Social engineering attacks are becoming more widespread and sophisticated every year. According to a recent report, human-targeted social engineering cyberattacks increased by 15% in 2022 alone. With hackers constantly coming up with new tactics to fool victims, it‘s crucial that individuals and organizations understand these threats and how to prevent them.
In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll break down today‘s most common social engineering techniques, provide real-world examples, share helpful statistics, and give you proactive tips to protect yourself from these sinister scams.
What is Social Engineering?
Before diving in, let‘s quickly define what social engineering actually entails.
Social engineering is the practice of manipulating or deceiving people into handing over confidential information or performing actions that compromise security. These attacks rely on natural human tendencies like curiosity, fear, kindness, gullibility, and even laziness to be successful.
Rather than using advanced technology to hack systems and accounts, criminals employ psychological tricks and impersonation to exploit victims. Oftentimes, social engineering involves some form of identity fraud, where the attacker pretends to be a trusted entity like a banker, coworker, technician, or government agency.
According to a 2022 report from Purplesec, 71% of companies feel social engineering poses a significant danger to their organization. And many security experts believe the risk is actually underestimated since these "soft" attacks are difficult to detect and prevent compared to malware and hacking.
12 Common Social Engineering Techniques
Now that you understand the basics of what social engineering entails, let‘s explore some of today‘s most prevalent social engineering scams in more detail. Here are 12 tactics criminals use to deceive victims and steal sensitive data or money.
Phishing is one of the most prolific cybersecurity menaces currently targeting businesses and consumers.
In a phishing attack, the criminal sends fraudulent emails, text messages, or phone calls impersonating a trusted source. Their goal is to trick the victim into handing over login credentials, financial information, or sensitive files.
These messages often:
- Use spoofing techniques to mask the sender address and make it look legitimate
- Try to create urgency by saying your account will be deactivated or that there is a security threat
- Include links to fake pages that harvest credentials or maliciously install software
- Leverage current events, holidays, or disasters to add credibility
According to Google‘s 2022 Threat Horizons report, phishing was the most common malware delivery method, accounting for 92% of attacks. Shockingly, 1 in 3 people still fall for phishing attempts.
Here are two real-world examples of how attackers leverage phishing:
- Invoice Scam: Employees receive an email appearing to come from the company billing department with an attached invoice. Opening the document activates malware that spreads across the corporate network.
- Fake Notification: A text message pretending to be Amazon claims your account has been temporarily deactivated. It provides a link to reactivate it, but the link is a phishing site capturing your Amazon login credentials.
As these examples demonstrate, phishing messages are customized to victimize both organizations and regular internet users.
2. Spear Phishing
Spear phishing is a more targeted version of phishing aimed at specific individuals, departments, or organizations. Instead of wide spraying, the criminal extensively researches the targets first and crafts personalized messages citing insider details to build trust.
For example, an attacker may send the company CEO an urgent email appearing to come from the HR manager regarding a data breach, knowing the CEO will find it credible coming from HR. Or cybercriminals may target specific executives at partner companies after studying their roles via social media.
This personalization helps the scam seem legitimate. According to a 2022 FBI public service announcement, spear phishing results in $26 billion in global fraud losses each year.
Whaling takes spear phishing even further by zeroing in on high-profile targets like executives, politicians, celebrities, and their business associates using tailored social engineering. Just like spear phishing, whaling messages cite insider details to build credibility with victims.
According to an IBM study, 25% of all spear phishing attacks target the C-suite. And Verizon‘s research found that $543 million in corporate losses last year were due to whaling schemes hitting executives.
Vishing, or voice phishing, uses phone calls to scam people into handing over sensitive information or money. These cold calls use spoofing to fake bank toll-free numbers and executive names on caller ID.
Once the victim answers, the criminal impersonates fraud or security staff from the bank asking to "verify account activity" or reset a password. With proper urgency and authority, naive victims end up giving up critical financial login details.
According to SocialCatfish, 43% of people would give up their personal information during a fishy call. Banks, government agencies, and tech firms never call unprompted seeking your private data.
Smishing executes phishing attempts over text messaging rather than email or calls. Often, smishing texts pretend to be notifications from Amazon, banks, delivery companies and other services claiming there is an issue with your account.
The message contains an urgent link, typically shortened to hide the actual destination. But clicking the link sends users to a fake site prompting them to enter their usernames and passwords, exposing valuable login credentials.
According to T-Mobile, their networks experience an average of 100 million smishing attempts per month. While smishing has always been popular, criminals are using SMS-based social engineering more than ever since texting is ubiquitous.
Pretexting schemes rely on inventing a story to obtain private data from victims. By gaining the target‘s trust, the attacker can scam them out of passwords, financial information, or funds.
Some popular pretexting tactics include:
- Posing as IT support needing remote access to fix an issue (gets login credentials and compromised systems)
- Pretending to be from the fraud department verifying suspicious activity (gains credit card details)
- Claiming there is a problem with the victim‘s account to obtain passwords or SSN to "confirm their identity"
Figures from the Identity Theft Resource Center show that scams and social engineering account for nearly 50% of all data breaches. Pretexting victims with false emergencies or security threats remains highly effective for criminals.
7. Quid Pro Quo
Similar to pretexting, quid pro quo manipulation offers a benefit or service in exchange for private information. By pretending to provide something of value to victims, criminals persuade targets to hand over login credentials, bank details, or access to systems.
Some examples include:
- Posing as software support and offering a fake upgrade or patch in exchange for remote login access
- Pretending to be a banker needing account login details to deposit a bonus
- Sending an email pretending to mistakenly wire funds and asking for bank details to reverse it
According to figures from the FTC, these quid pro quo scams scammed victims out of $575 million back in 2021. The lure of free money, upgrades, and other benefits exploits human tendencies.
Baiting tricks users into installing malware themselves by offering something enticing like free music or movie downloads. The hacker leaves infected USB drives or disks labeled with tempting content in public places, hoping victims will find and insert them into their PCs.
Once loaded, autorun malware instantly infects their computer and network. Baiting requires minimal effort from the attacker yet can inflict massive damage.
Shocking figures from Enterprise Management Associates show that 98% of people who find random USB drives plug them right into their computers. This highlights the danger of baiting since it exploits human curiosity.
While most social engineering focuses on digital deception, tailgating (also called “piggybacking”) uses physical impersonation. The unauthorized person follows an employee into a secured door, server room, office building, or other restricted area without authenticating themselves.
Once inside, the criminal can steal equipment, data, paperwork, or gain network access. According to figures from GlobalSecurity.org, tailgating accounts for 70% of all corporate security breaches. Holding doors and being overly trusting makes life easy for these "piggybacking" attackers.
With typosquatting scams, the hacker registers fake domains almost identical to legitimate websites with slight misspellings or typos. For example, "Amazom.com" or "BankufAnerica.com".
The idea is victims will mistake the typo for the real site and enter their credentials or sensitive data into the fraudulent copy. According to a 2022 FBI public service announcement, typosquatting domains steal over $500 million per year globally.
Even savvy web users sometimes fall for these sneaky scams, especially on mobile devices with small keyboards. Typosquatting remains highly effective two decades after first appearing.
11. Watering Hole Attacks
In a watering hole attack, the hacker profiles an organization to determine websites and resources that employees routinely use. They then compromise one of those sites and plant malware to infect visitors from the targeted company.
Rather than phishing randomly, the criminal poisons content they know workers will access, almost guaranteeing infections. Figures from Symantec‘s 2022 Internet Security Threat Report show watering hole attacks increased by 78% last year.
12. CEO Fraud
CEO fraud typically targets accounting and finance departments using phishing emails pretending to come from the company CEO or CFO. The messages urgently request large wire transfers to pay for acquisitions, operations, or other fake business needs.
Verifying the odd request before sending funds could prevent the crime. But fear of angering the boss leads many employees to comply. The FBI states that CEO scams have swindled over $2.3 billion from businesses to date.
How Can You Spot Social Engineering Attacks?
Now that you know the most prevalent forms of social engineering, let‘s explore how to quickly identify these scams before you become a victim. Here are some key traits that should immediately set off warning bells:
Scam emails and messages often start with impersonal greetings like "Dear customer" or just your email address rather than using your name.
Sense of Urgency
Creating false urgency is a common tactic to short-circuit critical thinking. Messages may say your account will close or your access will expire.
Any message threatening penalties, account cancellation, or legal trouble if you don‘t act quickly is almost always fraudulent.
Requests for Sensitive Data
Reputable companies never ask for your password, SSN, bank details, or login credentials over email/phone. Refuse to provide this info if asked.
Phishing emails teem with typos, grammar issues, and awkward language. The sloppiness indicates scammers, not legitimate businesses.
No Contact Information
Real communications have signatures, email addresses, and contact information. Lack of this indicates deceit.
Hover over links to see if URLs match the website. Mismatched or odd links indicate phishing.
Scammers spoof legitimate business names and numbers on calls/emails. Verify senders out-of-band before trusting questionable communications.
Any demand to bypass policies, give remote access, disable security tools, or take unusual actions signals malicious intent. Say no.
Watch for these red flags with every digital communication and you‘ll evade the vast majority of social engineering ploys. Next, let‘s talk about how you can proactively protect yourself.
Security Tips to Prevent Successful Social Engineering
Now that you know how social engineers operate and common attack techniques, let‘s discuss security best practices you can implement to protect yourself from scams.
Keep Software Updated
Cybercriminals exploit unpatched software bugs to compromise systems remotely. Keeping applications, operating systems, browsers, plugins, and hardware like routers updated closes security holes. Make a point to enable auto-updates on any device you use to stay protected.
Install Comprehensive Antivirus
Protect all your technology with robust antivirus software like Bitdefender Total Security for home use or Bitdefender GravityZone for businesses. This provides complete protection against phishing sites, malware downloads, unauthorized network access, browser exploits and more.
Enable MFA On Accounts
Activating multi-factor authentication (MFA) safeguards online accounts even if passwords get stolen. With MFA enabled, scammers need physical access to your mobile device or other secondary factor which stops most attacks.
Reset Passwords Frequently
Regularly changing passwords on financial, email, social media, work, and other online accounts restricts the damage if credentials ever get phished. Password managers like Bitdefender Password Manager make high-entropy passwords easy.
Oversharing personal or work details on social media gives criminals ammo for highly targeted spear phishing and pretexting cons. Keep private details off public profiles.
Verify Unusual Requests
Take a moment to validate any odd or urgent requests by calling people back using known numbers. Double checking protects against voice/SMS spoofing.
Inspect Email Sender Addresses
Scrutinize the senders of emails carefully before opening them. Phishers often spoof legitimate business names and email addresses.
Provide Ongoing Staff Training
Educate team members on social engineering warning signs through regular cybersecurity awareness training. This builds an innate scam detection capability.
Control Device Access
Keep computers, mobile devices, servers, and network equipment physically secure to prevent unauthorized tampering that could open doors for attackers.
Following these tips makes you a much less appetizing target for social engineers seeking quick and easy scores. Promoting security awareness through ongoing education and vigilance creates resilience.
How Can Individuals Protect Themselves?
While many social engineering scams target businesses, individuals face substantial risks, too. Here are some extra precautions you can take to avoid being personally duped:
- Learn the techniques fraudsters use so you can recognize vishing, smishing, phishing, baiting, and other ploys targeting consumers. Knowing how criminals operate helps you identify scams.
- Never give information to unsolicited callers claiming to be tech support, bankers asking for account details, or even charities requesting donations. Legitimate companies don‘t operate this way.
- Avoid using public USB chargers or finding random drives since they may be bait with embedded malware. Carry your own charger and power brick when traveling.
- Only shop at trusted online retailers and carefully type the URL to avoid visiting fraudulent typosquatting sites that just look legitimate. Stick to well-known merchants.
- Setup online account alerts so that you receive notifications anytime critical account changes occur. This acts as an early warning system for identity theft.
- Freeze your credit which prevents scammers who acquire your information from applying for credit cards or loans in your name. Freezing credit is free and easy to do.
With vigilance and safe computing habits, individuals can largely protect themselves from the growing threat of social engineering in daily life.
As this guide has illustrated, social engineering remains a highly prevalent attack vector impacting businesses and regular internet users alike. Criminals continue finding new ways to exploit human psychology and trust to steal data, credentials, and money.
But understanding common social engineering techniques makes recognizing these scams much easier. Watch for suspicious links, urgent threats, odd requests, and other red flags. When in doubt, take time to verify legitimacy through secondary channels before acting.
Combining employee education, security technology, controlled access, and vigilance gives organizations and individuals the upper hand against constantly evolving social engineering threats. But it requires deliberate effort to implement comprehensive protections and an alert workforce.
Hopefully this overview has provided deeper insight into current social engineering dangers, along with actionable advice to keep yourself protected. By leveraging the latest safeguards and keeping safety top of mind, you can confidently use technology while sidestepping the sinister traps set by fraudsters.