Combat Social Engineering: Don’t Be the Weakest Link

Smart criminals go after the 'lowest hanging fruit.'

September 16, 2010
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Smart criminals understand their success hinges on choosing the right opportunity to exploit a specific weakness. That’s why burglars avoid homes with alarm systems, car thieves look for unlocked vehicles, and muggers don’t attack those wearing a white robe and a black belt.

In other words, they go after the “lowest hanging fruit.”

Similarly, criminals who use social engineering tactics seek opportunities to employ their unique methods of manipulation and deception to exploit the weakest link of the security chain. For the social engineer, that weak link usually is the organization’s own people and procedures.

Unlike traditional security threats that can be thwarted with physical or electronic security precautions, social engineering tactics exploit the fundamentals of human nature: Our natural tendency to help others, our desire to avoid conflict, our fear of making mistakes, and our fear of getting ourselves or others in trouble.

In fact, professional social engineers are literally betting that their natural ability to manipulate basic human traits will create opportunities to turn targets into unwitting accomplices.

Seasoned social engineers know exactly whom to target. Although top executives may have direct access to the most valuable information within the organization, social engineers realize it’s much more complex and time-consuming to directly compromise executives.

Instead, they set their sites on low- and mid-level employees. Receptionists, cleaning crews, tellers, and even managers of remote locations are all attractive targets to a smart social engineer. After all, these employees typically have limited security awareness training and might be more susceptible to manipulation and deception.

These staff positions also could provide criminals with access to sensitive areas during off-peak hours, when the chance of being exposed is significantly lower.

Next: Characteristics of a weak security chain

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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