What is a Social Engineering Attack?

what is a social engineering attack

What is a social engineering attack? Social engineering attacks refer to a wide range of tactics that rely on human error rather than vulnerabilities in systems. Hackers employ social engineering to trick users into getting money, collecting sensitive information, or installing malware on their computer systems.

In this article, we will explore critical types of social engineering attacks and how you can prevent them. Let’s dive in:

What is a Social Engineering Attack?

Humans are the weakest link in cybersecurity. It often requires time, talent, and high-tech resources to find a vulnerability in systems and exploit it. But human hacking is a lot easier than that.

There is no surprise that 95% of cybersecurity issues are traced to human error. Hackers or threat actors take advantage of human behavior and natural tendencies to trick them into gathering sensitive information, obtaining money, or installing malicious software.

There are four predictable phases of most social engineering attacks:

  • Hackers gather necessary information about their targets. The more information hackers have, the better prepared they are to trick users
  • In the second phase, hackers try to build rapport and relationships with their target through a variety of tactics
  • In the third phase, hackers or threat actors will infiltrate the target using information and rapport
  • The fourth phase is the closure phase – once hackers get money or sensitive data like login credentials or bank account information, they end the interaction in a way to avoid suspicion


what is a social engineering attack

Social engineering attacks cost companies big money. Social engineer, Evaldas Rimasauskas, stole over$100 million from Facebook and Google through social engineering. In another social engineering attack, the UK energy company lost $243,000 to fraudsters.

With small businesses having more security awareness, hackers are likely to employ social engineering schemes more to exploit human behavior.

In fact, social engineering, according to ISACA’s State of Cybersecurity Report, is the leading method of cyberattacks.

Social Engineering Attack Techniques to be Aware Of

Here are frequently used social engineering tactics threat actors employ to trick users into getting money or divulging sensitive information:

  • Baiting Attacks
  • Quid pro Quo
  • Phishing Attacks
  • Spear Phishing Attacks
  • Scareware Threats
  • Pretexting Scams
  • Tailgating

Baiting Attacks

Baiting attacks exploit humans’ greed, curiosity, and fear. In such an attack, hackers create enticing bait for the target to take it. As the victim goes for the bait, their computer system gets infected.

Threat actors conduct baiting attacks through both – physical media and digital forms.

In a physical batting attack, a hacker would leave physical media (like an infected pen drive or CD) on the company’s premises to be discovered by its employees.

The media would have names like the Employee Bonus Scheme or something like that. Once any employee plays this infected media on their system, it will infect the system. And through the internal network, it can infect other systems as well.

Cybercriminals can create a fake website having a malicious link to download a popular TV series or a movie for free. When someone clicks on such a link, it can install malware on their system.

Quid pro Quo

Quid pro quo attacks capitalize on a basic human tendency to reciprocate favors. By offering seemingly beneficial assistance or advice, hackers exploit individuals’ willingness to return the favor.

In the context of cyberattacks, this “favor” might be permitting remote access, downloading an unknown file, or divulging sensitive information. These attacks prey on the unsuspecting nature of people, often portraying themselves as tech support or customer care agents.

By understanding the mechanisms behind these attacks, individuals can be better prepared to recognize red flags, ask the right questions, and resist being manipulated by malicious actors.

what is a social engineering attack

Phishing Attacks

Phishing remains one of the most prevalent and potent forms of cyberattack. At its core, phishing exploits human psychology, particularly trust and curiosity.

By mimicking the visual cues and tone of legitimate businesses, hackers craft persuasive messages that dupe recipients into taking desired actions. These actions can range from inputting login credentials on sham websites to downloading malware-laden attachments.

With advances in technology, these counterfeit sites and messages have become increasingly sophisticated, making it even more challenging for the average user to differentiate between genuine and fraudulent communications.

The best defense against phishing lies in continuous education, awareness, and staying updated with the latest cyber threats. Using multi-factor authentication and verifying any suspicious communication through official channels are also effective ways to guard against phishing attacks

According to a CISCO report, 86% of companies reported having an employee trying to connect to a phishing website. The report also stated that phishing attacks accounted for 90% of data breaches.

Educating your employees about how to spot phishing websites and installing an anti-phishing tool to filter phishing emails can effectively prevent phishing attacks.

Spear Phishing Attacks

Unlike generic phishing attempts, spear phishing is highly targeted and often meticulously researched. Attackers can spend considerable time studying their potential victim, gathering information from social media profiles, organizational websites, or other public sources.

The gathered details make the fraudulent communication seem more credible and relevant, thus increasing the likelihood of the target taking the bait.

It’s crucial for individuals to exercise extreme caution when responding to unsolicited emails, especially when they contain hyperlinks or request confidential information.

Periodic training sessions on email security for staff members can also help in recognizing and warding off such attacks.

what is a social engineering attack

Scareware Threats

The effectiveness of scareware is rooted in its ability to generate a sense of urgency and panic. By making users believe their systems are infected or at risk, attackers rush them into hasty decisions, bypassing their typical cautious behavior.

What makes scareware even more dangerous is its evolution: from simple pop-up ads to sophisticated programs that mimic legitimate system warnings.

Regularly backing up essential data, staying informed about current scareware tactics, and avoiding panic-driven decisions can be instrumental in staying protected against such threats.

Pretexting Scams

Pretexting is a crafty technique where the scam artist becomes a storyteller, weaving narratives designed to lull victims into a false sense of security. These scams are dangerous because they’re often intertwined with truth, making the deception harder to spot.

It’s essential to foster a culture of skepticism, especially when receiving unsolicited communications. Encouraging staff and individuals to ask probing questions and to double-check any suspicious claims can thwart pretexting efforts.


In a tailgating attack, an unauthorized person exploits human trust to enter secured premises. Without genuine access rights, they closely follow an authorized individual into areas like employee workstations, server rooms, or other restricted zones.

Typically, attackers use diversion tactics, such as pretending to carry a cumbersome box, mimicking a fellow employee, or even portraying a maintenance worker. For instance, imagine a person struggling with a large package at your company’s main entrance.

An empathetic employee, trying to be helpful, opens the door with their access card, inadvertently granting access to a potential threat. This act of kindness, although well-intentioned, can lead to security breaches, data theft, or other malicious activities.

To mitigate such risks, it’s crucial to instill a robust security culture, emphasizing the importance of challenging unfamiliar faces and enforcing rigorous digital and physical authentication measures.

what is a social engineering attack

A Comparison of Social Engineering Techniques

Understanding the diverse techniques of social engineering attacks is crucial for prevention. Below, we’ve compiled a comparison table to provide a concise overview of these techniques, their descriptions, and recommended preventive measures.

BaitingUses enticing bait to introduce malware.Be cautious of unknown downloads or physical media.
Quid pro QuoOffers fake tech solutions for data access.Avoid unsolicited tech help.
PhishingSends counterfeit emails or messages resembling legitimate sources.Educate employees; use anti-phishing tools.
Spear PhishingTargeted phishing at specific individuals or entities.Train employees on latest spear phishing tactics.
ScarewareUses fear-driven pop-ups leading to malware or fake purchases.Update browsers; use reputable antivirus.
PretextingImpersonates authorities to obtain personal data.Verify authenticity of requests.
TailgatingGains unauthorized access by following authorized personnel.Enforce strict authentication policies.

What is the Most Common Way Social Engineers Gain Access?

Phishing is the most common way social engineers employ to trick users into clicking malicious links or visiting malicious websites to spread malware.

Social engineers often make phishing attempts through emails, social media sites, phone calls, or text messages to exploit human error.

what is a social engineering attack

How Can You Protect Yourself from a Social Engineering Attack?

The following are some proven tactics for preventing social engineering attacks:

1. Train Your Employees

Employee training is a critical defense mechanism against social engineering attacks. A well-informed team can be your first line of defense, capable of recognizing and preventing potential breaches.

Tailor your training programs to cover various social engineering tactics, emphasizing the importance of vigilance when handling communications from unknown sources. Regularly update training materials to reflect emerging threats and conduct periodic security awareness sessions to ensure that your team remains alert to the evolving tactics of cybercriminals.

Simulation exercises, such as mock phishing attempts, can also reinforce learning and help employees practice their response to attempted attacks.

Make sure you train your employees to:

  • Avoid opening emails and attachments from unknown sources
  • Avoid sharing personal or financial information over the phone
  • Be careful of tempting offers
  • Learn about malicious software like rogue scanner software
  • Avoid sharing personally identifiable information on social networking sites

You can also hire an outside security consultant to conduct workshops on cybersecurity

2. Enforce Multi-Factor Authentication

Cybersecurity in your business depends significantly on authentication methods your employees and vendors use.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds an essential layer of security by requiring users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to a resource, such as an application, online account, or a VPN.

Implementing MFA can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access, even if an attacker manages to obtain a user’s credentials. Encourage or mandate the use of MFA across all systems and platforms within your organization.

This could include something the user knows (password), something the user has (security token or a smartphone app), or something the user is (biometric verification like fingerprint or facial recognition).

By making MFA a standard practice, you can protect sensitive information from being easily compromised by social engineering tactics.

3. Install Anti-Virus Software

Anti-virus and anti-malware software play a pivotal role in safeguarding against social engineering attacks, especially those that attempt to deliver malicious software. Ensure that all devices within your organization are equipped with up-to-date anti-virus software.

Choose comprehensive security solutions that offer real-time protection against a wide range of threats, including viruses, malware, spyware, and ransomware. Regularly scheduled scans and real-time monitoring can help detect and isolate threats before they infiltrate or damage your system.

Additionally, consider implementing email filtering solutions that can detect and block phishing attempts, reducing the likelihood of employees encountering malicious links or attachments.

4. Evaluate Your Preparedness

Regularly evaluating your organization’s preparedness against social engineering attacks is crucial for maintaining robust security. Conduct periodic security assessments and penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities in your systems and processes.

These evaluations can help you understand how an attacker might exploit human factors or system weaknesses to gain unauthorized access. Use the findings from these assessments to strengthen your security policies, employee training programs, and technical defenses.

Consider engaging with cybersecurity experts or ethical hackers who can provide an outsider’s perspective on your security posture and recommend improvements based on the latest threat intelligence.

5. Creating a Culture of Security Awareness

Fostering a culture of security awareness within your organization is essential for combating social engineering attacks. Encourage employees to adopt a security-first mindset, where they feel responsible for the collective security of the organization.

Promote open communication about potential threats and encourage reporting of suspicious activities without fear of retribution.

Recognize and reward employees who contribute to the security of your organization, whether through identifying potential threats or suggesting improvements to security practices.

By creating an environment where security is everyone’s business, you can build a more resilient organization that is better equipped to respond to social engineering tactics.


Image: Envato Elements

More in:

Sandeep Babu Sandeep Babu is a cybersecurity writer. He writes about malware, data security, privacy, and other cybersecurity topics for SBT and other reputed platforms.