Understanding Social Engineering in Cybersecurity: How to Stay Protected

Have you ever felt like someone was trying to manipulate you? Like they were being so nice it might be too good to be true? You could be the target of a social engineering attack, so pay close attention to those gut feelings when you interact with people online.

Social engineering attacks vary widely. This can make them tough to identify and you might not know what’s happening until it’s too late. Countless unsuspecting victims lost money due to  online social engineering attacks. Between fake companies, online dating scams, and sham crypto investments, there’s a lot to watch out for. 

You might be wondering “what is social engineering?” Perhaps you have a general idea about it but want to learn more. If so, grab a cup of tea and let’s dive in. 

This guide covers everything you need to know about social engineering and how to protect yourself from social engineering attacks. 

While using a VPN can’t prevent you from trusting someone you shouldn’t, it can protect you against a wide range of other types of cybercrime. 

A secure VPN like CyberGhost also stops your private information from leaking into social engineers’ hands. Experience ultra-private browsing risk-free with a 45-day money-back guarantee.

What Is Social Engineering?

image of a person using their phone and laptop in a cafe
Malicious social engineers want as much of your digital data as they can get to personalize their attacks.

Social engineering is a type of psychological persuasion or manipulation. It relies on building trust through person-to-person interaction to get you to take a specific action. Governments, marketers, con artists, and cybercriminals all use social engineering to get you to do something that benefits them (like giving up personal information they can use for profit).

For example, a salesperson might compliment you to ingratiate themself so you’ll buy something. A con artist might pretend to be attracted to you, only to steal from you when you’re not paying attention.

Social engineering uses deception, distraction, and trust-building as its main tools. While marketing specialists or governments might argue it’s in your best interest to let them sway your decisions, it’s nice to be able to spot social engineering when it’s happening. Personally, I’d rather decide for myself what’s in my best interest and what isn’t. I don’t need anyone to trick me — I don’t care what their reasons are.

The Social Engineering Toolkit: Gift or Curse?

Dave Kennedy, founder of TrustedSec, designed the open-source Social Engineering Toolkit (SET) to launch effective and high-impact social engineering attacks. With more than 2 million downloads, it’s become a hot tool in the cybersecurity (and cybercrime) world,

Why would an attack tool be so popular in cybersecurity circles, you ask? Social engineering attacks are among the most difficult to defend against. TrustedSec uses SET to test how easy it is to penetrate security systems. The idea is that you can identify system vulnerabilities by launching strong attacks.

Hmmmm. Can’t cybercriminals use SET software to launch real malicious attacks? Well, yes, they can. Thanks a lot. . . Dave. TrustedSec prides itself on being experts at “the art of human hacking.” Despite being a legitimate tool for businesses, it doesn’t take responsibility for threat actors using the open-source tool for criminal activity. 

 What Is Social Engineering in Cybersecurity?

Social engineering in cybersecurity is when malicious actors deceive you so they can infiltrate your digital accounts, systems, and sensitive data. They often try to get you to divulge confidential information that they use to wreak havoc or somehow profit. 

A malicious social engineer might use the information you share to gain access to your bank account, or even to your company’s entire system. They might pose as colleagues to trick you into sharing sensitive staff-only information. Once you share information with then, they can leverage it to progressively gain more access until BOOM — your company’s data gets held for ransom

Cybercriminals also use in-person social engineering to perform cyberattacks. For example, they could pose as maintenance workers to gain access to a building or data center. Once inside, they use portable drives to install malware or tamper with hardware and other equipment. 

Who Do Social Engineering Attacks Target?

You might be wondering “what type of social engineering targets particular individuals?” or “what type of people become targets?” While research indicates your personality can influence whether you’ll fall for scams, that’s not the whole story. Cybercriminals use very sophisticated methods and anyone can become a victim of social engineering. It’s often more about how professionally tailored the attack is — sometimes it’s just tough to spot.

Cybercriminals also target specific people if they want access to particular information or accounts. For example, Ticketmaster once admitted to targeting one of its competitors in a social engineering attack by using an ex-employee to access their systems. Ruthless.

The Stages of a Social Engineering Attack

Social engineering attacks often follow a pattern. Here’s a quick overview of the stages of a normal social engineering attack to help you recognize one more easily.

  1. Investigation. During this stage, perpetrators identify you as a target and gather background information about you. This way, they can customize an attack based on what they think you’ll fall for. 
  2. Infiltration. At this stage, the attacker communicates with you and tries to build trust. They might impersonate employees from a well-known organization or pretend to be someone you know directly or indirectly. 
  3. Exploitation. Once you trust them, they’ll find an excuse to ask for your personal information — executing the attack. 
  4. Disengagement. Once they get what they want, they’ll cut communication, cover their tracks, and remove all traces of the interaction. In general, they try to do this without arousing your suspicion. 

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering is a serious cybersecurity threat. While it’s hard to be on guard all the time, you can better protect yourself by learning about the different types of attacks. Keep in mind 96% of social engineering attacks involve email. Read on to learn about the most common social engineering attacks. 

Phishing Attacks

Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack. Scammers send emails or messages claiming to be a legitimate organization, acquaintance, or someone else. When they get a foot in the door, they try to coerce you into revealing personal and/or financial information. 

In some phishing attacks, malicious parties get you to click on a link or download a file that infects your device with malware. Cybercriminals use malware infections to harvest your personal data or lock your device. That way, they can hold your data for ransom until you pay to unlock it. (Read more about ransomware attacks here).

Something similar happened at my university during my first year. Attackers used phishing emails to spread malware and held the university’s valuable research data for ransom. The university eventually forked out €197,000 to recover the data. Shame, the money would have been better spent improving the god-awful campus food. 

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is like phishing with one key difference — the cybercriminal targets you specifically. In regular phishing attacks, the same generic email goes out to thousands of people. In spear phishing attacks, threat actors carefully study their target, aiming carefully before shooting their spear.

Using a VPN can’t totally protect you from social engineering attacks — if you click on a malicious link or hand out your personal information, your VPN’s security features won’t help. On the other hand, VPNs encrypt your data and securely reroute your connection, so you’re safe from snoopers on any network.

Pretexting Attacks

Pretexting is a technique in which an attacker gains your trust by pretending to be someone else. Common pretexts include posing as a friend, colleague, or authority figure. 

Once you trust them, they’ll try to get access to your sensitive information or systems. Pretexting attacks usually use stories, and the attacker will likely have detailed reasons why they need your information. 

Baiting Attacks

Baiting attacks capitalize on your curiosity. They’re built on the premise you’ll risk “taking the bait” to get more info or a deal. The bait could be a download link or a button offering you something for free. When you click the link, malware infects your computer, damaging your device and stealing your personal data. 

In the physical world, the bait could be a seemingly abandoned USB stick. You insert it into your computer to see if it’s something important and it wreaks havoc on your device.

Tailgating Attacks 

Tailgating is more of a physical attack than a virtual one. In a tailgating attack, someone usually follows you into an area that’s for authorized individuals only. They may use social courtesy (holding the door for you) and dress as an employee or delivery person to get in. 

Once they get access into a restricted area, everyone assumes they’re supposed to be there. That way, they can infect computers and systems with malware and gather information to their heart’s content.

Scareware Attacks

Scareware attacks trick you into believing your device is infected with malware. Then, the attacker will offer you a fake solution to the fake problem. When you click on the link and agree to the terms, your device really will get infected with malware. 

If you get a notification that your device is infected, make sure it’s actually from your computer’s antivirus software. Even then, do as much research as you can to be sure it’s legit. If it’s from an unfamiliar source, it’s almost definitely a scareware attack. 

Quid Pro Quo Attacks

Quid pro quo means “a favor for a favor” or “something for something.” By offering something valuable, social engineers trick you into disclosing personal information or installing malware onto your device. 

A common quid pro quo attack involves scammers calling a database of phone numbers within an organization. They often pose as technical support specialists responding to a support ticket.

If you have a legitimate problem, you’ll think you’re getting genuine help. Instead of helping, the attacker gets you to take steps to compromise your device. 

When this happens at a business, it can cause massive organizational disruption and cost untold amounts of money.

Watering Hole Attacks

In watering hole attacks, social engineers infect websites you visit often. The perp compromises the website, hoping to spread malware to a larger group through its visitors. That way, they can attack an entire organization. These attacks are specifically targeted and difficult to predict.

The best way to prevent watering hole attacks is to use an up-to-date anti-malware system and run daily scans. It’s also helpful to keep your online activity as private as possible. CyberGhost VPN uses military-grade encryption to give you a more private browsing experience. Try CyberGhost VPN and test our security features for yourself. 

Characteristics of Social Engineering Attacks

While there are many types of social engineering attacks, they tend to share the same characteristics. Here’s a quick overview of the characteristics of social engineering:

          • Gaining trust. This involves spending time getting you to let your guard down through conversations or by impersonating trustworthy sources.
          • Creating a sense of urgency. They’ll create an urgent scenario that won’t allow you enough time to properly think over what you’re doing. This is particularly common with scareware attacks. 
          • Evoking an emotional response. It’s easier for attackers to manipulate you when they trigger an emotional reaction. This is because you can’t think as clearly when your emotions are heightened. 

How Can You Protect Yourself from Social Engineering?

While some social engineering tactics are obvious, others are subtle. Even savvy internet explorers are vulnerable to particularly well-crafted social engineering attacks at times. Remember, we’re talking about professionals — manipulation is their bread and butter. 

If you’re wondering how you can protect yourself from social engineering, keep reading for important tips. 

Use Multi-Factor Authentication

Most platforms and services now offer multi-factor authentication options for securing your account. Instead of signing in with just your password, you can add extra security layers. You might need to verify your identity with an external device, using a biometric scan, or by answering a personal question.

It makes your sign-in experience more cumbersome, but it’s worth the effort. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete fix. Cybercriminals have become more successful at bypassing multi-factor authentication in phishing attacks. Still, the extra step makes it a lot harder for people to hack into your accounts.

Don’t Open Suspicious Emails

Getting emails from unknown persons can be exciting, but it’s also dangerous. If you don’t recognize the sender or have a gut feeling about an email or text you receive, don’t open it. If it’s important, the person will find another way to contact you. If you’ve already opened it and you find a link inside, don’t click on it. 

Email is the most popular way malicious social engineers catch people out. Be extra cautious about emails from unfamiliar senders, and learn how to spot a phishing email

Be Stringent with Your Personal Information

Regardless of who you’re talking to, don’t divulge information that could help them gain access to your accounts. If someone asks you what your mother’s maiden name is, make up a fake one! 

Other types of information to keep private include your passwords, date of birth, your home address, or any information you use for a security question. 

Educate Yourself about Attacks

Knowing the common types of social engineering attacks puts you at a huge advantage. When somebody randomly sparks up a conversation with you and they’re secretly trying to manipulate you, you’re more likely to notice the red flags. Strategies are changing all the time, so keep up to date with the latest types of scams. 

Don’t Interact with Strangers Online

Be extremely cautious interacting with people online. Unless you’re applying for a job or working with clients, be ultra-alert about anything past replying to comments on Reddit or Twitter. If you get random messages from strangers, don’t reply and block them from messaging you.

Use Strong Passwords

Hackers use sophisticated AI systems to guess passwords based on information they have about people. Sounds crazy? It’s real. PassGAN, a deep learning system created by Stevens Institute of Technology researchers, cracked nearly 12 million passwords. I’m not sure who authorized funding for this project, but in my book, that’s ethically questionable scientific practice. 

Use Antivirus Software

Antivirus software protects you from malware by scanning and removing it from your computer. It’s important to keep your anti-malware system up to date. This is because new threats emerge all the time and software updates contain security patches. 

While you can find plenty of free anti-malware options, some are scams themselves and you get extra security features with paid subscriptions. It might be worth spending a little bit on security, given what’s at stake.

Consider using CyberGhost’s Windows Security Suite to get ironclad protection for your devices — including world-class antivirus and anti-malware.

Regularly Check for Data Breaches

When a company has been breached it will (or at least it should) usually notify you if your information was stolen. Google will also sometimes notify you if any of your passwords are compromised

It also doesn’t hurt to check for yourself every now and then. Sites like haveibeenpwned.com can tell you if your information is for sale online. 

Always Use a VPN

Social engineering attacks rely on psychological manipulation and trickery. As such, VPNs can’t protect you if you choose to give out personal information. However, keep your VPN on for protection from a variety of attacks like:

You’re especially vulnerable to cyber attacks when you use public Wi-Fi networks. Third parties (like malicious social engineers and other cybercriminals) can easily see what you’re doing online from the network side. That’s why it’s so important to encrypt your traffic with a VPN when you connect to free Wi-Fi.

Use a secure VPN to make it more difficult for hackers to track you online. Try CyberGhost VPN to enjoy military-grade encryption and access to thousands of servers worldwide.

Don’t Be an Easy Target for Social Engineers

Psychological manipulation is condemnable, but it’s the go-to technique for cybercriminals. They start by investigating you and choosing the best strategy to trick you. In the cyber world, social engineers usually want information that gives them access to your data, systems, or accounts.

No software can protect you from psychological trickery (yet). That’s why it’s important to educate yourself about the strategies social engineers typically use. When you know what to look out for, you have a much better chance of seeing the red flags.

Social engineering isn’t the only way people get access to your private information. Cybercriminals and other third parties can easily track your online activity, or infiltrate your connection on various networks (especially unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots). If you want to stop snoopers from exploiting your digital footprint for their own profit, try CyberGhost VPN


What is social engineering?

Social engineering uses psychological manipulation to trick you into making certain choices or disclosing personal information. Cybercriminals use social engineering to take advantage of you and infiltrate your systems, data, and accounts. Learn about various types of social engineering attacks in cybersecurity to avoid falling for them.

How can you protect yourself from social engineering?

Protecting yourself starts with knowing about social engineering attacks and how they’re carried out. Knowing the red flags of social engineering helps you identify it as it’s happening. Be extra cautious when talking to people you don’t know and never give out personal information unless it’s to someone you completely trust.

What are three common types of social engineering attacks?

The three most common types of social engineering attacks are: 

          • Phishing Attacks. These attacks occur through email, text messages, or social media. You’ll often be asked to click on a link or to disclose some personal information.
          • Watering Hole Attacks. This is when cybercriminals infect regular websites you usually visit. 
          • Pretexting. Attackers will create a scenario or pretext, often claiming to be someone you know or know of. They lead you to divulge information or take a particular action that lets them scam you. 
Try CyberGhost VPN risk free with a 45-day money-back-guarantee to reclaim your privacy online. We hide your IP address and encrypt your data, which means would-be snoopers can’t spy on you to target their attacks. 

Does social engineering target specific types of people?

Research shows certain personality traits and demographics can play a role in whether you fall for scams. However, social engineering attacks are increasingly sophisticated. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you if you fall for a scam. 
Read my guide to steering clear of social engineering attacks and adopt safe online habits to protect yourself. Learn what to look out for and how to best protect yourself from becoming a victim. 

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