Pagoda Blog

4 Types of Social Engineering Attacks and How to Prevent Them

May 18, 2023

Humans make mistakes, especially where emotion is involved. ‘We’re only human after all!’ We use this adage to cut ourselves some slack when we slip up. Unfortunately, these very human slip-ups are what makes our systems highly vulnerable to social engineering attacks. 


A social engineering attack is one that takes advantage of our human vulnerabilities, such as fear, trust, and curiosity, to psychologically manipulate the target into revealing confidential information. In order to do this, the attacker typically follows the below three steps. 


The steps of a social engineering attack 

Social engineering attacks typically utilize three steps in their design: 


First, the cybercriminal investigates the target, learning all they can about the individual, from what websites they visit to their employer and position in the company.  


Once the cybercriminal has obtained enough information, they engage with the target, often posing as someone they know or trust. At this point, the cybercriminal may create a fictitious story around why they’re reaching out. For example, they may pose as someone from the victim’s IT department and claim that they need their username and password for a sensitive account in order to perform a critical update. 


If the target falls prey to the social engineering attack, they will then reveal sensitive information that allows the attacker to install malware on their device, steal company data, or otherwise compromise their system. 


Let’s take a look at the different forms a social engineering attack can take and then review how to prevent these attacks. 


4 social engineering attack techniques

While social engineering attacks all take advantage of our human vulnerabilities and emotions, they can do so in a variety of ways. Below are the four primary types of social engineering attacks that you should look out for. 


1. Baiting

Baiting involves either a physical or digital bait that piques the target’s curiosity. If the target takes the bait, they end up downloading malware on their device. The bait could take the form of a physical flash drive or an enticing online ad that downloads malware when clicked.   


2. Scareware

Scareware is a series of pop-ups that contain alarming messages intended to scare the target into clicking a link. The pop-ups usually say something to the effect of, “Your computer is infected with harmful spyware. Act now to prevent any further damage.” The ads usually use large text and include a bright red stop sign to get your attention. 


3. Phishing 

Phishing attacks use email or text campaigns to instill a sense of urgency in the victim, finally compelling them to share sensitive information that leads to a data breach or malware attack. An example might be the target receives an email from a company they’ve purchased from in their past, claiming they’ve experienced a data breach. The email may go on to urge the target to click a link, enter their credentials, and then change their password. The link takes the target to a malicious website and any information entered is sent to the attacker. 


Phishing campaigns target a large number of users, sending nearly identical email or text messages as part of the attack. This makes them easier for email programs to detect and block or mark as spam.  


4. Spear phishing 

Spear phishing campaigns are a more sophisticated form of phishing campaigns that target a smaller group of individuals, often within the same organization. Spear phishing campaigns thoroughly investigate their targets before engaging with them, learning all they can about their online behavior, job positions, contacts, and even personal information like number of children and their home address. 


This detailed investigation allows the attacker to effectively impersonate someone the target knows and trusts, increasing the likelihood that they will reveal sensitive information. The attacker may impersonate the IT department, using what appears to be a legitimate email address and email signature that includes all company details. It looks so convincing that it may not arouse any suspicion in the target, convincing them to simply click the included link or reply with their credentials, social security number, or other sensitive information that puts them and/or the company at risk. 


How to prevent social engineering attacks  

Preventing social engineering attacks starts with providing ongoing, regular training to all your employees, across departments. Every single person on the team needs to be able to recognize a malicious email or text message and know what to do when faced with an email requesting sensitive information or an alarming pop-up ad.  


For these trainings, we recommend KnowBe4. This comprehensive cybersecurity training utilizes interactive tactics such as fake phishing campaigns to test employees’ ability to recognize social engineering threats. Their training programs are designed by white hat hackers and are customized to meet your organization’s unique needs. 


Other important tips for preventing social engineering attacks include: 


- Always download the latest security patches and software updates 

- Use multi factor authentication 

- Never open emails from unknown senders 


Still have questions about social engineering attacks and how to protect your business? Get in touch today for a free consultation with one of our IT experts.  


Related posts: 

The Difference Between Phishing and Spear Phishing Campaigns and How to Protect Yourself

11 Ways to Spot a Phishing Email

What to Do If You Receive Blackmail in Your Inbox


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