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What is a Social Engineering Attack? Techniques & Prevention Tips

Posted on by Ben Hartwig in CrimeDecember 18, 2019

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering attacks are a new approach to stealing a person’s sensitive information or gaining access to a company’s accounts. These attempts, which are often similar to phishing, specifically disarm the recipient by disguising a malicious email or text message to make it look like it’s from a friend or coworker.

How Do Social Engineering Attacks Work?

By appealing directly to the human impulse to help someone or to follow up on an obligation, these scams bet that people who are approached or who receive the messages will act before thinking through the possibilities or considering that the message could be a ruse. The same happens when a person receives a message appearing to be from his boss – the first impulse is to complete the task requested, whether it’s providing company figures, account information, or customer data. Unfortunately, this is a successful tactic of many scams as social engineering hacks.

Social Engineering Attack

People are less likely to look carefully at an email or text when they believe it’s from a trusted friend or coworker. The links or messages contained in the email however may unleash malware that then infects the recipient’s computer or may lead the recipient to a spoofed website that seeks the person’s bank account information, social security number, or other access to valuable information.

Once in a person’s computer, malware may then use the owner’s address book to send another set of email messages to more people in order to infect more computers.

Types of Social Engineering Scam

Beware of unexpected messages that urge quick action or those with the following subject lines:

  • you’re a winner
  • donate to my favorite charity
  • your request for information
  • confirm your details
  • your computer’s security report/status
  • verify your account

Sophisticated phishing scams often go to great lengths to mimic legitimate business websites, including banks, clubs, and even your employers. Look closely at the website URL for the link, as the scammers often misspell the company name by one letter or register the website under an unusual web extension such as .biz rather than .com.

Phishing Scams

The scammer sends many emails seeking quick action on a sensitive issue, which allows him access to the victim’s computer in order to infect it with malicious software.

Watering Hole Scams

This is a sophisticated attack most often used by government-sponsored scammers in which they gain access to a website and wait until a particular day or event before hatching their plan to exploit weaknesses and potentially attack others associated with it.

Whaling Scams

This approach targets high-level executives, often by spoofing the email or websites of colleagues or associates.

Vishing Scams

Voice recordings of employees gaining access to sensitive customer accounts and files may be made in order to defeat security systems.

Pretexting Scams

A hacker who takes time to build trust with his target before launching an attack is deploying a pretexting scam.

Fake IT Guy

In this brazen sort of attack an individual may present himself at the target company headquarters, pretending to be a technician, and get access to the company’s systems.

Types of Social Engineering Scam

Reverse Social Engineering Scams

In this scam an individual may gain access to a target’s databases and do just enough damage to be noticed, then swoop in and offer to help repair the damage when in fact he/she plans to exploit the existing damage and scoop out reams of data.

Social Media Phishing Scams

These are the quizzes that your friends fill out on Facebook and Instagram that allow the maker access to your personal information.

Professional Social Media phishing Scams

A person posing as a job recruiter may send a link to a great opportunity via direct message on LinkedIn, but when the application is completed the job is nonexistent and the scammer has all of your personal data.

Baiting Scams

Dangling a tempting offer, such as malware disguised as free software or an upgrade is often called baiting; scammers may also drop USB drives infected with malware around the corporation they seek to target and wait for someone to pick one up and use it, unknowingly introducing malware into the computer system.


When you get a pop-up on your computer saying it’s infected with spyware and you have to clean it fast, this is an example of scareware. Many victims receive phone calls saying that their computer is infected, and Microsoft is calling to help. They are not; it’s just scammers wanting your credit card details. 

How to Protect Yourself from Social Engineering Attacks

The best way to protect yourself from social engineering attacks is common sense and living on the defensive. Don’t immediately trust anything that arrives via email, unwanted phone calls, or anything you see online. Some other tips to stay safe are:

  • Don’t open an email attachment, and never click a link inside an email.
  • Always sign up for multi-factor authentication when offered.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it is; walk away.
  • Always keep your devices updated with the latest security patches and good antivirus/anti-malware software.

Important Thing to Remember

Even if an email or text request is from someone you know well, slow down and look closely when sensitive account information of any sort is requested this way. Banks never ask for PIN numbers in an email, nor should you ever have to “verify” such an account.

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