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What is a Social Engineering Attack?

Social engineering attacks are a type of cyberattack that uses psychological manipulation and lies to trick people into giving up sensitive information or doing things that could compromise security. These attacks can take many forms, such as phishing emails, phone calls, or even in-person interactions. The goal of a social engineering attack is to use people's weaknesses, like trust, fear, or curiosity, to get them to give up private information or systems. Because they take advantage of weaknesses in people, these attacks can be hard to spot and stop.

For example, a phishing attack might involve sending an email that looks like it came from a trusted source and asking the recipient to enter their login information on a malicious website. A baiting attack might involve leaving a USB drive with malware in a public place, hoping someone will pick it up and plug it into their computer. Understanding the various types of social engineering attacks is essential for protecting your organization.

Historical Examples of Social Engineering Attacks

Criminals, spies, and even politicians have used social engineering attacks throughout history. One historical example of a social engineering attack was when spies during World War II convinced German commanders that the Allied invasion of Normandy was happening at a different location than it actually was. This led to a diversion of German troops away from the real invasion site and ultimately helped the Allies win the war. This example highlights how powerful social engineering attacks can be and why it's important to be aware of them in today's digital age. In the past few years, these attacks have become a popular way for people to get into sensitive information or systems on the internet. Social engineering tactics include: phishing attacks, baiting attacks, pretexting attacks, tailgating attacks, scareware attacks, and more.

How do Social Engineering Attacks Work?

Social engineering attacks work by exploiting common human emotions such as fear, greed, curiosity, and urgency to create a sense of trust and bypass normal security protocols. Once a scammer gains access to the victim's information, they use this information to gain unauthorized access to all kinds of personal information that may include:
the victim's social security number

  • date of birth
  • phone number
  • bank account information
  • email account information

What are the Phases of a Social Engineering Attack?

Understanding the phases of a social engineering attack is key to understanding how these attacks work. During the first phase, reconnaissance information about the target is gathered so that a good attack plan can be made. This may involve researching social media profiles, job titles, and email addresses.

In the manipulation phase, the attacker uses the information gathered to get the victim to do something. This can be done by sending a phishing email or text message with harmful links or attachments, or by using other methods like baiting or pretexting.

Lastly, in the exploitation phase, the attacker takes advantage of their victim's trust and uses it to get into sensitive data or systems. This can include anything from stealing passwords and login information to launching more complex attacks on a company's network.

Common Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks evolve all the time, but the most common ones include: phishing (including spear phishing and whaling attacks), baiting, tailgating, pretexting, quid pro quo, scareware, and watering hole attacks.

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks are the most common type of social engineering attack. These attacks typically involve sending out malicious emails that appear to come from a legitimate source, such as a bank or other trusted organization. The emails almost always have a sense of urgency and rush the victim to act immediately. The goal of these attacks is to get the recipient to follow a link to a fake website where the sender tricks them into providing sensitive information, such as login credentials or credit card numbers. Phishing attacks can be difficult to detect, as the emails often look very convincing and may even include logos and other branding elements from the real company.

Baiting Attacks

Another common type of social engineering attack is the baiting attack. In this kind of attack, the perpetrator will leave a harmful item, like a USB drive, in a public area where someone is likely to find it. If someone picks up the item and plugs it into their computer, the attacker has access to the system.

Baiting attacks are particularly effective because they exploit human curiosity and the desire to get something for free. The attacker could also make the bad thing look like something good, like a free software program or music download. Organizations should have clear security rules about what devices can be plugged in and what software can be downloaded onto company computers.

Tailgating Attacks

Tailgating attacks are a common type of social engineering attack that can be very dangerous to physical security. In this kind of attack, a person gets into a secure area by following a person who is allowed to be there. The attacker will typically attempt to blend in with the crowd and appear as if they are part of the same group or organization.

This kind of attack is hard to spot because it is not based on technology but on trickery. Organizations should spend money on physical security measures like access control systems and surveillance cameras to stop attacks that come from behind. In addition, it is important to train employees to recognize and report suspicious activity, and to restrict entry to unauthorized individuals.

Pretexting Attacks

One common type of social engineering attack is the pretexting attack. This involves a malicious actor pretending to be someone else in order to gain access to confidential information. The attacker may use various methods, such as voice phishing (vishing) or social media messages, to establish trust with their target and convince them to give up sensitive data.

In some cases, attackers will even pretend to be company representatives or family members to fool their victims. A pretext attack can be very effective because it is based on people's trust and ability to be manipulated, not on technical flaws.


Quid Pro Quo Attacks

Quid pro quo attacks are a common type of social engineering attack in which the hacker asks the victim for something in exchange for something else. For example, the hacker might offer to fix a computer problem if the victim gives them their login information. Offering free goods or services in exchange for personal information is another type of social engineering attack.
People often use these attacks to get into systems and networks and steal personal and financial information. It's important to be cautious when receiving unexpected requests or offers, especially if they seem too good to be true.

Scareware Attacks

Malicious software is used in a scareware attack to trick users into downloading or installing an app or file. The software is meant to scare the user into thinking that their computer has been hacked and needs to be fixed.

Messages that say the user's personal information has been stolen or that their system is at risk of a security breach may be displayed by the scareware. The malware might also tell people to buy something they don't need, like fake antivirus software. It can be hard to spot these kinds of social engineering attacks, which can lead to big financial losses or damage to personal data.

Watering Hole Attacks

In a watering hole attack, hackers target a specific group of people by exploiting commonly used websites or resources. The attacker will infect the website or resource with malicious code, which can be used to extract information from unsuspecting users. Watering hole attacks are often difficult to detect because they rely on the trust that users have in these commonly used resources.

Consequences of a Social Engineering Attack

A successful social engineering attack can have severe consequences for individuals and businesses alike. Leaks of sensitive data can cause serious privacy and security problems. Businesses may suffer financial losses due to fraudulent activities carried out by attackers. In addition, the loss of customer trust and reputation damage can occur as a result of these attacks. Business operations may also be disrupted due to a successful social engineering attack, causing chaos and inconvenience for both employees and customers.

Preventing Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks are a common form of cybercrime that rely on human behavior instead of technical vulnerabilities. To stop these kinds of attacks, you need to be aware of phishing emails, phone calls, and other messages that try to get you to give out sensitive information. Install anti-virus and anti-malware software on all devices to avoid malware infections. Using strong and unique passwords for each account reduces the chances of an account breach.

Teach your employees about the dangers of social engineering attacks, use two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA), and use bot management solutions to stop and find bots used in social engineering attacks. Taking these steps can help you avoid becoming a victim of social engineering attacks.

Awareness and Education

Preventing social engineering attacks requires a combination of technical controls and user awareness. Awareness training for employees can help them identify and respond appropriately to such attacks. This may include training on identifying spam, phishing emails, and suspicious phone calls. Educational programs can also teach users about best practices for password management and avoiding risky behaviors online.

Overall, the best way to stop social engineering attacks is to create a culture of awareness and education about them. People and businesses can greatly reduce their chances of becoming victims of these kinds of attacks by staying alert and informed.

Multi-Factor Authentication

MFA asks users to prove who they are with two or more pieces of information, like a password, email address, phone number, or biometric data. This additional layer of security makes it more difficult for hackers to gain access to your accounts. In theory, MFA also makes sure that even if a hacker gets a hold of a user's credentials through a phishing scam, they won't be able to get into the account without more proof. But, in practice, scammers can now use Man-in-the-Middle attacks to circumvent MFA.

Cybersecurity Solutions

To protect against social engineering attacks, organizations should also use security tools like a firewall and anti-spam filters. Most importantly, businesses need a comprehensive cybersecurity plan that includes a strong bot management solution like Arkose Labs that can find vulnerabilities and social engineering attacks and stop them before any damage is done.

Arkose Labs uses both transparent detection and targeted attack response to catch attacks early in the customer journey, without affecting good users. It is set up before the MFA step in a website's login and registration workflows. The login or registration process can be finished if the web server gets the token from the Arkose Platform, after the detection and adaptive challenge response processes of Arkose Matchkey are done successfully.

Arkose MatchKey Challenges

Overall, a business is much less likely to fall victim to a social engineering attack if it uses these awareness, education, and cybersecurity solutions.


Social engineering attacks are becoming increasingly common, and it's important to understand how they work and the potential consequences. The consequences of a successful attack can be severe, including data breaches, financial loss, and reputational damage. To prevent social engineering attacks, you must educate yourself and your team on the latest threats and invest in technical solutions like firewalls and antivirus software. Additionally, it's important to deploy a bot management solution, like that from Arkose Labs, that can prevent, detect, and stop bot-driven social engineering attacks.

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