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What is social engineering?

What is social engineering?

Cybercriminals constantly find new ways to exploit individuals and organizations for personal and financial gain. One of the most prevalent methods they employ is social engineering. 

Social engineering refers to manipulating individuals to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, commit fraud, or carry out other malicious activities. Social engineering uses psychological manipulation and exploits human error or weakness rather than technical or digital system vulnerabilities.


How and why social engineering works

Social engineering tactics and techniques are grounded in the science of human motivation. They manipulate victims’ emotions and instincts in ways that drive people to take actions not in their best interests.

Most social engineering attacks employ one or more of the following tactics:

  • Posing as a trusted brand
  • Posing as a government agency or authority figure
  • Inducing fear or a sense of urgency
  • Appealing to greed
  • Appealing to helpfulness or curiosity

Related: What is social engineering and why healthcare is vulnerable 


Types of social engineering attacks


Phishing is the most well-known type of social engineering attack. It involves using fraudulent emails, messages, or phone calls that appear to come from a trusted source such as a bank, online retailer, or payment provider. The goal is to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, downloading malware, or transferring money to the attacker. 



Baiting is a social engineering technique that tempts individuals with valuable offers or objects to lure them into revealing sensitive information or downloading malicious code. Examples of baiting include enticing individuals with free but malware-infected downloads or leaving infected USB drives in places where people are likely to find and use them.



Tailgating involves an unauthorized person closely following an authorized person into a restricted area containing valuable assets or sensitive information. This can happen physically when someone follows an employee through an unlocked door, or digitally when someone leaves their computer unattended while logged into a private account or network.



Pretexting involves creating a fake scenario to deceive victims and gain their trust. Scammers often pretend to be someone else, such as a security professional or a trusted authority figure, and manipulate victims into sharing important account information or granting access to their devices. 


Quid Pro Quo

Hackers offer a desirable good or service in exchange for the victim's sensitive information in a quid pro quo scam. This could be fake contest winnings or seemingly innocent loyalty rewards. The goal is to entice individuals into willingly giving up their confidential data.



Scareware is a form of malware that uses fear tactics to manipulate individuals into sharing confidential information or downloading additional malware. It often takes the form of fake law enforcement notices accusing the user of a crime or fake tech support messages warning about malware on their device.


Watering hole attacks

Watering hole attacks involve injecting malicious code into legitimate websites frequented by the attacker's targets. When individuals visit these compromised websites, their devices can become infected with malware, leading to various forms of cybercrime.

Related: Common cyberattack vectors


Protecting yourself from social engineering attacks

It is important to know how to protect ourselves from social engineering attacks. Here are some tips to keep in mind:


Be wary of unsolicited communications

Be cautious when receiving emails, messages, or phone calls from unknown sources. Always verify the identity of the sender or caller before sharing any personal or sensitive information.


Double-check URLs and email addresses

Phishing attacks often involve fake websites or email addresses that mimic legitimate ones. Before clicking on any links or providing any information, carefully examine the URL or email address to ensure it is genuine.


Educate yourself and your employees

Stay informed about the latest social engineering techniques and raise awareness among your team or colleagues. Regularly train employees on how to identify and respond to social engineering attacks.


Implement strong security measures

Use strong and unique passwords for all your online accounts. Enable multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Keep your devices and software up to date with the latest security patches.


Be cautious with personal information

Avoid sharing sensitive information, such as your Social Security number or financial details, unless it is essential and you trust the recipient.


Verify requests for sensitive information

If you receive sensitive information, such as login credentials or financial data, independently verify the request through a trusted channel. Do not rely solely on the communication you receive.


Protect your devices

Use reputable antivirus software, firewalls, and anti-malware programs to protect your devices from potential threats. Regularly scan your devices for malware and remove any suspicious files or programs.


Secure your Wi-Fi network

Set up a strong password for your Wi-Fi network to prevent unauthorized access to your internet connection and devices.


Stay updated on security news

Keep informed about the latest security breaches, scams, and social engineering tactics. 


Report suspicious activity

If you suspect a social engineering attack has targeted you or have fallen victim to one, report the incident to the appropriate authorities and your organization's IT department.

See also: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide  

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