July 06, 2022

Common Types of Social Engineering Attacks

By George Rouse
Social EngineeringDatto Managed SOC

Social engineering scams have been going on for years and yet users continue to fall for them every single day. In an effort to spread awareness of this tactic and fight back, here is a quick overview of social engineering.

By learning how to identify these attacks and improve cyber resiliency it makes avoiding threats like ransomware much easier.

Definition: What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is a type of cyber attack that relies on tricking people into bypassing normal security procedures. To gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, or physical locations, or for financial gain, attackers build trust with users.

The theory behind social engineering is that humans have a natural tendency to trust others. This makes it easier to trick someone into divulging personal information than it is to hack an account.

How are social engineering attacks designed?

To build trust, and then exploit it, social engineers follow a lifecycle to victimize their targets:

  • Investing. This phase allows the attacker to identify victims and determine the best method of attack

  • Hooking. Is when an attacker actually starts to engage with their victim and begins to create trust through messaging

  • Attacking. This is when an attacker finally deploys their method of attack and begins to collect the targeted data

  • Exiting. When the attacker has what they want, they will remove traces of malware and cover their tracks so they can move to the next victim

Because a social engineer’s strategy is built on trust, victims often don’t recognize they’ve been attacked until it’s too late.

Common Types of social engineering attacks

The following are the five most common forms of social engineering attacks.

  • Phishing

  • Baiting

  • Pretexting

  • Scareware

  • Business Email Compromise (BEC)

Phishing attacks

Phishing attacks are one of the most common types of social engineering attacks. These attacks occur when the attacker sends an email or message to the target, which typically includes a link to a website that looks legitimate.

The goal is to get the target to enter their personal information and login credentials into the website by pretending it is something else, such as a popular site or service.

Common examples of phishing:

  • Emails from fake businesses asking for personal information.

  • Emails from fake financial institutions asking for bank account numbers and passwords.

  • Emails from government agencies asking for personal information.

  • Messages on social media sites that ask you to log in with your username and password.

Phishing messages are designed to convey a sense of urgency and sometimes fear with the end user. This time pressure is a key tactic in getting users to unknowingly give over their sensitive information.

Once the time pressure is applied there’s two common types of capture methods that attackers use in phishing scams.

  1. Ask the end user to “verify” their login information.
    Phishing messages might claim a user’s account has been breached or part of an annual security check. When a user clicks the target link it will go to a mocked-up login page that looks legitimate. However this login page is actually a capture point and users can unknowingly be handing over their login credentials.

  2. Claiming the end user is the “winner” of a grand prize or lottery.
    These types of attacks can be extremely costly and may involve requesting access to a bank account in which to deliver the winnings. Some ask for charitable donations (and provide wiring instructions) after a natural disaster or tragedy. A successful attack often culminates in access to systems, lost data or finances.

It’s important to be aware that phishing campaigns can come in many different forms so it’s vital to stay vigilant.

Baiting attacks

Baiting is as it suggests, it’s a type of cyber attack that involves enticing a users to engage with some type of media. These attacks come in two forms, digital and physical.

Digital Baiting Attacks

Baiting is one of the common methods of delivering malware or ransomware. In digital attacks, the attackers offer something such as a new song release or movie download. These files though don’t include what a user is expecting and instead are infected with malware that will encrypt or take control of your data. Attackers then normally charge for decryption or to return control of the data.

Physical baiting scams

These attacks are less common as they involve more effort to execute the delivery than digital attacks. Physical scams involve users finding or being sent items like a USB drive or CD that peaks a user’s interest. For example, a corporate branded flash drive labelled “Executive Salary Summary Q3” that is left out on a desk for an end user to find.

Both of these types of attacks are baited social engineering. Once the bait is downloaded or used, malicious software is delivered directly into the end users system and the hacker is able to get to work.

Pretexting attacks

Pretexting is where a hacker uses a known connection to the end user and exploits that trust built up between contacts.

One of the common examples in attacks like this is where a hacker pretends to be a co-worker or service provider of the end user.

This type of scam might be an email to an employee from what appears to be the head of IT support or a chat message from an investigator who claims to be performing a corporate audit. In order to execute a task the hacker will ask for login credentials, as the end user believes that the hacker is a known connection they might hand over their credentials.

Pretexting is highly effective as it reduces human defenses to phishing by creating the expectation that something is legitimate and safe to interact with.

Due to this type of social engineering, its key is to educate users to never share their credentials with anyone, including any IT support professionals.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo social engineering attacks are all about give and take between the end users and the hackers. These types of attacks are less sophisticated than the other types of attacks and normally involve users being aware of what they are doing.

Similar to baiting, quid pro quo involves a hacker requesting the exchange of critical data or login credentials in exchange for a service or money.

For example, an end user has been let go from a company and they didn’t leave on good terms. Hackers might try to locate users like this by reading an upset social post or comment made online. Once they have found the user they might try to buy their old login credentials to attack their old company.

These types of attacks can be mitigated by keeping a tight control on user access controls.

Tailgating and Piggybacking attacks

Piggybacking, also called tailgating, is a type of social engineering attack that is primarily designed to target users in a physical environment.

One example of this is when an unauthorized person physically follows an authorized person into a restricted corporate area or system to gain access.

As more users return to the office environment attackers are looking to take advantage. One of the most common methods of piggybacking is when a hacker calls out to an employee to hold a door open for them as they’ve forgotten their ID card. Once hackers are in the office, they will try to access systems or “borrow” a laptop and see what they can use for their own benefit.

Best practices to protect yourself from a social engineering attack

Social engineering attacks are both prevalent, tricky and take advantage of natural human instincts to be successful. These characteristics make them hard to spot and why it’s critical for everyone to stay aware of the threat.

Best practices to protecting yourself social engineering attacks:

  • Never respond to a request for financial information or passwords. Legitimate organizations will never send a message asking for personal information.

  • Never share personal information such as passwords

  • Never plug in an unknown USB stick or digital media into your computer

  • Don’t unsubscribe from emails (this can be a tactic) just block email senders in your email client.

  • Educate employees and clients

It’s essential for all users with access to a network or systems to be aware of these various forms of social engineering to ensure corporate cyber security. If users know the main characteristics of these attacks, it’s much more likely they can avoid falling for them.

Protect your critical data with a reliable backup and recovery solution as a last line of defense

Datto SIRIS is a business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) solution built for manage service providers to protect their clients from data loss and minimise downtime.


Want to learn more about Datto SIRIS? Request a demo

    Suggested Next Reads