following links sent in email.
• Don’t send sensitive information over the Internet before checking a website’s security.
• Pay attention to the URL of a website. Malicious websites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different.
• If you are unsure whether an email request is legitimate, try to verify it by contacting the company directly. Do not use contact information provided on a website connected to the request; instead, check previous statements for contact information. Information about known phishing attacks is also available online from groups such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group (http://www.antiphishing.org).
• Install and maintain anti-virus software, firewalls, and email filters to reduce some of this traffic.
• Take advantage of any anti-phishing features offered by your email client and web browser.
Sometimes though, there may be a slip and you reveal some information you shouldn’t have. Here are some steps to take if you think you are a victim:
• If you believe you might have revealed sensitive information about your organization, report it to the appropriate people within the organization, including network administrators. They can be alert for any suspicious or unusual activity.
• If you believe you compromised your financial accounts, contact your financial institution immediately and close those accounts. Watch for any unexplainable charges to your account.
• Immediately change any passwords you may have revealed. If you used the same password for multiple resources, make sure to change it for each account, and do not use that password in the future.
• Watch for other signs of identity theft.
• Consider reporting the attack to the police, and file a report with the Federal Trade Commission.



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