Social engineering attacks against the healthcare industry are becoming more and more commonplace. Hackers are relentless in their assault against this critical infrastructure, and often use social engineering as a method to gain access to Personal Health Information, Personal Identifiable Information, and financial information. Social engineering scams can occur over the phone, by email, online or in-person, with hackers often posing as a person of authority or trustworthy contact such as a network administrator, technical support representative or a vendor employee.

Social engineering is a hacker’s clever manipulation of the natural human tendency to trust and avoid conflict, with the objective of gaining access to sensitive information. Healthcare employees can be particularly vulnerable to this scam because they have a natural inclination to be helpful and provide assistance.  The hacker’s goal is to cleverly manipulate their target into unwittingly doing something outside of normal operations, such as disclose a password, user name, financial information or unknowingly download malware.

There are literally hundreds of possible social engineering tactics. Hackers may send emails that appear to be from trusted sources that tempt the recipient to click on a link or attachment that ultimately downloads malware. Other attempts may involve incoming phone calls where the hacker poses as a representative of a known vendor in an attempt to gain sensitive financial information. Still, others may include a hacker masquerading as an IT employee who requests log-in credentials, email addresses or answers to security questions. The list of possible techniques continues to grow as hackers hone and refine their skills.

It is sometimes difficult to recognize real-life examples of social engineering attacks because the crime is not easily traced. The employee(s) that was victimized may not realize he/she disclosed sensitive information to an untrustworthy source, or may be unwilling to admit the disclosure, and therefore the incident goes unreported and undocumented. Furthermore, social engineering breaches sometimes leave no physical evidence or an easily identifiable entry point, so if a breach does occur, the method may remain a mystery.

As skilled nursing facilities focus on tightening IT technical security, the threat of social engineering can sometimes remain overlooked. Yet just one successfully executed attack can result in a serious breach that can cost millions of dollars in fines, not to mention negative publicity and reputational damage. The best defense for healthcare organizations is to:

  • Monitor and communicate industry security trends and vulnerabilities.  

  • Keep alert to current and emerging threats, and provide periodic security updates and reminders to your workforce.

  • Educate employees on the mechanics of spam, phishing and malware.

  • Test workforce awareness by initiating internal phishing expeditions.

John DiMaggio is the CEO of Blue Orange Compliance.