UPDATED: August 21, 2022

Like most digital natives, you probably go above and beyond to secure the personal data you store online. Just your credit card statements alone already contain critical information, after all.

Antivirus programs, VPN services, and dark web monitoring tools, among other systems, bolster your overall cybersecurity. However, you shouldn’t forget about your weakest link: yourself.

Unlike technologies that compute based on data, humans use their best judgment and emotions. Unfortunately, natural intuition isn’t always correct.

And for these reasons, social engineering scammers easily manipulate victims and trick them into divulging confidential information—which would have otherwise been challenging to extract digitally.

These scams affect everyone, even us. So to understand the science behind them, we reviewed official government resources, reputable cybersecurity platforms, and real-life cases involving social engineering attacks.

By the end of this piece, no trick will surprise you anymore.

Please read without skipping. We’ll share the single most effective way to combat social engineering tactics. Otherwise, you might not even realize when you’re being manipulated.

Let’s dive into our social engineering prevention guide!

How social engineering works

Before anything else, let’s flesh out the semantics of social engineering. Professionals use “social engineering” in social sciences and cybersecurity, which admittedly muddles the differences.

In social science, the term refers to the large-scale influence on a large group of people. As for cybersecurity, which is what this article will discuss, social engineering refers to the act of manipulating victims into divulging personal information.

Or, simply put, it’s a form of scam.

Criminals use psychological tactics to confuse their targets. They bypass digital cybersecurity tools by focusing on the “human element” of systems and organizations.

Most common social engineering attacks and how to combat them

Social engineering attacks might seem frightening, especially if you hear them for the first time. However, you don’t have to worry too much.

Most criminals use basic psychological tactics, which you can easily avoid if you mentally and emotionally prepare yourself. Tricks like these only work if they take you by surprise.

With that said, you still shouldn’t take social engineering attacks lightly, but instead, arm yourself with the necessary knowledge to keep crooks at bay.

Some common tactics you might encounter include:

1. Pretexting

In pretexting, attackers feed victims with made-up scenarios. They’ll use fake dangers to instill fear in you, making you feel like you have no choice but to cooperate with them.

Also, scammers will pretend to work for widely known institutions to earn your trust. For instance, someone who wants to steal your credit card information might impersonate your card-issuing bank’s customer support team.

Beware: hackers execute pretexting strategies in various ways. They use browser pop-ups or spam emails for group scams but directly call victims in targeted attacks.

How to combat pretexting 

Again, crooks execute pretexting through different platforms. The attack directed at you will depend on how much information the hacker has on you.

Crooks with no leads just launch random website pop-ups. But if they know your contact information, you can expect them to call or email you with a more detailed script.

Unfortunately, you can’t predict how crooks will reach you. However, the good news is that you can instantly spot red flags of pretexting because they often involve similar made-up threats and issues.

The scammer will likely tell you that you have one of the following:

  • Unauthorized credit card purchase
  • Infected computer or laptop
  • Unresolved tax debt
  • Outstanding loans

Whatever the case, verify the person on the other end of the line and double-check whether they work for the company they claim. We encourage calling the company’s publicly listed hotline.

2. Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo or baiting is the opposite of pretexting. Instead of instilling fear in victims, crooks trick them into sharing personal information by exciting them with made-up rewards, like:

  • Job offers
  • Contest giveaways
  • Cash prizes
  • Investment opportunities
  • Celebrity-endorsed games
  • Promos and discounts

The problem with quid pro quo attacks is they’re everywhere. Criminals execute this method en masse by configuring browser pop-ups, hosting website ads, sending spam emails, and posting on social media sites.

Sizable operations even invest in ad spaces. You’ve likely come across at least a few strange job offers or contests on widely trusted social media sites like Facebook and Instagram before.

How to combat quid pro quo

The best way to combat quid pro quo is to avoid random offers entirely. No legitimate business or organization just gives away free stuff.

Cash prizes and gadgets might seem appealing, but random deals like these from strangers are likely scams. Think about it—how would you win a giveaway contest that you didn’t enter? 

Also, watch out for random investment opportunities. You’ll find hundreds of social media comments and posts saying they supposedly profited millions from their investment strategies, but they’re all likely scams. 

You can bet they’ll disappear with your money.

3. In-person tailgating

Tailgating is one of the oldest in-person social engineering tactics. It involves trespassing restricted areas by following and shadowing someone who can access them.

For instance, let’s say you manage an office. A social engineering scammer can enter your premises by pretending to be an employee, food delivery worker, or cleaning personnel.

Now, you likely have security guards. However, these crooks will walk behind legitimate employees and act as if they know them to avoid raising suspicion.

Moreover, crooks use tailgating strategies to jumpstart even larger crimes. You can expect them to make their move once they’ve gathered enough insights into your workspace.

How to combat in-person tailgating

Whether you run a small boutique or a mid-market enterprise, you’ll need a reliable on-premise security system. Remember: intruders don’t discriminate.

But don’t worry—you don’t have to invest in a full-blown security setup right from the get-go. On the contrary, we encourage starting small.

  1. Firstly, monitor the people with access to your establishment. You’d do well to capture the faces of all your customers, clients, food delivery workers, and employees.
  2. Secondly, hire a security guard. Although security cameras will help you track perpetrators, guards can stop crimes from even happening.
  3. Thirdly, ask employees to wear their company IDs at all times. Ensure that no one can enter restricted areas without the proper identification, even if they’re following another employee.

4. Phishing

Phishing stands as one of the most widespread social engineering attacks of all time. Over 3.4 billion fake emails are sent to various individuals and organizations every day.

Crooks often execute phishing scams via email, although they might also call and text targets. Either way, their goal stays the same: to extract personal information.

  1. First, crooks will try to gain your trust. They’ll say the email comes from a widely trusted company, financial institution, or government agency. 
  2. Next, they’ll confuse you using different quid pro quo and pretexting strategies. Please don’t take random threats and offers seriously.
  3. Lastly, you’ll get asked to input your personal data through an attached file or hyperlink—thus capturing your credentials.

How to combat phishing

Most phishing emails are conspicuous. They have generic greetings, grammatical errors, outrageous offers, eye-straining font sizes, unusual subjects, and, of course, several clickable links.

Email service providers usually send these messages to your spam folder. That way, they won’t bother you.

With that said, more sophisticated phishing attacks slip past filters. Crooks create a seemingly legit email address, copy official templates word-per-word, and publish fake landing pages that look official. 

You might not even notice the differences if you’re not careful. As a general rule, avoid clicking links or downloading files via email unless you personally know the sender.

Otherwise, verify the source’s authenticity first. If they introduce themself as employees, ensure that their email address matches the contact information on their supposed employer’s websites.

For instance, let’s say you get an email from your card-issuing bank. 

Before opening the links and divulging information, take a second to verify the email address. If the domain isn’t the bank’s name, it’s likely spam. 

5. Spear phishing

Like regular phishing attempts, spear phishing involves the extraction of personal data through spam emails or fake login pages. However, crooks direct it at specific individuals or organizations.

Although less widespread, spear phishing poses a greater threat than regular phishing attacks since it involves targeted attacks. Your information has already been compromised.

Moreover, if the crook knows your card-issuing bank or employer, they can curate even more detailed, believable attacks.

How to combat spear phishing

Spotting spear phishing attempts isn’t impossible, but it’s definitely challenging. 

Again, social engineering focuses on psychological tricks. And scammers won’t hesitate to exploit every piece of information they know about you.

Admittedly, spear phishing emails look more refined than regular ones. However, they can’t wholly imitate financial institutions, companies, and government agencies, so you’ll still see red flags.

For instance, they can’t use the institution’s exact contact information. So if you offer to contact them through their publicly listed details and they decline, you’re talking to a scammer.

6. Watering hole attack

In phishing attacks, the crooks lure victims. Meanwhile, watering hole scams work the other way around; hackers “approach” their targets by hijacking their widely trusted platforms.

For instance, let’s say hackers target a humanitarian website. Instead of sending phishing emails en masse, they’ll wait for users to input login credentials into the website they just hacked.

The website is still legit. But now that hackers have taken over the backend, they can easily decrypt user traffic, send malware, and even initiate requests.

Fortunately, watering hole scams aren’t common since few hackers can execute them. Most websites have sophisticated cybersecurity systems that would take years to break via brute force methods.

However, these attacks also have high success rates. Hackers compromise the sites themselves, and users rarely doubt the websites and platforms they log into daily. 

How to combat watering hole attack

You have no control over the cybersecurity systems of the sites you visit. Successful hackers can freely access the data you’ve already shared (i.e., login credentials, browsing data).

Luckily, you’re not 100% defenseless. Several warning signs indicate that a website has been compromised, from expired SSL certificates to insecure traffic networks.

But you won’t notice them yourself. Cybersecurity tools like your antivirus software and browser configurations will warn you if it detects unusual activities.

Just make sure to address every warning you receive. Spotting security vulnerabilities is one thing, but resolving them and taking action is another.

7. Business Email Compromise (BEC)

BEC is a social engineering attack wherein criminals steal company information. Although their intentions vary, most focus on extracting client, customer, and employee personally identifiable information (PII).

Contrary to popular belief, BEC affects all types of businesses. Hackers have attacked various entities over the years,​​ from small boutiques to global corporations.

Trust us—not even billion-dollar companies are safe. In fact, the global tech giant compromised over 500 million users’ personal data, which led to a six-year-long trial and a $117.5 million settlement.

How to combat Business Email Compromise (BEC)

Although SMEs follow rigid cybersecurity systems, BEC attacks are still widespread. Statistics show that nearly half of all U.S. companies experienced a data breach in the past five years.

Unless you work in IT, you’d think you have no impact on BEC prevention. But on the contrary, company cybersecurity vulnerabilities generally stem from its human resources (i.e., employees, clients, customers).

Most attackers don’t just bypass encrypted technologies. Instead, they send phishing links en masse and impersonate the high-ranking officers who fall for their tricks.

So if you want to prevent BEC attacks against your employer, secure your information. Check for spyware, run your antivirus program, and turn on your company-approved VPN before accessing work resources.

8. Whaling

Whaling involves a more precise form of spear phishing wherein crooks masquerade as high-ranking employees (i.e., managers, officers, executives) and then message subordinates. The entire attack transpires within the company’s messaging system.

Note that these attacks advance swiftly. Criminals can do a lot of damage in just one to two days, especially if they impersonate top-ranking officials like a president, director, or CEO.

Of course, they generally have varying goals. However, most attacks would likely extract more employee information, steal confidential files, damage the brand’s public image, or ask colleagues to initiate transactions.

How to combat whaling

Only the IT department can bolster a company’s cybersecurity system. However, executing an elaborate anti-phishing strategy for your employees already goes a long way in preventing whaling attacks.

After all, whaling often requires insider information. Very few hackers can effectively steal a company’s employee and executive database, so they’ll start with individual spear phishing attacks instead.

For instance, crooks will likely send phishing links to a handful of employees first. Once they acquire adequate personal data, they’ll proceed to masquerade as other higher-ranking executives from the same company. 

Alternatively, crooks can’t advance if you cut them right from the get-go. Your company’s IT and cybersecurity departments will also be able to take action quicker, giving them a better shot at tracing perpetrators.

9. Honeytrap

Honeytrap attacks are personal, elaborate social engineering methods wherein the crook manipulates the target’s emotions. In many cases, they create fake relationships with their victims.

“Honeytrap” comes from an old spy tactic where agencies use a woman’s charm to enthrall targets. The movie Charlie’s Angels has good honeytrap examples.

Nowadays, however, perpetrators consist of both men and women, so don’t assume that only men fall victim to these scams. Crooks can impersonate anyone attractive, from African royalties to teenage schoolgirls.

Once they make the target fall in love with them, they’ll start asking for money, gadgets, and jewelry. As things progress, victims might even start divulging personal information.

How to combat honeytrap

Although you don’t have to avoid online dating sites altogether, don’t quickly trust the people you meet on them. Before even engaging in conversation, double-check the other person’s identity.

For instance, ask for their social media profiles. You might be dealing with a scammer if their account has few posts, stolen pictures, almost no comments, and fake friends/followers.

Also, try using Google’s reverse image search to verify the authenticity of a picture. Stolen images usually appear on random, shady sites as well.

10. Scareware

Scareware attacks trick users into downloading random programs. Although crooks use various tactics, they often target victims en masse through browser pop-ups and website ads.

For instance, let’s say you visit a shady, insecure site. You might see website pop-ups saying your device has been infected, so you supposedly need to download their program immediately.

However, you don’t actually need it. If you give in to the fake threats and proceed with the download, you’ll either get an overpriced, useless tool or a free, virus-infected file

How to combat scareware

Like pretext attacks, the best way to combat scareware tactics is to double-check system warnings and errors. Verify their authenticity.

In all likelihood, virus warnings coming from anywhere other than your antivirus program or device aren’t real, so don’t panic over them. Otherwise, you’ll get roped into their scheme.

Also, never trust any “system warning” that asks you to call random numbers or download weird messaging platforms. Only contact a company’s customer support team through its publicly listed contact information.

Tips to spot social engineering attacks quickly

You’d do well to avoid social engineering attacks right from the get-go. It’s easier to spot warning signs of a scam than recover compromised personal data after a data break.

Unfortunately, you can’t avoid scams altogether. However, you can keep crooks at bay and minimize your susceptibility if you:

  • Avoid clicking random links. Think twice before clicking on strange links, especially shortened ones. Remember that crooks spread phishing links through social media posts, video comments, private chats, and emails.
  • Read up on social engineering scams. Familiarize yourself with the most common tactics so that crooks can never take you by surprise.
  • Confirm the identity of everyone talking to you. When talking to someone for the first time, don’t take their introductions at face value. Do your research before engaging in conversation with them.
  • Control who has your personal information. Only a handful of institutions have the legal right to ask for your personal data, so avoid divulging personal data too quickly.

Overall, avoid making rash decisions. Carefully read every message, warning, or notification you receive before doing anything.

Main targets of social engineering attacks

Criminals target people from all walks of life, including:

1. Children

Identity thieves steal children’s personal data by masquerading as trusted friends or verified authorities. Pay attention to who your child talks to on the internet.

Otherwise, your kid might get their identity stolen without you even realizing it. Remember: most kids only check their SSNs for the first time when they apply for a credit card or driver’s license.

2. Seniors

Hackers take advantage of seniors who can’t use technology properly. Reports show that older adults are more likely to get lured into scams involving giveaways, celebrity-endorsed contests, honeytraps, and system errors than any other age group.

With that said, we don’t think seniors should stop using gadgets. Instead, they should ask someone they trust (i.e., relatives, caregivers) to monitor their online activity now and then.

3. Working Adults

Since working adults are not as naive or technologically challenged as children and seniors, they’re more challenging to hack. Most already have basic cybersecurity systems in place.

However, their identities also hold more value, especially if they can be abused to infiltrate companies. As such, skilled hackers go the extra mile to attack working adults.

The dangers of social engineering attacks

Social engineering is dangerous because it exploits human emotions. Crooks won’t use advanced technical skills to bypass cybersecurity systems; instead, they’ll manipulate victims into divulging personal information.

Remember: human errors outweigh security systems. For instance, even if your antivirus program warns you about phishing links, you’ll still compromise your information if you overlook the red flags.

Tools for preventing social engineering attacks

You can minimize your susceptibility to social engineering attacks by equipping yourself with the following tools:

  • Antivirus Program: Turn on your antivirus program 24/7. It will alert you if it detects potential phishing links, spam emails, and insecure websites.
  • Dark Web Monitoring: These tools can help you scan the dark web for leaks involving your personal data (i.e., login credentials, SSN, credit card number). If you get a hit, file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • VPN: Use a VPN while browsing the internet. It redirects your traffic through a proxy server, thus encrypting and encapsulating all your requests. With a VPN, not even web admins will see your IP address.

Important: Again, these tools will help you avoid scammers. However, there’s no cybersecurity system sophisticated enough to eliminate human errors entirely; only you can stop yourself from committing mistakes.

To minimize your susceptibility to attacks, adopt a skeptical attitude. You now have insights into the most common social engineering methods, so further familiarize yourself with them and ensure that crooks never take you by surprise.

Also, create a security checklist. Instead of relying on your instincts, follow a system wherein you go through several points to determine the legitimacy of any situation, activity, or transaction.

If a risk arises, stop thinking and walk away from the situation entirely.

Keeping your personal information private

Since we are the weakest links in our respective security systems, are we doomed to unsafe platforms susceptible to crooks? Of course, not!

We must treat the human element as another vulnerability in our security system. Calmly assess yourself and your understanding of social engineering attacks; gauge your likelihood of getting scammed.

Remember: manipulation tactics won’t work against the cautious. Stay vigilant 24/7, doubt everyone who asks for your personal information, and never make emotion-based decisions.