What is social engineering, and how can we prevent it effectively?

Jorge Felix Last updated: February 21, 2023 Read time: 17 minutes Disclosure
Facts checked by Abeerah Hashim

Social engineering attacks are constantly rising due to the ease of execution. Here's all about this hacking technique and how to avoid it.

Sneak peek at social engineering

Social engineering attack is simply the engineering of social interactions for malicious gains. The attackers often impersonate a known contact, an employer or an employee, a customer support agent, or any institution with which the victim potentially interacts. Such spoofing helps the attacker gain the victim’s trust and seek sensitive personal and financial details. Since such attacks require little to no technical expertise, they’re the easiest to execute. Therefore, the only way to prevent social engineering attacks is to remain vigilant during online or real-life interactions.

Hackers and cybercriminals are a bunch of guys who know what they want. That often means login credentials for all accounts, passwords, or other sensitive information. However, it’s about more than technology with them. They also know how to manipulate a victim’s emotions to induce an artificial sense of urgency so that the victim will act rashly and send money, transfer bitcoins, or comply with some other action they would reject in their right state of mind. That’s what you call ‘social engineering.’

Cybercrimes can be perpetrated by abusing somebody’s trust instead of hacking into a network, a computer, or a system. This type of digital crime relies on psychological manipulation. It’s exceedingly effective and much easier to complete according to the criminal’s wishes because it needs no technical expertise

As our lives become more closely linked to digital environments, such as the internet, social engineering attacks are becoming more aggressive and elaborate, making them more challenging to identify. This guide gives you all the essential information about social engineering, how it works, some of its most common strategies, and how to protect yourself against it. 

Social engineering: How does it work? 

A social engineering attack starts with the cybercriminal reaching out to the victim and creating any social interaction. The aim is to earn the victim’s trust. Once this happens, the criminal will engage in emotional manipulation against the victim, so they will accept questionable behavior to which they would not typically consent. 

For example, a scammer trying to gain access to a corporate network could impersonate a person of authority, a new colleague, or a tech support team member. On the other hand, if the aim was to steal somebody’s cryptocurrency assets, they could present themselves as customer service agents.  

Whatever character they assume, the purpose is always the same: engage in conversations, establish rapport, ask questions, and extract sensitive data such as login credentials or passwords.

However, the attacker could also seek the information that would allow him to perform a more advanced attack, like obsessions, names, insider knowledge, and other elements they can use to support their claim to credibility later.

Examples of social engineering attacks

Social engineering attacks involve phone calls, text messages, emails, or personal interactions. Regardless of the medium, the common denominator is this pending sentence of imminent doom, urgency, fear, or another emotion strong enough to induce action.

Fear is the mind killer,” Paul Atreides states in the Dune saga. It’s exactly right. The scammer wants to scare the victim out of their wits so they will act without thinking correctly.

Scared victims are prone to act imprudently without thinking things through. That can lead them to make mistakes like:

  • Surrendering personal or corporate data
  • Submitting usernames and passwords, login credentials, or authorization codes
  • Following malicious links 
  • Downloading malicious files
  • Sending cryptocurrency tokens, gift cards, or money to fraudulent accounts
  • Grant remote access to a computer

According to some estimations, from seven to nine of every ten social engineering attacks start with phishing. Let’s see some examples.

1. Phishing emails or emails from a known contact

Social engineering consequences escalate at exponential rates, which are pretty worrisome. For example, once a wrongdoer has taken over somebody else’s email or social media account, they also have the victim’s complete contact list, which gives them many new targets to attack. And that is precisely what they will attempt next. Thus, a successful email phishing attack can spawn many more, even hundreds depending on the hacked target.

Criminal creativity is the only limit upon a social engineering attack, so it can happen in infinite ways. However, cybersecurity researchers point to repeating strategies that occur over and over in social engineering attacks. 

  • Urgency. Your new alleged friend, or someone passing for a known contact of yours, is somehow trapped in another country. They were injured, sick, or robbed. The point is that they need your urgent help in the form of money. If you answer, you will get a request to follow a malicious link, download a malicious file, or send money (digital or analog). Also, the malicious link will take you to a fraudulent website where any data you provide will be stolen. 
  • Request from colleagues or the boss. Impersonating your boss or a coworker is a recurring theme in social engineering attacks. So, your boss could be asking you about corporate credit card details, invoices, upcoming work, or any sensitive internal corporate information. Some bosses will even ask you to purchase gift cards for them. 
  • Charity donations. You may get a request to donate to a charity project in which time is of the essence. Then, of course, you will get the typical malicious link, a request to send cash in some way, or they could even send you to a fake charity website to make things look kosher. Pay attention to the orthography and grammar in such sites.

2. Fake institutional phishing emails