What is Social Engineering Attack in Cyber Security? Types & Examples Explained

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On December 12th, 2023
Reading Time 11 Minutes Reading

Hackers who use their technical expertise to infiltrate protected computer systems are known to all. However, there are cyber criminals exist who use psychological manipulation, to trick people into giving away their sensitive information. Commonly, this type of cyberattack falls under social engineering attacks in cyber security. 

Let’s explore more about what it is, how it works, what are the common types, and most importantly, how you can prevent it.

Social Engineering Attack Definition in Detail

Social engineering leverages human nature to deceive people into endangering their own or their company’s security instead of employing technical hacking.

Attacker tricks people into paying money to criminals, sending information they shouldn’t transmit, downloading software they shouldn’t download, visiting websites they shouldn’t visit, and other blunders that endanger their security or that of their organizations.

These are just a few instances of such an attack: an email demanding updated credit card information from what appears to be a reliable vendor, a menacing voicemail purporting to be from the IRS, and an offer of riches from a foreign potentate.

In other words, a social engineering attack is frequently referred to as “human hacking” since it targets human weaknesses rather than flaws in technical or digital systems.

What is the Goal of Social Engineering? 

Cybercriminals frequently employ social engineering techniques to gather the kinds of personal information they need for identity theft, such as login credentials, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and Social Security numbers. With this information, they can make purchases with other people’s money or credit, apply for loans in other people’s names, apply for other people’s unemployment benefits, and more. 

However, a social engineering attack could also be the precursor to a more significant strike. For instance, a hacker might mislead a victim into giving a login and password, and then use those details to infect the victim’s employer’s network with ransomware.

Hackers find social engineering appealing because it makes it easier for them to gain access to digital networks, devices, and accounts without having to perform the challenging technical labor of breaking firewalls, antivirus software, and other cybersecurity protections. Social engineering is currently the main factor contributing to network compromise, in part because of this.

As a matter of fact, a social engineering attack is the most costly form of cyber attack as per IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach report. These attacks cost organizations approximately 4.10 million dollars on average.

Social Engineering Life Cycle – Understand the 4 Phases

If you’re curious to know how social engineering works. Then, the attack life cycle has 4 phases.

social engineering attack lifecycle

Phase 1. Information Gathering/Investigation – First, the attackers identify their victims. Then, gather as much information as they can about them. After that, they select which attack method to use to effectively lure them.  

Phase 2. Hook – In this phase of social engineering attack, they communicate with the victim and keep them engaged. They craft the interaction in such a way that the control of the entire communication is in their hand.

Phase 3. Play – Next, the attackers try to expand their foothold. And, this is the phase where they execute the attack. Further, obtain sensitive data over a period of time.

Phase 4. Exit – In the last phase, after executing the attack successfully the attackers remove all the traces without the victim’s knowledge. And, finally, bring the interaction to a natural end.

Tactics & Techniques of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering techniques and strategies are based on the science of human motivation. They exert emotional and instinctual control over their victims in ways that have been demonstrated to lead people to act against their best interests.

These attacks can happen in some simple steps. First, attackers identify the victim after deep research. Then, they make contact and begin the process of establishing trust. Soon after gaining the trust, they commence the attack & collect the payload without leaving any trail.

Now, let’s see what a social engineering attack looks like.

  • Posing as a trustworthy business: Scammers frequently adopt the personas of, or “spoof,” companies that their victims are familiar with, trust, and may even frequently or routinely transact business with — so frequently that they obey their orders mechanically and without taking the necessary precautions. 
  • Pretending to be an official from a public body People respect, distrust, or trust authority to varying degrees. By sending messages that appear to be from or purport to be from public personalities, celebrities, or even government agencies like the FBI or IRS, social engineering attacks capitalize on these characteristics.
  • Causing apprehension or a feeling of urgency: People frequently act hurriedly when they are scared or hurried. Social engineering con artists will warn their victims that recent card transactions have been refused, that they have computer viruses, that an image on their website violates someone else’s copyright, etc. By exploiting the victims’ fear of missing out (FOMO), social engineering attacks can create yet another kind of urgency.
  • Appeal too good to be true. For instance, hackers sometimes run a campaign and offer a giant financial reward in exchange for the recipient’s bank account information or a small advance fee. 
  • Social engineering attack methods may also make use of the victims’ higher moral nature by appealing to their curiosity or helpfulness. For instance, a message that looks to be from a friend or social networking site may request participation in a survey, request technical assistance, or claim that the recipient’s post has gone viral while also offering a counterfeit link to a malicious website or malware download.

After knowing the common tactics, let’s move on to different categories of this form of cyberattack.

Social Engineering Attack Types

Here are the different categories of the attack.

1. Phishing

The most well-known social engineering technique is a phishing attack. It motivates its victims to take action by using an email, website, web advertisement, web chat, SMS, or video. These attacks could pose as coming from a bank, delivery service, or government organization, or they might be more targeted and seem to be coming from a specific division of the victim’s business, like HR, IT, or finance.

There is a call to action in such a type of social engineering attack. They can request that the victim click on a URL that leads to a fake website or a dangerous link that downloads malware.

Even the least sophisticated users are aware that these assaults occur. However, they still function because people are preoccupied and distracted, or because they can be designed in such a way that no one could guess their authenticity.

2. Spear Phishing

This type of social engineering attack occurs when attackers target particular groups such as workers at certain firms or financial directors in a particular sector, it’s referred to as spear-phishing attacks.

3. Whaling

A targeted social engineering technique called a whaling attack is similar to the above type. The distinction is that a whaling attack specifically targets senior staff or executives.

4. Pretexting

In this type of social engineering attack, the attacker creates a false situation for the victim while pretending to be the best person to handle the issue. In an ironic twist, the fraudster frequently claims that the victim has been a victim of a security breach before promising to solve the issue in return for access to the victim’s computer, another device, or important account information.

5. Tailgating

Tailgating, also referred to as “piggybacking,” occurs when an unauthorized person enters a site that contains sensitive data or priceless assets after an authorized person. Physically pursuing someone as they are passing through an open door is known as tailgating. However, tailgating can also happen online. For example, when a user neglects to monitor a computer that is connected to a private network or account.

6. Baiting

This type of social engineering attack is the practice of tempting individuals into voluntarily or unintentionally disclosing sensitive information or downloading dangerous software by tempting them with a desirable offer or even a valuable product.

7. Scareware

It is recognized as a form of malware since it uses fear to deceive users into giving up personal information. Or downloading malicious software. It typically takes the form of a fictitious police report that falsely accuses the user of a crime or a fake tech support message claiming the user’s device is infected with malware.

8. Watering Hole Attack

When hackers upload harmful code to a legitimate website that their targets frequently visit, the phrase “somebody poisoned the watering hole” is used. This type of social engineering attack leads to everything from lost passwords to unintended drive-by ransomware downloads.

9. Quid Pro Quo

Similar to a baiting assault targeting a specific person with an offer to pay for a service, a quid pro quo attack is a social engineering scam. For instance, the threat actor can pose as an academic researcher willing to pay for access to the business setting.

10. CEO Fraud

CEO (or CxO) fraud is last but by no means least a sort of social engineering attack, commonly referred to as business email compromise (BEC). Cybercriminals first spend time in this attack obtaining details about the executive team and organizational structure. Attackers use the credibility of the source of the request. Such as a CFO, to persuade an employee to carry out financial transactions. Or reveal sensitive and important information, similar to pretexting.

Social Engineering Examples — Some Real-World Instances

Evaldas Rimasauskas, a Lithuanian national, launched the largest social engineering attack campaign ever (as far as we are aware) against Google and Facebook, two of the biggest companies in the world. Rimasauskas and his group established a phony business, posing as a computer manufacturer that collaborated with Google and Facebook. Rimsauskas opened bank accounts under the company’s name as well.

Following that, the con artists sent manipulative emails to particular Google and Facebook employees, billing them for items and services that the manufacturer had actually given. But, instructing them to pay money into their fake accounts. Between 2013 and 2015, Rimasauskas and his associates robbed the two tech giants of more than $100 million.

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks? Refer to Simple Tips 

Social engineering attacks are notoriously difficult to thwart since they rely more on human psychology than on technological techniques. The attack surface management is crucial since it just takes one employee’s error in a larger organization to endanger the security of the entire company network. 

The following steps that experts advice to lessen the likelihood and potency of social engineering scams:

  • Security Awareness Training. Many people are unable to recognize social engineering frauds. Users today often exchange their personal information for products and services. But, they are unaware that doing so can expose their accounts to hackers. So, it’s important to educate employees on how can they protect their sensitive data and how to recognize & counteractive social engineering assaults using cybersecurity training programs
  • These programs usually involve phishing simulation tools to mimic a social engineering attack and identify who’s falling for the trap.
  • Avoid Opening Emails or Attachments from Unknown Sources. You don’t have to respond to an email if you don’t know the sender. To prevent social engineering attack, cross-check and validate the information from other sources, such as the phone or a service provider’s website, even if you do know them and have doubts about what they are saying. It’s important to keep in mind that email addresses are frequently spoofs. So, it’s possible that an attacker actually sent an email appearing to come from a reliable source.
  • Use Multi-factor Authentication. One of the most valuable pieces of information that attackers search for is user credentials. In the event that the system is compromised, using two-step authentication helps to ensure the security of your account. 
  • Be Aware of Interesting Offers. Before accepting an offer that seems too good to be true, thoroughly weigh your options. 
  • Update Your Antivirus and Antimalware Programs. To prevent social engineering attack, ensure automatic updates are enabled, or make downloading the latest signatures a daily ritual. Verify the updates’ installation on a regular basis, and scan the system for any potential viruses.


Q- How can I detect a social engineering attack?

Now that the attackers are becoming sophisticated identifying this type of attack without an expert’s help could be difficult. However, if you want to do it on your own then you can look for suspicious-looking emails or text messages. There might be grammatical errors or spelling mistakes in the received email or text. And, the message would sound urgent demanding an immediate course of action. 

Q- Does social media play any role in executing social engineering attacks?

From social media platforms, attackers can gather more personalized information about the victim to execute the attack without fail. So, yes, directly or indirectly social media helps the attackers.

Q- How are social engineering attacks evolving?

Today the world is all about artificial engineering. With such advanced technology, an attacker can carry out the attack more accurately. Even, they can target multiple victims at a time. Thus, it is the need of the hour for both individuals and organizations to get updated with the latest attack trends and security best practices.