What is Social Engineering? A Beginner's Definitive Guide

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What is Social Engineering? A Beginner's Definitive Guide

Yash Kushwaha
Last updated on June 16, 2024

    After taking cybersecurity into consideration, you might have installed firewalls and antivirus software. Also, your password is unbreakable, and you are confident that you can spot a phisher from a mile away. Is your knowledge of social engineering sufficient to protect you?

    Compared to other hacking attempts, social engineering is more personal and challenging to spot if you're not ready for it. Given the growth in occurrences of cyber threats in recent years, it is essential for everyone to know how to prevent falling prey to social engineering.

    Here, in this blog post, we shall introduce you to what exactly social engineering is, how it works, its traits, different techniques, and ways to spot and prevent it.

    So, let us get started with our discussion!

    What is Social Engineering?

    It is a broad term that leverages psychological manipulation to trick victims into disclosing their personal and sensitive information and to make mistakes that result in security holes. It is a "human hacking" method that entails cybercriminals tricking naive individuals into divulging information, spreading malware, or breaking into local systems.

    This type of attack can occur in one or multiple steps. It generally has one of the following major objectives:

    • Sabotage: Corrupting victim’s data to cause harm.
    • Theft: Gaining personal and sensitive information from victims.

    The State of Security 2021 report from ISACA claims that social engineering is one of the most common modern causes of network breaches. According to IBM's Cost of a Data Breach 2021 report, businesses paid an average of USD 4.47 million for data breaches caused by social engineering assaults. It's also one of the most expensive.

    How Does Social Engineering Work?

    This type of attack involves interaction between victims and cybercriminals. Rather than using the brute-force approach to gain access to the victim’s system, they lure the victim to disclose private information or create security loopholes.

    Here is the attack cycle cybercriminals usually follow to deceive victims:

    • Attackers prepare themselves by collecting background information about a victim or the group the victim is part of.
    • They start building trust by establishing a relationship with a victim.
    • After gaining trust, they exploit the victim and take advantage to make an attack.
    • Once the victim performs actions the cybercriminals want, they disengage the victim.

    This type of attack is possible via email, social media, phone, or in-person. However, regardless of the channel attackers use, their methodologies remain the same. The attacker will appear to be someone legitimate who needs information, such as an IT expert who wants someone to "verify their login credentials" or someone from the bank who wants to verify your account details.

    Social Engineering Principles

    The Principles of Persuasion are a collection of ideas put out by psychology professor and renowned authority on influence Dr. Robert Cialdini. One of these ideas is that people would react in favor of someone they regard as an authority. He wrote this book after conducting several years of research. The book gives us an insight into how to get people to say yes.

    Six concepts that Dr. Cialdini explains to break down social engineering approaches. Here are a few real-world examples that help you understand how this attack took place:

    • Scarcity

    When Popeyes ran out of their famous chicken sandwiches in 2019, Americans went wild in protest. There was fighting over the sandwiches. People began to threaten employees and file lawsuits against the company. That is the essence of scarcity. If they can't have it, customers demand more of whatever it is.

    • Authority

    Pretending to be a king is one-way robbers utilize power to sway their victims. Malwarebytes Labs has recorded several scam calls in which the caller falsely identifies themselves as being from a government agency or bank. According to the calls, the victims must pay money for delinquent taxes or fines, or they need to clear their loans. Due to the authority, the person trusts the caller and falls into their trap.

    • Reciprocity

    If someone offers you a gift, you will likely return the favor. That is a general culture. Now in the cases of these scams, the scammers call and tell you that you have to pay some money in exchange for a more significant sum. This forces the person to think and comply with their requests.

    • Consensus

    Is it likely that you would jump off a bridge if everyone else did? This is a saying that you've likely heard. If that's the case, you are already aware of the concept of consensus. People are more likely to act the same way if they think that others are doing it the same way. Concerning online frauds, Malwarebytes Labs has reported about the growth of phony charitable organizations after a natural disaster. Criminals use the surge of support that typically follows to apply pressure.

    • Liking

    The best example of this principle is the Ellen DeGeneres scam. Scammers used recordings of the renowned daytime talk show host addressing Ellen’s favorite issues to make requests for social media sharing from her. Because they like Ellen, the victims are more willing to divulge.

    After then, "Ellen" individually approaches those who have shared the post and asks them to download one of her movies in exchange for a chance to win a million dollars. Naturally, there are no million dollars, and the only compensation for the victims' efforts is membership in an illegal streaming site and a fake copy of Mr. Wrong.

    Traits of Social Engineering Attacks

    These attacks take advantage of human nature. By persuading and creating a sense of urgency, scammers coerce their victims into making a clouded decision.

    Most attacks take place because cybercriminals mislead victims into the following behavior:

    • Trust

    It is the foundation of believability, which is essential to carry out a social engineering attack. Confidence is crucial in this situation because the attacker is ultimately feeding you lies. They have enough knowledge about you to fabricate a tale that won't set off any alarm bells.

    • Urgency

    Another potent tool in an attacker's arsenal is creating a sense of urgency. It limits your ability to think critically. You can compromise your integrity under the pretext of an urgent situation requiring immediate action. Alternatively, you can encounter a prize or reward that might disappear if you do not respond immediately.

    • Heightened Emotions

    Attackers get the upper hand in any interaction when they manipulate emotions. They present you with situations in which they target you emotionally. You are far more likely to make foolish or dangerous decisions when your feelings are high.

    • Spoofed Email Address

    Verify the sent box to ensure the email was from a recognised domain. A mail from Microsoft, for instance, will include the @microsoft.com prefix. The source won't be @micrasoft.co.

    Types of Social Engineering Attacks

    Every type of cybersecurity attack has the essence of social engineering. Here are a few popular types of social engineering attacks:

    • Baiting: Both online and offline attacks of this nature are possible. A cybercriminal frequently offers the victim a reward for private information or knowledge of its location.
    • Malware and Ransomware attacks : These attacks use urgent messages to trick its victims into downloading malware onto their machines. Ironically, a typical tactic is to warn the victim that malware has already been present on their computer, and one can only remove it by paying a fee.
    • Pretexting: In this attack, the perpetrator adopts a false identity to trick victims into disclosing information. Businesses that possess a lot of client data, such as banks, credit card companies, and energy suppliers, are regular targets of pretexting.
    • Quid Pro Quo: The information or service exchanged during this attack is what will ultimately persuade the victim to take action. Cybercriminals who carry out these scams typically don't conduct in-depth target research and instead offer to "help," posing as tech support staff.
    • Tailgating: When an individual makes it possible for a criminal to enter a secure building or location, the attack is called tailgating. These frauds frequently succeed because of the misplaced kindness of the victim, such as when they hold the door open for an unknown "staff."
    • Vishing: In this case, cybercriminals would leave urgent voicemails to persuade their victims that they need to take immediate action to avoid being arrested or facing other dangers. Vishing attacks generally involve impersonating the identities of banks, governments, and law enforcement authorities.
    • Water-Holing: This attack employs sophisticated social engineering strategies to infect a website with malware and its users. This infection usually originates on a popular website that is frequently visited and is related to the victim's industry.
    • Phishing : Hackers will use fraudulent phishing emails, websites, and text messages to steal critical personal or business information from unaware victims. Despite the prevalence of phishing email approaches, one out of every five workers still clicks on those dubious links.
    • Spear Phishing: Attacks against specific people or organizations occur through this email fraud. Compared to mass phishing emails, spear phishing is more complex and calls for extensive background information on possible targets and their companies.

    How to Identify a Social Engineering Attack?

    You need to work on developing self-awareness if you want to defend against social engineering. Always take your time and consider your actions before acting or speaking.

    Here are some points you need to think about if you are present in any such situation:

    • Is the sender of this communication a reliable one? Whenever you receive a suspicious message, be sure to check the email address and social media profile of the sender. There can be imitative characters, such as "torn@example.com" instead of "tom@example.com." Fake social network accounts that use your friend's photo and other information are also frequent.
    • Did my friend message me with this? Asking the sender if they are the original sender of the message is always a good idea. Ask them in person or over the phone, whether it was a coworker or someone else in your life. They can be unaware of a hack, or someone else could use their accounts in an impersonation.
    • Is there anything strange about the webpage I'm on? Red flags of a bogus website can include errors in the URL, low-quality images, outdated or incorrect company logos, and mistakes on the website. Be sure to exit a spoof website right away if you visit it.
    • Does this deal seem like it is too good to be true? Offers are an excellent incentive for social engineering attacks to move further, whether they involve gifts or other targeting techniques. Think of why someone will offer you something of value without getting anything in return. Always exercise caution because even simple information like your email address can be collected and sold to shady advertisers.
    • Are these attachments or suspicious links? If a link or file name in a message seems ambiguous or strange, you should question the communication's validity as a whole. Consider whether the message was sent at an odd time or in an unusual setting.
    • Can the person prove the identity of who they claim to be? Do not grant access to a particular person unless you are sure of their identity. This is true offline and online because physical breaches call for you to ignore the attacker's identification.

    How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks?

    Here are some measures you can put into practice to keep yourself protected against every type of cyberattack:

    • Be Careful Before You Click any Malicious Link

    In phishing attempts, cybercriminals often force you to reply quickly by creating a sense of emergency. So, it is better to take your own time to validate the identity of the source when some messages force you to reply fastly, and that too under pressure.

    Another way is to opt for a different communication channel except for the one over which you received the malicious email. You can simply text the sender to figure out if that email was from them or by an attacker. It is always better to play on the safer side.

    • Carefully Examine Sources

    Keeping an eye out for unwanted mail is always a good idea. To determine whether the email's sender is an actual representative of the company, confirm the legitimacy of the domain links and the sender. Typically, a typo or spelling issue is a dead giveaway.

    To confirm an email’s legitimacy, you can opt for a search engine, the company's website, or the phone directory. You can avoid being tricked by doing all of these things. In addition, you can make sure that a specific link redirects you to a company’s exact and real URL by hovering your cursor over it before clicking.

    • Spoofing Emails are Commonplace

    Users' accounts are under the control of hackers, spammers, and social engineers that want to access personal data. They will abuse your contacts once they have access. Even if the sender appears to be a person you know, it is still a good idea to get in touch with them to ask if you may expect any email attachments or links from them.

    • Do Not Download any Unknown Files

    If you (a) are not aware of the sender, (b) don't want anything from the sender, and (c) aren't sure whether you should look at the file they just gave you with the word "URGENT" in the subject line, it's best not to open the email at all. You eliminate your possible insider threat by doing this.

    • Activate your Spam Filter

    Since social engineering frequently uses email, the most straightforward defense is to prevent spam from reaching your inbox. Legitimate emails can land in your spam box occasionally. Still, you can avoid this in the future by marking these emails as "not spam" and adding legitimate senders to your contacts list.

    • Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

    If you use two-factor or multi-factor authentication, attackers won't be able to bypass the additional authentication factors linked to your account, even if your login and password leak through phishing.

    • Keep Security Solutions Updated

    Maintaining updated antivirus and antimalware software can help prevent malware from entering your machine and phishing emails.


    Unfortunately, as our society gets increasingly digital, criminals find more inventive and deceptive ways to con individuals into giving them money or private information. Scamming doesn't have to be inevitable, even though social engineering can take many different shapes. Online safety can be significantly improved by remaining informed, reducing your digital footprint, and safeguarding your accounts.

    We hope you found this article helpful in gaining insights into tackling social engineering by implementing simple precautions and staying vigilant.

    People are also reading:


    Various malicious behaviors through contact with other individuals are called "social engineering," characterizing them. Users are psychologically manipulated into disclosing important information or making security mistakes. Social engineering attacks can take one or more steps.

    Types of social engineering attacks are Phishing attacks. Spear phishing. Whaling. Smishing and Vishing. Baiting. Piggybacking/Tailgating. Pretexting. Business Email Compromise (BEC)

    Phishing is the most popular type of social engineering attack. Phishing attacks involve infected email attachments or links to malicious websites to collect credentials or disseminate malware.

    Agreeableness and Extraversion are the two most susceptible personality types to social engineering.

    Yes, Social engineering is unlawful. Social engineering attacks can happen to an individual online or in person. Identity theft is a social engineering attack.

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