Types of Social Engineering Attacks and Prevention Tips
By The Fullstack Academy Team
Being on the receiving end of a social engineering scam is no joke. “Social engineering” refers to scams hackers use to fool individuals into sharing personal details in order to sabotage or steal their information. This type of activity is at the heart of most cyberattacks. By 2025, cybercrime will cost the world $10.5 trillion yearly. Each year, more than 71.1 million people are victims of cybercrime like social engineering, according to Comparitech. However, social engineering does not take place online only.
In fact, one of the best-known instances of social engineering, dating back nearly a century, did not require any advanced equipment or technology. In 1925, Victor Lustig, from the present-day Czech Republic, posed as a high-ranking Parisian official to “sell” the Eiffel Tower. By the time the would-be buyer, André Poisson, realized he’d been duped, Lustig—along with Poisson’s money—had already left France.
Victims of online social engineering attacks can suffer a similar fate if they provide information to someone pretending to be a trusted individual or from a reputable organization. If successful at gaining their trust, the scammer may seek to access the victims’ data or money or may install malware that disrupts their computers.
Due to the prevalence of these threats, employees who provide security against these threats are in high demand. According to the cyber talent shortage data from CyberSeek, 194,000 Information Security Analyst positions were open in December 2022, but only 141,000 workers were employed.
Read on to learn more about social engineering attacks and how to avoid becoming a victim. In this article, we’ll explore:
What Is Social Engineering?
Sometimes called human hacking, social engineering preys on victims’ thoughts and actions. Criminals use the psychology of persuasion to lead people to unwittingly make unsafe decisions. With cybercrime, the person behind the attack may use an official-looking email, for example, to solicit an action from the recipient to gain access to private information, valuables, or money. If the fake email convinces the recipient of its legitimacy, the recipient may respond by providing that access.
Aon, a professional services company, reports that humans’ innate desire to be helpful puts them at risk of social engineering attacks. Increased physical security measures have driven many social engineering criminals online, where they can more easily access people—and prey on their tendencies. Additionally, as more work and personal activity moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2021, material breaches online increased by nearly 21%, according to research firm ThoughtLab.
What Is a Social Engineering Attack?
Social engineering attacks typically rely on the manipulation of people’s emotions to persuade them to violate security procedures and best practices. Then, the perpetrator takes advantage of this lapse to gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, or facilities.
Social engineering attacks as we know them today started in the 1990s, when criminals began calling people and tricking them into providing their corporate online credentials or dial-in information. The criminals then used that access to send the company’s money to offshore bank accounts, sometimes costing the company millions of dollars and leading employees to lose their jobs.
Today’s social engineering attacks have become a significant problem for individuals and companies. A 2021 report from cybersecurity firm Barracuda revealed that the average organization is the target of 700 social engineering attempts each year.
When one individual falls prey to a social engineering attack in an organization, it can affect the entire company.
Four Steps of a Social Engineering Attack
The process that social engineering attackers use to persuade people to take a specific action includes four basic steps. These steps may occur in a single interaction or take months as a full social engineering lifecycle.
Below are the steps of this type of attack.
Initially, a social engineering attacker gathers information about the potential victim. This step could include face-to-face interaction, such as striking up a conversation about work. However, more often today, criminals conduct this research through software that finds personal information about the targeted individuals. They also can find information in a target’s social media accounts and by purchasing personal information on the dark web.
2. Build Trust
After learning about the character and habits of the targeted individuals, social engineering attackers work to build their trust. They can send online messages, impersonate co-workers, and make up stories to convince the potential victims to believe them.
3. Find a Weakness
Once they exploit the trust of the targeted individuals, they find the sources for private information that are most vulnerable—including those with credentials, banking details, and permissions—and then trick the individuals into providing access to those sources. To coax someone into providing access to personal or corporate information, criminals may rely on tactics such as:
Playing on emotions—threatening the loss of an account unless the person provides credentials
Sending a request from a “friend”—gaining access to a person’s email or social media accounts and sending messages that appear to come from the person
Using similar email addresses—sending a message from an account whose email address is similar to an official address
Promising compensation—offering a pricey item in exchange for information or money
As soon as the social engineering attacker completes the desired action and collects the information or money they were seeking, they end the interaction and disappear—removing any trace of malware and evidence of social engineering activities.
Resources to Learn More About Social Engineering Attacks
Consider the following to learn more about what a social engineering attack is:
CrowdStrike, What Is Social Engineering?: This resource describes how social engineering attacks work and explores examples.
Global Tech Council, “Social Engineering Attacks—What They Are and Some Prevention Tips”: This resource examines common social engineering attack techniques and offers prevention tips.
Security7 Networks, “What Is a Social Engineering Attack”: This resource explains social engineering attacks and warning signs.
TechTarget, “Social Engineering”: This resource provides an in-depth look at what social engineering is and cites examples of this kind of attack.
Types of Social Engineering Attacks
The digital creation, recording, copying, and use of data has grown at an unprecedented rate. Statistics company Statista reported in 2021 that digital storage capacity in 2010 totaled two zettabytes. The company projects that digital storage is expected to grow to more than 180 zettabytes in the next five years.
The increased reliance on digital data storage has made individuals and companies more vulnerable to attempts to gain access to their private information—and the money and assets that come with it. In 2021, the FBI received 847,376 reports of Internet crimes, more than double the 301,580 complaints received in 2017.
Key Online Origins of Social Engineering Attacks
Among the biggest sources of information for social engineering attacks are social media, email, forums, group chats, and other messaging platforms. Below are some examples of how people who plan to use social engineering can glean information from these online sources.
Social media posts can reveal various details about an individual, and cybercriminals can scan and collect that information to find and engage with social engineering victims. For example, they may see a company’s strategic information in an employee’s posted photo from a meeting. They may collect data such as a person’s job, interests, and background from social media activity.
Email is another popular source social engineering attackers use to collect information. In emails that appear to be from a trusted friend or company, they use tactics such as:
Including a link or attachment with malware
Telling a fabricated story about an emergency and asking for help
Seeking a donation to a bogus fundraiser
Asking the recipient to verify account information by clicking a link
Falsely claiming that the recipient is a prizewinner and must provide information to claim it
Forums and Group Chats
Criminals can seek out potential victims in online forums and group chats, attempting to befriend people in the chat sessions based on the details they learn about them. Another social engineering tactic for online forums is targeting the hosts of websites where these discussions occur to gain user information.
Thirteen Social Engineering Types
From methods that employ electronic messaging to those that rely on phone calls or personal contact, social engineering techniques run the gamut. Below are 13 common types of social engineering scams.
One of the most common forms of social engineering attacks is phishing. In this type of attack, the cybercriminal sends an email or a text disguised as legitimate and from a trusted source. The goal is to trick the recipient into providing information or clicking a link. The attacker can then gain access to data or money or launch malware on the recipient’s device.
With pretexting, a social engineering attacker scams someone to gain access to data. In messages that appear to be from a co-worker or from law enforcement or financial officials, the attacker often asks for confirmation of private information, purportedly to allow the employee or official to complete an important task.
Whaling—a larger-scale form of phishing—targets high-profile figures with access to more privileged or valuable data, such as CEOs, chief financial officers (CFOs), or government officials.
Attackers use baiting to capitalize on a person’s greed or curiosity by leaving a computer item, such as a flash drive, with malware on it for someone to find. By taking the device and inserting it into a computer, the person unintentionally installs malware. Another approach to baiting involves placing ads that entice people to click a link or download an application that installs malware.
5. Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo is the practice of a social engineering attacker pretending to offer something in exchange for the targeted individual’s assistance. With this type of social engineering attack, the perpetrator asks for information to provide assistance, such as information technology (IT) help, to the victim. The perpetrator then uses the information to gain access to private information or install malware.
6. Watering Hole
The watering hole method combines social engineering with hacking. The attacker hacks a website that the targeted individuals frequently visit and trust. The attacker then infects the trusted website with malware or inserts links that the targeted individuals click on when they visit the website.
Sometimes called “piggybacking,” tailgating is a form of social engineering attack that occurs when the criminal closely follows someone into an unauthorized physical location—or uses trickery to gain entrance. The criminal then gains access into the area along with the person.
Attackers use scareware to dupe someone into believing a device has been infected with malware or illegal content. The attacker then offers a solution to the “problem” that involves unknowingly downloading real malware or purchasing unnecessary services.
9. Spear Phishing
Spear phishing is another targeted form of phishing. In this type of attack, the perpetrator chooses specific individuals or organizations, tailoring the messaging to mimic a typical message that the target might receive and using job titles or contacts that make it appear legitimate. The message directs recipients to change their password and sends them to a page that collects their credentials.
10. Honey Traps
Posing as someone with whom the recipient may want to pursue, the attacker uses a “honey trap” to lure the targeted individual. Feigning interest in a relationship, the attacker tricks the person into sharing information.
Vishing, also called voice phishing, uses phone calls. The social engineering attacker contacts an individual by phone and scams the individual into providing sensitive financial or personal information.
12. Business Email Compromise
Business email compromise (BEC) attacks targeted individuals or small groups within a company, with the criminal posing as someone of authority in that organization or a partner organization. The message might come from a fake or hacked email account or from an email address that is similar to a real one.
13. Angler Phishing
With angler phishing, the victim is someone who complains about a service on social media. After seeing the complaint—especially if it involves access to financial information—an attacker will quickly establish a fake account on that social media platform. Using that account, the attacker reaches out to the person who posted the complaint and poses as customer support for the organization. The attacker then asks for the person’s access information to “fix” the problem.
More Information About Types of Social Engineering Attacks
Additional information about different social engineering attacks is available in online and print sources.
Aura, “12 Latest Types of Social Engineering Attacks (2022)”: This resource describes forms of social media attacks and provides tips about what to watch for, including common scam email subject lines.
BeyondTrust, “The 10 Most Common Social Engineering Attacks”: This resource lists types of attacks and explains the risks that they pose.
BioCatch, “Types of Social Engineering Attacks: Detecting the Latest Scams”: This resource explores criminals’ techniques for social engineering attacks and how to recognize them.
Dummies, “Types of Social Engineering Attacks”: This resource provides an overview of the ways social engineering attackers attempt to dupe victims.
Social Engineering Attack Examples
Social engineering is dangerous not only because they prey on universal user activity, but because the attacks are constantly evolving.
With every new technology trend comes the risk of social engineering scams to capitalize on it. Social engineering attacks through social media and web applications, for example, have become common threats. Also among the top emerging cyber threats are attacks that use deepfakes: artificial intelligence (AI) versions of people.
Recent Examples of Social Engineering Attacks
Recent examples of social engineering attacks have shown how the practice continues to prey on natural human behavior—and ever-changing technology tools and techniques.
Bitcoin Scam Through Social Media
Through phishing that relied on Twitter direct messages, a social engineering attacker snagged $121,000 in bitcoin by taking over the accounts of about 130 people in 2020. Among those with compromised accounts were politicians and business leaders, and one direct message came from the account of an elected official in the Netherlands.
CEO Vishing Attack
A 2019 scam used vishing, whaling, and an AI voice to con a U.K. energy firm executive into transferring $243,000 to an individual who the CEO believed to be the boss. After the transfer of funds, the attacker called back, again using the AI voice, to falsely promise reimbursement of the funds.
Department of Labor Fake
In 2021, a cybercriminal posed as the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in a phishing attack to grab business account information from unsuspecting people. Using domain names that were the same, or similar to, those of the DOL, the attackers invited people to bid on fake projects. As part of the bidding process, the individuals had to provide their Microsoft accounts or other business account information, which the attackers stole. If would-be bidders tried to enter those credentials again, the attackers sent them to the legitimate DOL website.
Health Information Theft
Five government employees in California were victims of phishing in 2021, providing login credentials to social engineering attackers by clicking an email link that took them to a malicious website. With the supplied user information, the attackers accessed nearly 3,000 records with health information and more than 800 records with personally identifiable information (PPI)—leaving the government at risk for lawsuits for breaching the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Social Engineering Prevention Tips
Cybersecurity professionals can help protect individuals and companies from the many types of social engineering attacks. Individuals in this role build, test, and analyze systems to protect others against cyberattacks, including attacks that rely on social engineering.
People can help protect themselves from social engineering attacks too. Following these social engineering prevention tips can help them avoid taking the actions that can lead to security problems:
Review and verify the source. Check domain names by typing them into a browser.
Do not use contact information in a suspicious message. First, confirm the message’s authenticity by voice or video call.
Never assume your apps are safe. Always take precautions in the event of a cyberattack.
Use multifactor authentication. Add a layer of protection against unauthorized access, such as MFA.
Implement spam filters and anti-phishing features. Identify messages that are likely to be spam or phishing attempts.
Use a virtual private network. Encrypt your Internet activity and disguise your identity in public places with a VPN.
Monitor your accounts closely. Identify unwanted changes quickly.
Use cybersecurity software. Perform security updates regularly.
Keep software up to date. Ensure that your software is protecting against new risks.
Do not click links that you did not request. Verify the source of the message.
Limit the personal information you share online. Protecting username, password, date of birth, SSN, and financial data.
Recognize and Protect Against Social Engineering Attacks
With Internet crimes reported to the FBI in 2021 leading to more than $6.9 billion in potential losses, it pays to be vigilant about protection against these attacks—including those from social engineering attackers.
Learning about the types of social engineering attacks, staying up to date on cybercrime techniques, and following social engineering prevention tips can help people and companies avoid the many security and financial issues that often result from these attacks.