Those findings come from a new survey of 850 IT and security professionals in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, conducted by Dimensional Research and sponsored by Check Point Software Technologies.
Social engineered attacks are a growing threat, according to 86% of survey respondents. By their estimates, attackers' primary motivation is stealing financial information, followed by extracting trade secrets, or revenge. Meanwhile, the primary tool used for social engineering attacks is the phishing email, followed by using social networking sites that disclose employees' personal details.
Many CIOs see socially engineered attacks--aka "hacking the human"--as one of the primary threats facing corporate networks. While emerging strains of malware can often be countered using sophisticated technology defenses, social engineering targets what's often the weakest link in the security equation: people.
[Learn 7 crucial tips for surviving a zero-day attack from a CIO who lived through one.]
Furthermore, by socially engineering the right employee, attackers can gain a toehold in the corporate network, then use it to exploit sensitive information. In the case of the breach of RSA, for example, attackers socially engineered using a relatively unsophisticated technique: they sent an email with the subject line "2011 Recruitment Plan" to two small groups of RSA employees. One of the employees retrieved the email from their junk mailbox and opened the spreadsheet, which was really a piece of malware designed to provide the attacker with a direct connection into RSA's network. From there, the attacker was able to harvest the user's credentials and ultimately access sensitive information relating to RSA's two-factor SecurID system.
According to the survey, one-third of businesses don't train employees to avoid social engineering attacks, although half of them said they plan to do so. "At the end of the day, people are a critical part of the security process as they can be misled by criminals and make mistakes that lead to malware infections or unintentional data loss," said Oded Gonda, vice president of security products at Check Point, in a statement. "Many organizations do not pay enough attention to the involvement of users, when, in fact, employees should be the first line of defense."
Interestingly, some types of employees see more socially engineered attacks than others. Respondents to the Check Point survey said that new employees seemed to be the most susceptible to social engineering attacks, followed by contractors, executive assistants, HR employees, senior managers, and IT personnel.
After experiencing a successful social engineering attack, businesses said they typically suffered business disruption and lost productivity, lost revenue, and needed to detail experienced IT personnel to undo damage or conduct a forensic analysis. As a result, roughly half of survey respondents said their related per-incident response costs totaled at least $25,000, while 30% of larger businesses said they'd seen per-incident costs of more than $100,000. In general, social engineering attack clean-up costs were greater for businesses in the financial services and manufacturing industries.
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