Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Cyberattacks have caused massive losses for companies and consumers alike. In fact, according to cybersecurity statistics, cybercriminals stole around $6.9 billion in 2021.

Social engineering attacks are activities that fall under the category of cybercrime. Lawbreakers employ them 98% of the time for their digital efforts.

This article will discuss the definition of social engineering attacks and the most rampant types in various industries today. Read on to identify a security threat when you see one.

What are Social Engineering Attacks?

Social engineering attacks refer to various manipulative activities that exploit human interactions to accomplish one of two goals:

  • Theft: Forcefully acquire information, access, or money.
  • Sabotage: Interrupt or corrupt data.

This strategy uses psychological manipulation to trick users into committing security errors that cause data exposure, malware spread, or system access. They usually happen online, but cybercriminals can also attack via physical interactions.

Offenders can use various platforms to cause human error, such as drive-by downloads or official-sounding messages. Below, you will find a list of common social engineering attacks. It’s ideal to learn about them to identify how to protect yourself and the information that you hold.

Most Common Types of Social Engineering Attacks

1. Phishing Attacks

Phishing poses a massive threat to several organizations. Today, a consumer receives an average of 14 malicious emails annually.

Usually, an attacker will send you an email from a seemingly official source, like your bank, gym, or mobile services provider. They will ask you to do any of the following:

  • Click a link. When you click on such links, they will install malware on your devices.
  • Download an attachment. Sometimes, scammers hide malware under the guise of legitimate files.
  • Enter your credentials on a website. For instance, a hacker can lead you to a page and ask for your username and password. Once you key in your information, they will steal it and use it for their gain.

For enhanced protection, you can install antivirus software to warn you against such activities.

2. Whaling

Whaling attacks target a particular influential individual, like an entrepreneur, celebrity, or government official. Attackers use such activities to capture big fish, thus the term whaling.

Naturally, as these people offer higher financial rewards or more valuable information, they become subject to more attacks. For example, techies can hack into celebrity computers, find compromising videos and photos, and try to extort the victims.

Advanced antivirus software usually works well against whaling activities.

3. Baiting Attacks

Baiting attacks bank on your natural curiosity to expose yourself. Sometimes, cybercriminals might use a free or exclusive offer to catch your attention and then infect your software with malware.

Some popular baiting methods include leaving USB drives in public spaces or sending email attachments with fake offers.

4. Scareware

As the name suggests, scareware involves bombarding unwilling victims with false malware threats. Once users believe the fake warnings, attackers will encourage installing hoax software with no benefit to them. Its only purpose is to help cybercriminals complete their activities.

For instance, you might see a pop-up ad that says, “Your computer has been infected with malware.” It will then offer to install software or direct you to a malicious site. Less popular tactics include sending spam emails or offers for services you don’t need.

Stay vigilant against false warnings because attackers designed them to cause the victim harm.

5. Physical Breach Attacks

Physical breaches are in-person attacks where hackers pose as legitimate representatives to otherwise restricted areas. These attacks often happen in enterprise environments, like mega-corporations, government offices, and other organizations.

Sometimes, disgruntled employees become the mastermind of such activities.

As you can see, in today’s digital world, physical and digital security should work hand in hand. The best way to secure workspaces is to invest in measures for both security aspects.

6. Pretexting

In pretexting, an attacker captures information through several well-crafted lies. It often starts with hackers initiating contact with victims and pretending to need sensitive information.

They establish trust by pretending to be police representatives, tax officials, bank executives, or other authority figures. The exploit begins once victims believe they’re legitimate officials.

Afterward, they ask a series of questions to gather personal information. When scams become successful, the culprits can get away with home addresses, mobile numbers, bank records, and other valuable data.

7. Tailgating

Tailgating is a social engineering attack where an authorized person allows unauthorized individuals access to a restricted area — unintentionally in most cases.

For instance, if you enter your apartment building or office and let someone follow you, you can fall victim to an attack. Scammers often use similar tactics, like pretending to be delivery drivers or new tenants or employees. Once inside, cybercriminals can then gain access to company devices. They can spread malicious code to your network and affect the rest of the computers in the area.

8. Quid Pro Attacks

Quid pro means an agreement between at least two parties in an exchange of products or services. In terms of cybercrime, it roughly translates to a favor for a favor. In quid pro quo attacks, hackers offer some reward or compensation for your participation.

For instance, they can invite you to join a research study. Once you get excited about the prize, you become more open to sharing some data. However, the reality is there is no bonus of any kind. The attacker just wants to take your information for malicious purposes.

9. Business Email Compromise

The FBI website shares that business email compromise (BEC) is one of the most financially damaging social engineering attack types. In 2020, it cost US businesses over $2 million. Also, the FBI IC3 saw an increase in BEC complaints from 2019 to 2021, mostly stemming from virtual meeting platforms.

There are three main BEC types:

  • Impersonation: Scammers use spoof emails and act like vendors or clients.
  • Account compromise: In this BEC activity, hijackers take control of a legitimate employee email address and send company-wide messages with malicious code.
  • Thread hijacking: This BEC type uses subject lines containing “Re:” and then sends malware-laced messages.

10. Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks infect popular websites with malware to target many users simultaneously. Hackers will find weaknesses on these sites and take advantage of their vulnerabilities. They patiently wait for members of the targeted group to show the weakest link and eventually infect them with malware.


Social engineering attacks are becoming increasingly common, as hackers target organizations of all sizes. These attacks exploit the fact that people are often the weakest link in an organization’s security.

Hackers will use a variety of techniques to gain access to confidential information, including phishing emails and phone calls. They may also pose as an employee or contractor in order to gain physical access to a building. Once they have gained access to an organization’s systems, they can steal sensitive data or even disrupt operations.

To protect your organization from social engineering attacks, it is important to raise awareness among employees and implement security measures such as two-factor authentication.

By taking these steps, you can help to keep your organization safe from the ever-growing threat of social engineering attacks.