Social engineering is any activity in which cybercriminals trick or manipulate victims into willingly revealing sensitive information. It’s a particularly diabolical exploit of human weakness. Human beings have a charming, and frequently catastrophic, tendency to trust without verifying, and in a cybersecurity context, blind trust is a human error your business cannot afford.

Dangers of social engineering

Data obtained via social engineering is used to make additional attacks on the victim, the company they work for, their colleagues, and your customers. This approach can thus transform an innocuous conversation into an insidious multifront battle for everyone’s data security.

And according to welivesecurity, “Social engineering attacks are the gravest threat to public administration, accounting for 69% of all public administration breaches analyzed by Verizon in 2021.” Private and public sector data breaches have far-reaching effects on personal, business, and even state security. Don’t forget to account for the human element of cybersecurity.

The many faces of social engineering

One of the most intimidating aspects of social engineering is the variety of forms it can take. Beware of:

  • Phishing, spear phishing, and whaling. In general, phishing involves sending fake or infected emails to your company’s customer base. With just one of your customers on the hook, scammers can obtain login credentials, financial access, or other sensitive business information to exploit at their leisure. Spear phishing and whaling target high-value victims with custom, personalized attacks.
  • Pharming. Pharming leverages a fake website that looks real enough to fool the average user into entering login credentials. Cybercriminals go to great lengths to match the appearance of legitimate, and even familiar, websites. Fake web addresses can be as little as one letter off the URL of a valid site. Attackers collect domains with alternate extensions (e.g., “.com” instead of “.org”), common misspellings (e.g., “facebock”), additional or absent punctuation, and other typosquatting techniques to capitalize on busy employees’ limited attention to detail.
  • Baiting. Like many social engineering tactics, baiting relies on simple human greed and frequently features in phishing attacks. The idea is to trick the victim into exchanging sensitive data for something they want, usually money (e.g., the Nigerian 419 scam). These scams are commonly presented in the form of emails from banks — or foreign dignitaries — claiming to need personal information in order to send the victim something of value.
  • Smishing and vishing. These updated forms of phishing use calls and text messages to reach a much wider victim pool than an email ploy. Smishing involves fake text messages. Vishing uses voice calls. Everyone has received some version of the infamous vehicle extended warranty call. This scam is so common it’s become something of a joke, but it is a prime example of vishing.
  • Pretexting. Pretexting is storytelling. Most social engineering attacks rely on some measure of pretexting. These “cons” attempt to connect with victims to manipulate them into parting with money and/or secure data. Pretexting often involves improvisation as the attacker gathers more information about the victim through their interaction, and it can start with limited personal information readily available on social media.
    • Grandparent attacks target elderly victims and either impersonate their grandchild or claim to be someone with authority (e.g., a law enforcement officer) calling on the grandchild’s behalf.
    • Romance scams targeting vulnerable, elderly victims spiked during the pandemic as cybercriminals used pretexting to exploit loneliness imposed by quarantine lockdowns.

There are other forms of social engineering. If you can think it, someone is probably trying to exploit it. Maintain a high awareness of common and popular social engineering scams among your employees and customers.

Cover your assets

Now that you have some idea of what’s lurking out there, how can you protect yourself — and your business — from social engineering scams?

The most crucial step you can take for cybersecurity protection is to educate yourself, your employees, and your customer base. Make sure everyone can recognize suspicious behavior and other red flags. Keep on top of current attack and defense strategies. Your first line of defense against these attacks is information. Your second line is a healthy dose of caution with a side of suspicion. As always, trust but verify!

Social engineering attacks rely on deception in an evolution of the classic con. They are simple, albeit incredibly effective, attacks for exposing sensitive data to the bad intentions of malicious actors. To cover your assets, learn to recognize these attacks in all their various forms, exercise caution, and keep your cybersecurity knowledge current.

Visit for a network security advocate and technology ally you can trust to provide your organization with the best possible solution at the best possible price.

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