It’s not a matter of if — it’s when an employee will receive that “urgent” email or call asking them to transfer money to a safe place, log in to your corporate network, or install a remote access Trojan. Social engineering has always been a sure-fire way for cybercriminals to ensure a high success rate. But the pandemic-driven increase in remote work turned social engineering techniques into a tool of limitless creativity and prosperity like never before.
When working from home, employees don’t have the full-scale protection offered by corporate security solutions and must instead rely on their gut feeling, which is a cybersecurity team’s worst nightmare. After realizing the scale of the catastrophe, many companies have rushed to educate their employees.
To assess the scope of the problem, Group-IB carried out a social engineering penetration testing project in a logistics company. The test used a pretext related to COVID-19 and demonstrated employees’ unrelenting interest in the matter. It used a well-crafted phishing email sent from a fake email address supposedly belonging to the company’s IT department. More than half (51%) of the test subjects submitted their credentials on the fake VPN portal login page.
Some Social Engineering Attacks Are More Effective Than Others
Our social engineering testing projects have also shown that some attack techniques are more effective than others. Of the more than 100 social engineering testing projects we conducted in 2020, we discovered that voice calls (“vishing”) were more effective than phishing emails with links to fake resources or executable attachments. Vishing, which had a success rate of 37%, is particularly effective because victims do not usually expect these calls. Additionally, threat actors can adjust the script to match changes in the victim’s behavior and tap into their emotions.
In addition to obtaining personal or confidential information, vishing attacks can also be used to gain access to infrastructure. During a recent case, our pen tester managed to convince 23 employees into authenticating on the backup portal (a phishing resource) under the pretext of conducting a security incident investigation.
Vishing combined with phishing (with both a link to a fake resource and an executable attachment) delivered ultimate efficiency: 75% of our social engineering testing attacks were successful in 2020. When it comes to pretexts, the most efficient were changes in the bonus system (20.6% success), followed by changes in IT systems (17.8%), and announcements about key corporate events (16.3%).
More Testing Isn’t Necessarily the Answer
Given these statistics, you might think that doing more social engineering pen tests would help raise staff awareness about not falling victim. Well, no, because pen testing is not effective when used alone. If you decide to attack yourself, you need to do it wisely.
Here is an example. From time to time, Company X did social engineering tests on its employees. Yet awareness of basic cybersecurity concepts did not improve; employees continued to click on malicious links and fulfill attackers’ requests.
The company decided to formalize its testing program by conducting four social engineering tests per year in the same format but under different pretexts. The results were similar to the more casual testing: The employees still clicked on malicious URLs, communicated with pen testers, and disclosed confidential information.
Rather, a test’s effectiveness was largely determined by how relevant the pretext was. Although effectiveness increased from test to test, in third quarter, a pretext based on COVID-19 made employees completely forget about any training, guidance, and recommendations they had received. It turned out that the company did not conduct any other awareness-raising activities; it only tested.
What Cybersecurity Training Misses
We also found that employees don’t know what to do after they identify a social engineering attack. They need to know not only how to recognize an attack — they also need to be taught how to respond. Employees should be trained not to contact the attacker (or legit penetration tester) under any circumstances but immediately notify the security team instead. Unfortunately, users (especially in small companies) are often not aware of this.
The bottom line is that attacking yourself should not be a straightforward combat exercise. Yes, it is important to train employees on possible social engineering methods regularly, implement mandatory two-factor authentication for all external perimeter services, and use effective malware detonation tools. Most importantly, however, training and social engineering testing should be aimed at ensuring effective communication within the company. Employees need to be taught how to detect attacks and respond effectively in a timely manner. They need clear instructions and interactive guidelines (e.g., wiki pages, videos, etc.).
Be creative. Bring an element of gamification to the learning experience to motivate and maximize engagement. For example, in Group-IB’s recent internal pen tests, those who detected and properly reported social engineering attacks received achievement badges that can be exchanged for corporate rewards.
We’ve also found it is important to run a retrospective meeting after each pen test to gather feedback. You cannot improve learning and performance without discussing what went wrong and how to improve.
Shift your focus from regular drills and memorizing instructions on detecting social engineering attacks. Instead, explain where modern attacks come from and why every employee must be involved in detecting them. Without a conscious and creative approach to social pen testing, no training will be successful.
Pavel Suprunyuk is a technical lead of the audit and consulting team at Group-IB, a Singapore-based cybersecurity company. He has more than 10 years of experience in network security, pen testing, system administration, programming, and task automation. Pavel has completed … View Full Bio