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What is social engineering in cybersecurity?

Discover the ins and outs of social engineering attacks and learn how to identify and prevent them with this comprehensive guide from CovertSwarm.

Social engineering blog

In today’s digital landscape, hackers are relentless in their pursuit of valuable information and their methods are cunning and deceptive, sparing no effort to achieve their goals.

As an unsuspecting target, you become a pawn in their game of manipulation. They employ social engineering techniques with alarming expertise and exploit your trust, creating a sense of urgency that leaves you defenseless.

Before you even realize what’s happening, they breach your defenses and gain unauthorized access.

The consequences can be devastating, but preventing a social engineering attack is far more manageable than recovering from one. To safeguard your organization and its reputation, it’s crucial to remain vigilant and take proactive measures.

In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know including:

  • What is a social engineering attack?
  • How does social engineering work?
  • Types of social engineering techniques
  • An example of social engineering 
  • Social engineering principles
  • How to identify social engineering attacks
  • Social engineering prevention and countermeasures
  • Final thoughts

What is a social engineering attack?

Social engineering attacks manipulate and exploit people into revealing confidential information or performing detrimental actions, such as downloading malware. 

Malicious actors ‘engineer’ specific social interactions to deceive individuals and gain unauthorized access to sensitive information or security systems. That’s where the term social engineering comes from. 

Within this umbrella, many types of social engineering exist including baiting, blagging, shoulder surfing, phishing, vishing, smishing and more. It’s one of the most common attack methods used by criminals today and tends to be very successful.

Therefore, organizations and individuals alike need to be aware of the risks and learn how to prevent social engineering attacks.

How does social engineering work?

The goal of social engineering attacks is to gain access to sensitive data or systems, but they can also be used for other malicious purposes, such as spreading malware or disrupting services. 

Picture this.

You receive an urgent email from a high-level executive in your company.

The message is marked as high-priority and confidential.

Immediate compliance is requested.

If you miss the time frame, the consequences are severe.

You could even lose your job. 

With the adrenaline pumping, you hastily follow the instructions.

You unknowingly fall into the hacker’s trap.

They exploit your vulnerability for their own malicious gain.

This is an example of a phishing social engineering threat and it’s not the only one of its kind.

Types of social engineering techniques

There are a million different ways that manipulation can take place. From the art of deception to the clever use of psychological tricks, these tactics are dangerously difficult to identify. 

Here are a few social engineering methods you should be aware of: 

  • Pretexting: creating a fabricated story (or pretext) to gain trust and manipulate victims into sharing sensitive information or downloading malware. 
  • Baiting: enticing individuals with false promises or rewards to trick them into revealing sensitive information or performing detrimental actions.
  • Quid pro quo: this is where hackers offer a false service, such as ‘tech support’, in exchange for access to secure information. 
  • Scareware: manipulative tactics, such as fake security alerts, deceive users into installing malicious software or purchasing unnecessary products.
  • Phishing: Using deceptive emails or messages to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, often by posing as a legitimate entity.
  • Spear phishing: targeted phishing attacks customized for specific individuals or organizations to increase success rates.
  • Vishing: malicious actors posing as a trusted entity over a phone call to deceive victims into revealing confidential information. 
  • Smishing: like phishing and vishing but uses SMS to encourage victims to share sensitive information. 
  • Whaling: phishing attacks that target high-profile individuals, such as CEOs or celebrities.
  • Watering hole attacks: an attacker compromises a website frequently visited by a specific group to infect the visitors’ devices with malware.
  • Diversion theft: malicious actors divert the attention of individuals to facilitate theft or unauthorized access.
  • Honey trap: using romantic or sexual enticement to manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information or engaging in compromising activities.
  • Rogue security software: malicious software tricks victims into thinking their device has been infected and encourages them to download malware. 
  • Pharming: manipulating DNS settings or redirecting network traffic to malicious websites to collect sensitive information.
  • Impersonation: pretending to be someone else, often a trusted individual or organization, to deceive individuals into sharing confidential data or granting access.
  • Tabnabbing: manipulates victims into submitting confidential information by redirecting them to duplicate sites while their tabs are inactive. 

An example of social engineering 

A real-life example of a social engineering attack is the ‘CEO fraud’ or ‘business email compromise’ scam. In this type of attack, the attacker poses as a high-level executive, such as a CEO or CFO, and targets employees within an organization.

Here’s how it typically unfolds.


They’ll investigate your personal life, your job, and even your family members to learn everything they can. Often, a quick Google search or social media scan is enough to provide them with the ammunition they need to attack. 


The attacker sends an email or makes a phone call pretending to be a trusted source. They may use spoofed email addresses, create fake websites, or even imitate somebody’s tone or style of writing.

Urgency and authority

Typically, the tone is urgent and authoritative. They may claim a confidential matter requires your immediate attention. The goal is to pressure you into taking immediate action.  


Next, they’ll use every psychological tactic in the book until you comply with their request. They may play on emotions, such as fear of consequences. They could try to use social proof and refer to other team members that have already complied.

Financial loss

Falling for the scam can carry serious financial implications for the target. This may involve a transfer of funds to the attacker’s account or the disclosure of confidential data that can be maliciously exploited in the future. 

Social engineering principles

To avoid falling victim to an attack, you’ll need to learn how hackers think and act. Here are some behaviors you should look out for: 

  • Authority: social engineers often impersonate individuals in positions of authority or trust, such as executives or IT administrators. By leveraging authority, they gain credibility and influence over their targets.
  • Trust and likability: building trust is crucial for social engineers. They try to appear friendly, likable, and trustworthy, and mirror behavior, find common ground, or create a sense of empathy.
  • Reciprocity: social engineers may offer favors, assistance, or small gifts to create a sense of obligation or reciprocity in their targets. This makes individuals more willing to comply with requests or provide sensitive information in return.
  • Scarcity and urgency: social engineers often create a sense of scarcity or urgency to prompt quick actions without thorough consideration. They may use time-sensitive consequences to push individuals into making hasty decisions.
  • Familiarity and social proof: by referencing familiar people, organizations, or situations, hackers create a sense of social proof. They may mention colleagues, shared connections, or reputable companies to gain trust and legitimacy.
  • Exploiting curiosity and fear: malicious actors take advantage of innate human emotions, such as curiosity or fear. They may craft enticing messages or raise concerns to evoke emotional responses that override logical thinking and lead to impulsive actions.
  • Manipulation of information: social engineers carefully collect information about their targets to personalize their attacks. By referencing specific details, they create an illusion of legitimacy and increase the likelihood of successful manipulation.
  • Obfuscation and deception: social engineers employ tactics like obfuscation, misdirection, and deception to divert attention, confuse their targets, or camouflage their true intentions. This can involve creating distractions or presenting false information.

How to identify social engineering attacks

Identifying a social engineer is harder than you think.

They often rely on psychological manipulation and deception – two tactics they have undoubtedly mastered.

Here are several signs to look out for:

Be wary of unsolicited requests

Proceed with caution in the event of unsolicited emails, phone calls, or messages, especially if they ask for personal information or create a sense of urgency.

Verify the source

Don’t rely on the information provided during communication. Ensure the legitimacy of the person behind the request, especially when dealing with sensitive information or monetary transactions.

Check for inconsistencies

Look out for subtle clues such as inconsistencies in their way of communication. This could include misspellings, grammar mistakes, or unusual language.

Be cautious with links and attachments

Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading attachments from unknown sources, as they could contain malware or lead to fraudulent websites.

Trust your instincts

Trust your instincts. If something feels off, you’re probably right. Take a step back and consult with others before taking action.

Social engineering prevention and countermeasures 

There’s no firewall software or fool proof solution available to ward off socially engineered attacks. However, there are certain countermeasures you can adopt to maximize your security posture.

Here are a few recommendations: 

  1. Employee training and awareness: you can’t expect employees to identify a potential threat if you don’t support them with the right tools to do so. Provide regular training sessions and awareness campaigns to keep staff vigilant.
  2. Strict access control: not everyone needs a full access pass. Implement strong access controls to limit the amount of sensitive information available to employees.
  3. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): add an extra layer of security by enabling MFA for all sensitive accounts and systems.
  4. Robust Password Policies: discourage password reuse across multiple accounts and enforce strict policies that require employees to create strong passwords.
  5. Security awareness policies: establish clear procedures for handling sensitive information, including protocols for verifying requests for financial transactions or confidential data.
  6. Incident reporting and response: encourage employees to report and trigger a response to potential security incidents. Create a designated process for handling such reports.
  7. Phishing simulations: ensure your team remains vigilant by conducting sporadic social engineering phishing simulations. Test their ability to respond appropriately and provide targeted training based on their results.
  8. Secure communication channels: implement encrypted communication channels, particularly for sensitive information or financial transactions.
  9. Regular software updates and patches: keep all software, operating systems, and applications up to date with the latest security patches. Vulnerabilities in software can be exploited by malicious actors to gain unauthorized access.
  10. Incident response plan: create and regularly update an incident response plan for social engineering attacks. Your plan should outline four distinct stages – containment, investigation, communication, and recovery. 

Final thoughts

We hope we’ve given you a better idea of social engineering and all its inherent dangers. But until you put your security stance to the test, there’s no way of telling whether you’ll survive a serious breach.

Find out more about our social engineering services and how our expert Swarm of ethical hackers can help ensure you’re never vulnerable to another social engineering attack.