What Is a Social Engineering Attack in Cyber Security?

Social Engineering attack

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As we rely more on technology to store and share sensitive information, cyber security has become a crucial aspect for businesses and individuals alike. However, while most people are familiar with concepts such as malware and hacking, fewer are aware of the insidious threat posed by social engineering attacks.

Understanding social engineering attacks

people observing social engineering attacks

Definition of social engineering

Social engineering is a form of cyber attack that relies on manipulating people into giving away sensitive information or performing actions that can compromise security. It is a type of psychological manipulation that exploits human vulnerabilities such as trust, fear, curiosity, and ignorance.

For example, a social engineer might call a company’s IT department pretending to be an employee who forgot their password. The social engineer might then use this opportunity to convince the IT employee to reset the password and give them access to sensitive information.

Common types of social engineering attacks

The most common types of social engineering attacks include:

  • Phishing: This involves sending fraudulent emails or messages that appear to be from a legitimate source, such as a bank or social media site. The goal is to trick the recipient into clicking a link or downloading an attachment that will install malware or steal their login credentials.
  • Pretexting: This involves creating a false scenario or pretext to gain the target’s trust. For example, a social engineer might call a company’s HR department pretending to be a job applicant and ask for sensitive information such as employee records.
  • Baiting: This involves leaving a physical device, such as a USB drive, in a public place where it is likely to be found. The device will contain malware that will infect the target’s computer when they plug it in.
  • Quid pro quo: This involves offering something of value in exchange for sensitive information. For example, a social engineer might offer free tech support in exchange for the target’s login credentials.
  • Tailgating: This involves following someone into a secure area without proper authorisation. For example, a social engineer might wait outside a secure door and then follow an employee inside when they use their access card.

Goals of social engineering attackers

The primary goal of social engineering attackers is to gain access to sensitive information or systems they can use for personal gain. This could include stealing financial data, personal information, or intellectual property. They may also seek to plant malware or gain backdoor access to corporate networks.

It’s important to be aware of these tactics and to take steps to protect yourself and your organisation. This includes being cautious of unsolicited emails or messages, verifying the identity of anyone who asks for sensitive information, and using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication.

You can help prevent social engineering attacks from succeeding by staying vigilant and informed.

The psychology behind social engineering

extraction of information as a social engineering attacks

Social engineering is a type of cyber attack that involves manipulating individuals into divulging sensitive information. The success of a social engineering attack relies on the attacker’s ability to exploit inherent human vulnerabilities. We will explore the psychology behind social engineering and the various tactics employed by attackers to manipulate their targets.

Exploiting human vulnerabilities

Humans are social creatures, and we tend to trust and rely on others in our daily lives. Social engineering attackers take advantage of this trust by creating a sense of urgency, offering false promises, or appealing to the target’s emotions.

For example, an attacker may send an urgent email claiming to be from the target’s bank, requesting that they update their account information immediately. The urgency of the message can cause the target to act without thinking, potentially divulging sensitive information.

Manipulation techniques

There are several manipulation techniques that social engineering attackers use to gain the trust of their targets. These can include posing as a legitimate authority figure, using flattery or empathy, or exploiting the target’s desire for social connection.

For instance, an attacker may pose as a tech support representative and ask the target for their login credentials, claiming that they need them to fix a technical issue. The attacker may also use flattery, such as complimenting the target’s intelligence, to make them feel more comfortable and trusting.

Building trust and authority

Social engineering attackers often rely on building a rapport with the target before attempting to extract sensitive information. This could involve establishing a relationship over an extended period or gradually escalating trust and intimacy over a short period.

For example, an attacker may pose as a new employee and spend time getting to know their colleagues before attempting to extract sensitive information. By building trust and authority, the attacker can increase the likelihood that the target will divulge sensitive information.

Real-world examples of social engineering attacks

man with a data breach plan

Famous social engineering incidents

Several high-profile social engineering incidents in recent years, including the Target data breach, resulted in the theft of 40 million debit and credit card numbers. Another egregious example is the Equifax data breach which impacted 143 million Americans and resulted in a $425 million settlement.

Impact on businesses and individuals

The impact of social engineering attacks can be devastating for both businesses and individuals. In addition to the financial losses incurred from data breaches, victims may also experience reputational damage and loss of business. Companies may be subject to legal liability and regulatory penalties, while individuals may suffer identity theft and financial harm.

How to protect your business from a social engineering attack

It’s important to acknowledge that businesses are vulnerable to social engineering attacks. Accepting this can help businesses understand the wisdom in providing cyber security training to teams to minimise the risk.

This will help the team members recognise potential threats. Additionally, having a disaster recovery plan in place can help minimise the impact of such attacks on a business.

Businesses might employ Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) technology that centralises company data to identify vulnerabilities and cyber attack sources, protecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

It’s a speedy and easy-to-use all-in-one solution for threat analysis, making it a helpful addition to a cyber security expert’s toolkit. With 24/7 surveillance, SIEM is increasingly necessary in the face of AI-aided cyber crime. You can read more on about SIEM in our article on the topic here. 


It is crucial to stay vigilant against social engineering attacks by being aware of common tactics and staying up to date on the latest threats. By understanding the psychology behind these attacks and recognising the warning signs, individuals and businesses can better protect themselves against the insidious threat of social engineering in cyber security.

If you want to learn how to safeguard people and companies from cyber threats, you can schedule a free career consultation with a member of the Institute of Data team to ask about our cyber security bootcamps.

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