Beware of Social Engineering with AI Smarts

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted March 16, 2017

Small business owners, don't let your guard down in 2017.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are becoming more affordable and easier to work with. It's a good thing, generally speaking. From virtual assistants that help you manage your busy schedule to self-driving cars, a healthy AI ecosystem can radically improve many aspects of folks' professional and personal lives.

Of course, as with most technologies, there's a downside.

This year, cyber criminals will start testing the waters with AI-enabled social engineering schemes designed to scam victims out of their heard-earned money, Bret Piatt, CEO of small business data protection and security specialist Jungle Disk, told Small Business Computing. Although he suspects the number of incidences will be low this year, it's destined to rise over the next few years as scammers gain AI expertise.

"Social engineering is time consuming," said Piatt. Generally, it requires placing convincing phone calls or conducting online chat sessions that require imposters to be thoughtful and remain in-character while they attempt to lure in victims.

In short, it's a job; one that requires time, effort and a certain level of professionalism. Due to this, sophisticated social engineering attacks are generally pointed at large enterprises and other high-value targets, Piatt explained.

The advent of AI for the masses will soon allow these attackers to target small and midsized businesses (SMBs), however.

"They're going to be able to do social engineering at scale in an affordable manner," Piatt said. The growing availability of machine learning and AI frameworks, many from the open-source community, will help make it "efficient for hackers to social engineer small businesses."

Building a lifelike chat bot is becoming easier, enabling hackers to automate some of their activities and prey on workers whose first instinct is to be helpful in the workplace. Similarly, more convincing interactive robocalls may be on the horizon, further making it easier for scammers to launch attacks.

Awareness is key to combatting this problem Piatt says. A healthy dose of skepticism doesn't hurt, either. If a request seems the slightest bit out of place, particularly for credentials, sensitive data or funds, it's best to verify.

Ransomware Risks Persist

Keeping up-to-date backups is the go-to advice for mitigating the damage done by ransomware attacks, and many other mishaps that can befall a business. It's a prudent measure, but Piatt also advises that small business owners invest in a network security service that can "block ransomware up front."

By avoiding ransomware from the start, businesses can avoid downtime due to restoring from backups and reconfiguring their systems. Today's crop of subscription-based, network cybersecurity solutions enable SMBs to protect themselves from ransomware, and all manner of new and emerging malware at low cost.

And today's businesses need strong defenses to thwart today's craftier cyber-criminals.

Just yesterday, Microsoft's Malware Protection Center warned of a sneaky new tactic used by scammers in the ransomware war.

"Cybercriminals have been known to hide malware in Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS) installer files. As antivirus software effectively detect these installer files, cybercriminals are once again updating their tools to penetrate computers," wrote Microsoft senior software engineer Andrea Lelli, in a March 15 blog post.

To avoid detection, ransomware operators are using a variety of new tricks, like including non-malicious uninstaller components and plugins along with installer interfaces that mimic the real deal.

"The most significant change, however, is the absence of the usual randomly named DLL file, which was previously used to decrypt the encrypted malware. This change significantly reduces the footprint of malicious code in the NSIS installer package," Lelli added.

Today's network security services for SMBs are continually adapting to tactics like these in real-time. Not only can they help block ransomware and other types of malware, some also provide content filtering and malicious link protection, helping users further avoid dangerous downloads from the darker parts of the internet, Piatt said.


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