Resisting social engineering attacks

April 24, 2024

As humans, we’re hardwired to trust each other. It’s our default, even when we might think twice. This human element is the reason that the vast majority of cyberattacks rely on some form of social engineering. They prey on human vulnerabilities—emotional responses, the tendency to trust, and the desire to be helpful or to comply with authority. 

These methods are grounded in the science of human behavior, making them particularly difficult to defend against with technology alone. That’s why it’s crucial to familiarize ourselves with social engineering tactics to stay safe from potential threats.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is a strategy used by cybercriminals to trick people into giving up confidential information or access to secure systems. It relies on psychological tactics and human vulnerabilities rather than hacking into systems directly. The idea is to manipulate someone into making security mistakes, like revealing passwords or downloading malicious software.

The process of social engineering involves several steps. First, the attacker researches the target to find vulnerabilities, such as potential ways to enter a system or cracks in security practices. 

Then, using tactics such as claiming a false identity or appealing to a position of authority, the attacker gains the target's trust or obedience. This trust is then exploited to make the target take actions that compromise security, like sharing sensitive information or allowing access to protected areas.

Because social engineering plays on human psychology and mistakes rather than breaking through security technology, it's sometimes referred to as "human hacking." It's a powerful technique because it targets the weakest link in any security system: people.

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Unfortunately, cybercriminals have quite a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to manipulating people for their own gain. Let's take a closer look at some of the main tactics they use in social engineering attacks – most of these tactics involve phones or computers, but some are physical.


Phishing attacks aim to trick people into sharing sensitive info or taking harmful actions. They range from mass emails impersonating big companies to personalized messages that may come across as trustworthy. Scammers also use voice phishing (vishing), text message phishing (smishing), and search engine phishing to deceive victims.


Pharming is a cyber-attack tactic that redirects users to fake websites or manipulates their computer systems to steal sensitive information. It's sometimes called "phishing without a lure" and gets its name from a blend of "phishing" and "farming," hinting at its large-scale nature.

In pharming attacks, cybercriminals trick users into visiting counterfeit websites that closely resemble legitimate ones, like online banking or social media sites. The goal is to con users into sharing personal info like usernames, passwords, or credit card details.


Baiting involves enticing victims with offers or value offers, such as free downloads or USB drives containing malware. A well-known example is the infamous Nigerian Prince scam, where victims are promised money in exchange for personal information or upfront payments. 

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo scams promise rewards or benefits in exchange for sensitive information. For example, fake prize winnings or loyalty rewards may lure victims into giving away personal data.


Scareware relies on fear tactics to coerce victims into sharing confidential information or downloading malware. This can include fake law enforcement notices or tech support messages warning of non-existent threats.

Watering Hole Attack

In watering hole attacks, hackers inject malicious code into legitimate websites frequented by their targets. Victims unknowingly download malware or provide sensitive information while browsing these compromised sites.


Pretexting involves creating a fabricated scenario to manipulate victims into providing sensitive information or access to their devices. They typically pretend to be someone trustworthy to gain victims' trust and access to sensitive information. For example, it’s common for scammers to impersonate a CEO or executive and claim they’re locked out of their account and need help gaining access. 


In tailgating, unauthorized individuals gain access to secure areas by closely following authorized personnel. This can occur physically, by slipping through unlocked doors behind someone, or digitally, when a user leaves a device logged in and unattended.

How to resist social engineering attacks

It’s easier than you might think to fall victim to a social engineering scam. Here are some strategies you can use to keep yourself and your organization safe.

1. Stay calm

Social engineering attacks often work by stirring up emotions and creating a sense of urgency. Their goal is to make you feel rushed and anxious, so do your best to keep calm. That way, you can better assess the situation and respond appropriately.

2. Slow down

If you get a sudden request for private information or to do something unexpected, don't hurry to respond. Pause and think: Is this normal? Are there warning signs? This careful pause can prevent you from falling into traps.

3. Verify suspicious requests

If you get a request that seems odd, always double-check before responding. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and take the time to verify that the request is legitimate.

For example, if you receive an email that asks for private info or changes to your account and feels off, don't reply to it. Instead, visit the company's official website, find their contact info, and ask them directly if the request is legitimate. 

This helps ensure you're dealing with the real company, not a scammer. Legitimate organizations and individuals will understand the importance of security measures and support your efforts to verify their identity. 

4. Be careful with links and attachments

Scammers often use harmful links or files in emails or messages to trick you. Don't click on links or open files if you weren't expecting them; they could take you to fake websites or give your device a virus. If you get a link or file out of the blue, check with the person who sent it to make sure it's safe before you do anything with it.

For instance, if you go through a password reset process and then receive an email to reset your password, that's normal. But if you receive a ‘reset your password’ link out of nowhere, tread carefully.

Similarly, if a colleague mentions sending you a document for edits during a meeting, and you receive it afterward, that's fine. However, if someone who rarely uses email suddenly sends you an urgent document asking for information, it's a red flag.

5. Trust your instincts

If something about a request or communication feels off, go with your gut. Phishing emails often contain telltale signs that can help you identify them. 

One common giveaway is typos or strange grammar. Legitimate companies usually have professional communications, so if you notice sloppy writing, it could be a red flag. Also, pay attention to the design of the email. If it looks unpolished or doesn't match the usual style of the company, be cautious.

Another clue is the sender's email address. Sometimes, phishing emails use addresses that are  slightly off from the real company's domain. They might also use subtle variations, like switching similar-looking characters, to mimic legitimate addresses. For instance, they might use "rn" instead of "m" or "1" instead of "l." 

Other tactics use non-English characters to mimic English language company namesFor example, theTurkish alphabet has two versions of the letter "i": the dotless i, "ı," and the dotted i, "i." In some phishing attempts, scammers might replace the dotted "i" with the dotless "ı" in email addresses or domain names to deceive recipients who might not notice the difference. 

This subtle change can make the fake email address come across as more legitimate at first glance.

6. Be wary of money requests

Scammers may try to trick you into giving away money or financial details. If you're asked for money, especially by someone unexpected, be cautious. For example, anything involving money or gift cards is an immediate red flag. Rule of thumb - always check if it's legitimate before sharing any sensitive info or sending funds. 

Stay safe online

If you find yourself in one of these situations - remember that you’re not alone. Do your best to stay calm, slow down, and reach out for help if you need it. 

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