Verify End-Users at the Helpdesk to Prevent Social Engineering Cyber Attack


Although organizations commonly go to great lengths to address security vulnerabilities that may exist within their IT infrastructure, an organization’s helpdesk might pose a bigger threat due to social engineering attacks.

Social engineering is “the art of manipulating people so they give up confidential information,” according to Webroot. There are many different types of social engineering schemes but one is area of vulnerability is how social engineering might be used against a helpdesk technician to steal a user’s credentials.

The Process of Gaining Access With Social Engineering

The first step in such an attack is usually for the attacker to gather information about the organization that they are targeting. The attacker might start by using information that is freely available on the Internet to figure out who within the organization is most likely to have elevated permissions or access to sensitive information. An attacker can often get this information through a simple Google search or by querying business-oriented social networks such as LinkedIn.

Once an attacker identifies a user whose credentials they want to steal, they need to know the user’s login name. There are any number of ways that an attacker could figure out a login name. One method might simply be to try to authenticate into the organization’s Active Directory environment. Some older Active Directory clients will tell you if you have entered a bad username or an incorrect password.

An easier method is for the attacker to query online databases of leaked credentials. The attacker doesn’t necessarily need to locate the credentials for the account that they are attacking. They need only to find credentials for someone at that organization. That will reveal the username structure that the organization uses. For example, the organization might create usernames based on firstname.lastname or perhaps a first initial followed by a last name.

With such information in hand, the attacker might make a phone call to the organization’s helpdesk and request a password reset. The goal behind this phone call isn’t to get the password reset, but rather to find out what types of protocols the organization has in place. For example, the helpdesk technician might ask the attacker (who is posing as a legitimate employee) a security question such as, “what is your employee ID number”. The attacker can then tell the technician that they don’t have their employee ID number handy and will call back later when they have it in front of them.

At this point, the attacker has several crucial pieces of information in their possession. They know the victim’s name, the victim’s login name, and the security question that the helpdesk technician is going ask prior to granting a password reset.

Combatting Social Engineering Attack With Security Questions

Unfortunately, security questions are largely ineffective. An experienced attacker can easily acquire the answers to security questions from any number of different sources. The Dark Web for instance, contains entire databases of answers to potential security questions and we know end-users often divulge way too much personal information on social media.

In addition to security questions, some organizations have historically used caller ID information as a tool for verifying a user’s identity. However, this method is also unreliable because cloud-based PBX systems make it simple for an attacker to spoof caller ID information.

The important thing to remember is that social engineering attacks are not theoretical attack vectors, they happen in the real world. Earlier this year, Electronic Arts was infiltrated by hackers who stole a large amount of data (including source code for the company’s FIFA 21 soccer game). The hacker gained access by tricking the company’s IT support staff into giving them access to the company’s network.

So, if security questions and other conventional identity verification mechanisms are no longer effective, how can an organization defend itself against this sort of attack?

Onus on the Helpdesk Technician

The key to preventing social engineering attacks against the helpdesk is to make it impossible for a helpdesk technician to knowingly or unknowingly aid in such an attack. The technician is, for all practical purposes, the weak link in the security chain.

Consider the earlier example in which an attacker contacts an organization’s helpdesk pretending to be an employee who needs their password reset. Several things could conceivably happen during that conversation. Some possible outcomes include:

  • The attacker answers the security question using stollen information sourced from social media or from the Dark Web
  • The attacker tries to gain the technician’s trust through friendly conversation to gain favor with the technician. The attacker hopes that the technician will overlook the rules and go ahead and reset the password, even in the absence of the required security information. In some situations, the attacker might also try to make the helpdesk technician feel sorry for them.
  • The attacker might try to intimidate the helpdesk technician by posing as a CEO who is extremely upset that they cannot log in. When the helpdesk technician asks a security question, the attacker might scream that they do not have time to answer a bunch of stupid questions, and demand that the password be reset right now (this technique has succeeded many times in the real world).

Ultimately, the technician’s discretion is the only thing that determines whether the requested password reset is going to happen. There is nothing within the native Active Directory tools that will stop a technician from being able to reset a user’s password if the technician fails to prove the user’s identity adequately. As such, the Active Directory tools can be thought of as another weak link in the security chain.

The Secure Solution to Socially Engineered Cyber Attack

The best way to eliminate the possibility that the organization will be breached by these types of attacks is to prevent the helpdesk staff from using the Active Directory Users and Computers console or similar tools for password resets. Instead, it is better to use a third-party solution such as Specops Secure Service Desk, that will physically prevent a technician from resetting a password unless certain MFA requirements have been satisfied.

To see how the Secure Service Desk eliminates the risks associated with password resets, consider a situation in which a legitimate user requests a password reset. The helpdesk technician can send a six-digit code to the user’s mobile device (which has been preregistered and is known to belong to the user). The technician cannot see this code and does not know what code was sent. When the user receives the code, they must read it to the technician, who then enters the code into the Specops software.

The admin view of an active helpdesk user verification using Specops Secure Service Desk

Only then is the technician allowed to reset the user’s password. This makes it impossible for the technician to skirt the rules and grant a password reset to someone who has failed to meet the security requirements.

Test out Specops Secure Service Desk in your AD environment for free to see how it works.

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