Social engineering attacks are a growing threat and a gateway to your company’s most critical information. Data from Barracuda shows that the average organization experiences 700 social engineering attacks per year

What is social engineering? In layman’s terms, social engineering manipulates users into doing something they wouldn’t normally do. It’s the art of using deception and manipulation to provoke users into taking certain actions. As a result, they end up giving unauthorized access or other critical information to cybercriminals.

The main goal behind social engineering attacks is to steal money, critical information, or deliver malware or ransomware. In this article, we’ll explore 10 types of social engineering attack methods and provide eight recommendations as to how you can prevent them from being successful.

What Is Social Engineering in Cyber Security?

Social engineering is the term used for different types of cyber attacks that are accomplished by human interactions. By using psychological manipulation, cybercriminals dupe users into providing sensitive information (such as their login credentials) or making other security mistakes. In some cases, a cybercriminal can use social engineering to coerce or trick users into performing wire transfers to making other methods of payment for fraudulent reasons.

Social engineering attacks occur in multiple steps. First, the attacker finds a victim and gathers background information that can help them with the attack.

Once the research about the victim is completed, they’ll use this background information to gain the victim’s trust then provoke them into taking actions that break their established security measures.

lifecycle of a social engineering attack

Social engineering attacks are dangerous as they usually rely on human errors, not software or operating system vulnerabilities. Human-related vulnerabilities vary from one target to the next, which makes it difficult to detect and prevent social engineering attacks.

10 Common Types of Social Engineering Attack Methods You Should be Aware of

If you’re wondering about the different types of social engineering attacks or what the common methods used for social engineering attacks are, let’s explore each of them more in depth:

1. Phishing

Phishing is a major category in social engineering that usually targets the primary mode of communication in business — email. Attackers send fake emails trying to convince users that they’re from legitimate sources to dupe victims into providing their confidential information or opening a malicious links or attachments.

Though phishing attacks aren’t that sophisticated, they’re often convincing enough to dupe the target. For instance, most phishing emails use the name and other contact information of a trusted source. These emails often attempt to instill a sense of fear and urgency in the target, which triggers the victim to act quickly and do what the attacker tells them to do.

email attachments phishing

2. Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is a more targeted form of attack that involves an attacker focusing on just a handful of individuals rather than larger groups of targets. This targeted approach to phishing campaigns is more effective for attackers and involves more research and preparation work upfront than traditional phishing attacks. These attacks often target specific types of employees such as human resource workers, accounting professionals, or even IT administrators.

Ultimately, the goal is to use social engineering tactics to trick these privileged users into providing sensitive information or access to the attacker they normally wouldn’t have.

3. Vishing

A vishing attack is similar to a phishing attack, but instead of targeting email-based mediums, vishing uses the phone to their advantage. Vishing, also known as voice phishing, makes use of phone calls to perform phishing attacks — however, some vishing phone calls can start with an email and direct users to call a specific number. In a vishing attack, the attacker may try to impersonate someone the victim knows, or they may impersonate another well-known entity or authority such as a debt collector or the IRS.

Regardless of whom they impersonate, once they hook their target, the attacker tries to convince the victim to provide sensitive information. This could be anything from their birth date or social security number to their bank account information or their login credentials. Sometimes, the attacker may even try to convince the victim to send money through a wire transfer or by providing the codes for pre-paid gift cards.

4. Smishing

Like phishing and vishing attacks, smishing is another social engineering attack, using SMS text messages instead of phone calls or emails. In this type of attack, the attacker sends an SMS text message containing a malicious link to the victim’s phone. Once the victim clicks the link, they are directed to a malicious website or to download a malware-infected file onto their device.

With smishing, attackers generally deceive their victims by pretending to be a mobile service provider, United States Postal Service (USPS) or a company they do business with (such as Amazon). Because it’s not easy to preview links sent through SMS, and the text in hyperlinks can be disguised as a phone number, email address, or any other content, so the user may tap it without thinking twice!

smishing example

5. Whaling

A whaling attack is a type of social engineering attack where the attacker pretends to be a senior-level executive of an organization and directly targets other high-ranking employees within that or another organization. The main goal is to steal money or other critical information or gain access to computer systems that attackers can then use for further criminal activities.

Whaling attacks are usually highly targeted attacks that focus on specific people rather than going after a wide number of victims. The Barracuda study we mentioned earlier reports that the average CEO receives more than 55 targeted phishing attacks each year.

6. Pharming

The name “pharming” combines “phishing” with “farming.” It’s like a phishing attack where the website traffic is manipulated and critical information of the user is stolen. In other words, a pharming attack creates a redirect from a legitimate website to a malicious website. Usually, a pharming attack occurs after deploying malware or by using DNS cache poisoning.

Pharming attackers make use of social engineering to make their fake websites mimic legitimate websites. So, once the visitor lands on the site, they won’t get an alert or find out that they are visiting a malicious website and not the intended one. The longer the user stays on the website, the more time the attacker has to collect user information or launch malicious software.

7. Pretexting

With pretexting, an attacker creates a situation or pretext to dupe the victim into a vulnerable situation so that they give out private information. Usually, it’s the type of information that the victim usually wouldn’t give out to anyone unless in a particular situation.

Unlike other social engineering attacks, pretexting requires an attacker to gain the victim’s trust with a detailed story. This type of attack happens over time and the attacker uses different social engineering strategies to convince the victim to send information or money.

8. Deepfakes

Deepfakes are a sophisticated, emerging type of attack using social engineering. Deepfake attacks involve using artificial intelligence and deep learning to create photos, videos, and voice recordings that allow an attacker to sound like someone else. These impersonations can sound highly realistic depending on how many voice or video samples the attacker has access to.

Like pretexting, deepfakes along with other social engineering strategies are used to make victims believe they’re interacting with the legitimate person when they’re not. 

9. Scareware

Scareware attacks use malicious software warnings and other fear tactics to manipulate the victim into believing their device or software is at risk. This is often done through the use of warning messages that tell victims that their devices are at risk, have been hacked, or are locked. To supposedly protect the software or device from harm, the user is directed to purchase the attacker’s fake and malicious software.

Here, the victim is bombarded with false alarms and superficial threats. Victims believe their system is infected with malware and are instructed to install software that will protect their device — but the software they’re told to download is malware itself. Any action taken by the user will launch the malware installation, and this is what will do the actual damage.

10. Baiting

Baiting uses input and output devices to attack the victim’s website security measures. For example, a baiting attack may come through a USB storage device found on the ground, or through the mail under the guise of a giveaway or free sample. Once the target connects their computer system to the device to find out what’s on it, it auto launches a computer virus or malware.

Attackers can use social engineering for baiting attacks by luring visitors through advertisements. They claim to offer something for free or appealing for users and the users then open whatever it is that contains the malware, exposing themselves to harm.

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks — 9 Methods to Know

Below are some of our recommendations to help you reduce the risk of falling victim to social engineering attacks:

1. Avoid Being Too Trusting and Verify Sensitive Requests

Whenever you receive an unsolicited request to disclose any critical information or make any payments, your initial response should be to be skeptical and ask questions. You should verify that the person who requested the information is who they say they are and think about whether the information should be provided to the requestor.

In other words, the person who requested the information should be authenticated and should have the authorization to receive the requested information. The owner of the information should get a notification before or at the time of any disclosure and they should receive a copy of the response.

2. Be Aware of Fake Emails and Validate the Source of Each Message

Fake email addresses are becoming one of the most common vehicles for attacking a target. First, attackers register and purchase domains with names similar to the targeted victim’s website. Generally, such domains will have at least one letter different from the actual one.

fake email address
For example, the domain name of the bank City National Bank of Florida is citynationalcm.com. An attacker might register the domain ” citynationa1cm.com” and send emails through that domain name, which can easily go unnoticed. This way, any employee working in the City National Bank of Florida can become a victim.

Attackers do their research and identify the names and email addresses of top management or business owners. They also find all the information they can on the target employee. Then, a well-crafted fake email is sent to that targeted employee that appears to come from someone in the organization’s top management, requesting sensitive information.

Fake emails are quite common and, as such, replying to such emails should be avoided. Emails should not be considered proof that the sender is legitimate and that they are who they say they are. When you receive email it’s essential to pay close attention to the sender’s email address — check the “From” field and check carefully for incorrect spellings. Use other verification sources like face-to-face meetings or telephone conversations using verified phone numbers requested to disclose confidential information.

3. Beware Unsolicited Replies

An attacker may try to entice employees to disclose information by sending them unsolicited emails to which they feel they must reply. For instance, the attacker may send an email that says there is an outstanding invoice payment and money must be paid as soon as possible, or a refund has not been made yet and bank account details are required to complete it.

Such emails may even have “re:” within the subject line to appear as a legitimate inquiry approved earlier by the targeted organization. Therefore, it’s recommended that you avoid replying to such emails, or at least confirm with the bank or relevant entity before taking any action.

beware unsolicited replies

4. Use Encryption to Secure Your Email Communications

Think of unencrypted emails like postcards —anyone can read while they move from one destination to another. Though users may look at email as a private communication channel, in reality, it isn’t what it appears to be — there’s a high risk that unauthorized observers can read your emails. So, there is a two-pronged approach you can take here.

The first is to only non-sensitive information that you wouldn’t mind becoming public through unencrypted emails. Though this sounds inconvenient, the risks involved regarding data breaches are too high to send confidential information like bank account details or important passwords via insecure email communications.

If you need to send sensitive information, do so using an email signing certificate (i.e., an S/MIME certificate). This digital certificate enables you to send encrypted messages to other certificate users. This way, your communications remain secure from prying eyes because they can only be decrypted by the recipient who has the necessary decryption key to access the message.

example encrypted email received

5. For Verification, Call the Company’s Official Phone Number

Make it a practice to verify unsolicited information or payment requests with a phone call to that person or company. Use the official company phone number — something you have either via your company’s official directory or the company’s legitimate website instead of the number provided by the person who reaches out to you.

In other words, never use the phone number or contact information provided in the email, text message or phone call that you’re trying to authenticate. Instead, use a company’s official contact details that are publicly available.

6. Use Unique, Strong Passwords on All of Your Accounts

Passwords are great for securing users, to a certain extent. Often, it’s the only way to authenticate the user in a system. But the system can be considered compromised even if you share your password with a close friend.

We recommend that you follow best practices for creating a unique and strong password. Furthermore, if you have the ability to enable two-factor or multi-factor authentication on your accounts, be sure to do so because it can reduce the risks associated with credential stuffing and brute force attacks.

7. Beware of Unsolicited Email Attachments

It’s convenient to share attachments through emails, but it’s equally convenient for hackers to infiltrate a system by sending attachments that contain malicious scripts, ransomware, keyloggers, and so on.

Sending malicious attachments through emails is very common way for attackers to infect operating systems and websites with malware. Therefore, it’s recommended that you use antivirus and antimalware tools to reduce such risks. Users should also avoid opening email attachments sent by unknown sources.

8. Avoid Clicking Links in Emails

Malicious links in emails are commonly used to direct users to malicious websites. For example, you may receive an email with a link saying that you’re required to change your banking password. If you click on that link, it could land you on a fake banking website. If you enter your password, you may end up providing your banking credentials to the hacker.

A genuine banking website will never send an URL to change passwords or other information without you first initiating the process. You should avoid clicking on any URLs you see in such unsolicited emails.

Wrapping Up on How to Protect a Database

Social engineering is a nasty set of tactics that cybercriminals use to trick, coerce or otherwise manipulate their targets into either providing sensitive information or doing something else they typically wouldn’t do. Social engineers usually look for targets and situations where the following apply:

  • Low risk of being discovered,
  • Weakness, fear or other vulnerability that can easily be exploited, and
  • High potential payoff for the attacker.
For instance, bank employees and customer service departments are often targeted because they have a wide range of critical user information. Many times, they even lack adequate cybersecurity training, meaning that those employees can easily be manipulated.

If you were wondering what social engineering is or what the most common methods used in social engineering are, we hope this article helped you get all your questions answered. We also hope that our tips help prevent you from becoming a victim of such social engineering attacks in the future. Good luck!

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sectigo website security Stop Hackers From Hacking Your Business!

Get Sectigo’s Web Security Plan that includes a vulnerability scanner, malware detector, PCI scanners, CodeGaurd, and many more advanced security tools starting from only $94/year!
Shop Now