Social engineering is a type of psychological manipulation that often comes up when people talk about cybersecurity. It involves tricking people into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that benefit an attacker. While social engineering can be done in person, it’s more often done online, with attackers using a variety of techniques to get the information they need, such as phishing emails and deceptive websites. Social engineering can be difficult to detect because attackers often target high-level employees or those with access to sensitive information. That’s why it’s important to understand the risks and take steps to protect yourself - and others - from becoming a victim.
The most common types of social engineering attacks
Social engineering attacks are common, and scammers are becoming more sophisticated in their techniques. Phishing remains one of the most popular types of social engineering attacks and involves sending an email to a victim that contains a malicious link or attachment. Often, the email appears to come from a trusted source, and the link or attachment might even appear to be legitimate. However, if the recipient clicks on the link or opens the attachment, malware may be installed on their computer or device, giving the attacker access to sensitive information. Other common types of social engineering attacks include pretexting, which involves using false pretenses to obtain personal information, and tailgating, which involves following someone into a restricted area without proper authorization. While social engineering attacks can sometimes be difficult to recognize, there are steps you can take to protect yourself, such as being suspicious of unsolicited emails and only interacting with attachments from trusted sources.
How to protect yourself from social engineering attacks
Social engineering attacks aren’t limited to email. They come in a variety of forms for which industry insiders have created clever new names, such as vishing (a contraction of voice and phishing), smishing (a contraction of SMS and phishing), and spimming (a contraction of SPAM and instant messaging). Regardless of the packaging, the goal of these attacks is to trick potential victims into revealing personal information about their identity, including login credentials or financial account numbers. To protect yourself from social engineering attacks, it’s important to understand how they work and what red flags to look for. Be suspicious of unsolicited emails or texts that ask you to follow a link or provide personal information. If you’re not sure whether an email or text is legitimate, it’s best to contact the company or person directly - ideally through a completely different channel - to confirm the message before taking any action. With a little extra awareness and diligence, you can help protect yourself from becoming a victim of a social engineering attack.
Examples of successful social engineering attacks
Social engineering is a type of attack that relies on manipulation and deception to get people to reveal sensitive information or money. Although it can be difficult to detect, social engineering attacks are common. Consider these examples of successful social engineering attacks:
- The Nigerian prince scam: In this classic scam, a scammer poses as a Nigerian prince who needs help getting money out of the country. The scammer often uses urgency and emotional manipulation to get “help” - and money - from the victim.
- Current event scams: These scams often use current events or hot topics in the news to get victims to take a certain action, hand over money, or reveal personal information. For example, scammers may claim to be collecting donations for a natural disaster relief fund following a recent earthquake.
- Creative manipulation: In some cases, scammers can get pretty inventive. They might pose as someone from your local utility company, warning you that your power will be shut off unless you make an immediate payment. Or they might pose as a tech support company, claiming that your computer is infected with a virus and that you need to purchase their “services” to remove it.
If you’re ever contacted by someone you don’t know asking for money or personal information, resist the temptation to act quickly and on the spot. (That’s what they want you to do!). It’s hard to think on your feet when you’re overwhelmed with stress, but it’s important to be twice as smart as your attacker. Step back and take a moment to think and research before giving anything away. Scenarios vary, of course, but you can usually avoid falling victim to a social engineering attack by following these basic rules
The future of social engineering
Social engineering is constantly evolving, so it’s important to stay vigilant. As our lives move more and more online, we run the risk of being targeted by scams. Be suspicious of any unexpected or unsolicited contact, even if it seems to come from a trusted source. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Deepfaking technology is becoming increasingly popular among social engineers, allowing them to create convincing photo, audio, and video impersonations of real people. To protect yourself from deepfake attacks, be extra vigilant when engaging with unfamiliar messages or media online, and again, take extra steps to confirm the source before taking any action. Stop and think before you act. Ask questions. If you’re not sure, ask your IT department (especially if it’s work-related) or another trusted source. Be skeptical. And remember, even if you’re targeted by a social engineer, you can protect yourself by following a few sound practices.
Social engineering is a technique that uses deception to trick people into revealing sensitive information. Phishing, vishing, and smishing are among the most common types of social engineering attacks. However, there are many other types of social engineering attacks. You can do a few simple things to help protect yourself from social engineering attacks, including being aware of the different types of attacks and being careful about what information you share online and with whom. It’s also important to be skeptical of unsolicited requests for information and to take steps to protect your privacy. As technology evolves, so does social engineering. Keep your eyes and ears open for new attack methods and make sure you take good precautions to protect yourself from these insidious threats.