One of the biggest weaknesses in any organization’s cybersecurity strategy is human error. Social engineering attacks take advantage of this vulnerability by conning unsuspecting people into compromising security and giving out sensitive information. Social engineers use various psychological hacks to trick you into trusting them or create a false sense of urgency and anxiety to lower your natural defenses. Attackers can then breach your physical or technological security to steal money or confidential information.
The only way to prevent being targeted by social engineering is to study the methods, psychological triggers, and technological tools these attackers use. Scammers use many different types of social engineering attacks, but some common giveaways can help you spot and avoid them.
10 Types of Social Engineering Attacks
To prevent a social engineering attack, you need to understand what they look like and how you might be targeted. These are the 10 most common types of social engineering attacks to be aware of.
Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack, typically using spoofed email addresses and links to trick people into providing login credentials, credit card numbers, or other personal information. Variations of phishing attacks include:
- Angler phishing – using spoofed customer service accounts on social media
- Spear phishing – phishing attacks that target specific organizations or individuals
Whaling is another common variation of phishing that specifically targets top-level business executives and the heads of government agencies. Whaling attacks usually spoof the email addresses of other high-ranking people in the company or agency and contain urgent messaging about a fake emergency or time-sensitive opportunity. Successful whaling attacks can expose a lot of confidential, sensitive information due to the high-level network access these executives and directors have.
3. Diversion Theft
In an old-school diversion theft scheme, the thief persuades a delivery driver or courier to travel to the wrong location or hand off a parcel to someone other than the intended recipient. In an online diversion theft scheme, a thief steals sensitive data by tricking the victim into sending it to or sharing it with the wrong person. The thief often accomplishes this by spoofing the email address of someone in the victim’s company—an auditing firm or a financial institution, for example.
Baiting is a type of social engineering attack that lures victims into providing sensitive information or credentials by promising something of value for free. For example, the victim receives an email that promises a free gift card if they click a link to take a survey. The link might redirect them to a spoofed Office 365 login page that captures their email address and password and sends them to a malicious actor.
5. Honey Trap
In a honey trap attack, the perpetrator pretends to be romantically or sexually interested in the victim and lures them into an online relationship. The attacker then persuades the victim to reveal confidential information or pay them large sums of money.
Pretexting is a fairly sophisticated type of social engineering attack in which a scammer creates a pretext or fabricated scenario—pretending to be an IRS auditor, for example—to con someone into providing sensitive personal or financial information, such as their social security number. In this type of attack, someone can also physically acquire access to your data by pretending to be a vendor, delivery driver, or contractor to gain your staff’s trust.
7. SMS Phishing
SMS phishing is becoming a much larger problem as more organizations embrace texting as a primary method of communication. In one method of SMS phishing, scammers send text messages that spoof multi-factor authentication requests and redirect victims to malicious web pages that collect their credentials or install malware on their phones.
Scareware is a form of social engineering in which a scammer inserts malicious code into a webpage that causes pop-up windows with flashing colors and alarming sounds to appear. These pop-up windows will falsely alert you to a virus that’s been installed on your system. You’ll be told to purchase and download their security software, and the scammers will either steal your credit card information, install real viruses on your system, or (most likely) both.
Tailgating, also known as piggybacking, is a social engineering tactic in which an attacker physically follows someone into a secure or restricted area. Sometimes the scammer will pretend they forgot their access card, or they’ll engage someone in an animated conversation on their way into the area so their lack of authorized identification goes unnoticed.
10. Watering Hole
In a watering hole attack, a hacker infects a legitimate website that their targets are known to visit. Then, when their chosen victims log into the site, the hacker either captures their credentials and uses them to breach the target’s network, or they install a backdoor trojan to access the network.
How to Prevent a Social Engineering Attack
Social engineering represents a critical threat to your organization’s security, so you must prioritize the prevention and mitigation of these attacks as a core part of your cybersecurity strategy. Preventing a social engineering attack requires a holistic approach to security that combines technological security tools with comprehensive training for staff and executives.
Your first line of defense against a social engineering attack is training. Everyone in your organization should know how to spot the most common social engineering tactics, and they should understand the psychological triggers that scammers use to take advantage of people. A comprehensive social engineering and security awareness training course should teach staff to:
- Determine whether an email has been spoofed by hovering over the sender’s name to make sure it matches the email address and checking the email address for spelling errors and other common giveaways.
- Be suspicious of any unsolicited communication, especially from someone they don’t know.
- Avoid downloading suspicious email attachments.
- Hover over links in emails to make sure the website URL is valid.
- Verify someone’s identity through an alternate contact method (e.g. in person or by calling them directly) before providing any sensitive information.
You also need to follow up your security awareness training with periodic tests to ensure your staff hasn’t become complacent. Many training programs allow for the administration of simulated phishing tests in which fake phishing emails are sent to staff members to gauge how many people fall for the social engineering tactics. Those staff members can then be retrained as needed.
Creating a positive security culture within your organization is critical for containing a social engineering attack that’s already happened. Your staff needs to feel comfortable self-reporting if they believe they’ve fallen victim to a social engineering attack, which they won’t do if they’re concerned about facing punishment or public humiliation. If these issues are reported as soon as they occur, the threat can be mitigated quickly before too much damage has occurred.
Finally, you need to implement technological security tools to prevent attacks on your organization and minimize the damage from any successful breaches. These tools should include firewalls, email spam filters, antivirus and anti-malware software, network monitoring tools, and patch management.