what is social engineering? Meaning

We are all constantly sharing information online, whether this is consciously through inputting our data or unconsciously through cookie collection. Whilst this level of interconnectedness has its benefits it has also opened up avenues that cyber criminals can exploit. One of the most common techniques used by malicious actors is social engineering.  

In this article, we’ll define social engineering, explain how it works and give you tips on how to protect yourself against social engineering attacks.

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is a tactic that uses psychological manipulation to trick people into revealing confidential information or taking actions that benefit the attacker. 

It relies on human vulnerabilities and our tendency to trust and help those in need. Scammers amplify this with pressure to act urgently, not giving victims time to rationalise what is being asked of them.

Finance writer Charlotte Cowles, recently went viral with her article ‘The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger’. She recounts how a caller, using personal information and threats, manipulated her into physically withdrawing and handing over a large sum of money to a car waiting outside her home. 

'I never thought I was the kind of person to fall for a scam.' the writer states. By creating a sense of urgency and fear the scammer exploited the author's desire to protect herself and her family.  

This serves as a cautionary tale that social engineering scams can target anyone, regardless of their knowledge or expertise. Even individuals familiar with these tactics, such as a finance writer, can fall victim.

How does social engineering work?

Social engineering encompasses a range of different techniques used by cybercriminals to manipulate their victim. These tactics are often used in coordinated attacks, exerting maximum pressure on the target to compromise their judgment and security.

The main techniques used in social engineering, designed to exploit human vulnerabilities are:

  • Creating a sense of urgency or fear: By claiming to be from a bank, IT support, or other trusted source, attackers might create a sense of urgency or fear to pressure you into immediate action without proper verification.
  • Appealing to trust or authority: Impersonating legitimate figures like police officers, company executives, or customer service representatives, attackers attempt to gain your trust and exploit your respect for authority.
  • Offering something valuable in exchange for information: Promises of rewards, discounts, or access to exclusive information can entice individuals to share sensitive details without considering the potential risks.
  • Exploiting curiosity or helpfulness: Attackers might send enticing emails or messages that pique your curiosity or urge you to be helpful, leading you to click on malicious links or provide confidential information unknowingly.

Social engineering scams can take place anywhere you interact with people or businesses. The most common methods include:

  • Phishing emails: These emails appear to be from legitimate sources but contain malicious links or attachments that can steal your personal information or infect your device with malware.
  • Vishing calls: Similar to phishing emails, vishing involves attackers calling you while impersonating a trusted entity to trick you into revealing sensitive information over the phone.
  • Pretexting: This method involves creating a fake scenario, like a lost package or a technical issue, to gain your trust and obtain sensitive information.

How to protect yourself against social engineering

Although the sophistication of cyber threats continues to evolve we can all take proactive steps to safeguard ourselves and our businesses against social engineering scams.

  • Be cautious of unsolicited communication. Don't click on links or open attachments from unknown senders, and verify the sender's identity before responding.
  • Always double-check information before taking any action. If something seems suspicious, contact the legitimate source directly to verify its authenticity.
  • Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. If an offer seems exceptionally enticing, it likely is a scam. Don't be pressured into making hasty decisions. If you encounter a suspected social engineering attempt, report it to the appropriate authorities or the organization being impersonated.
  • Businesses should implement mandatory training programs to educate employees on social engineering tactics, common scams, and best practices for secure communication and data protection.
  • It is also important to enforce the use of multi-factor authentication for access to all critical systems and accounts. This adds an extra layer of security beyond passwords, making unauthorized access significantly more difficult.
  • Within the workplace, managers should create an open and transparent environment where employees feel empowered to report suspicious activity without fear of reprisal. This facilitates prompt investigation and mitigation of potential threats.

By understanding the methods employed by malicious actors, from creating a sense of urgency to exploiting trust, we can take proactive steps to safeguard ourselves against social engineering. 

Implementing simple measures like verifying information, exercising caution with unsolicited communication, and reporting suspicious activity can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to these deceptive schemes.

Businesses have a responsibility to bolster their defenses by educating employees on these tactics and implementing robust security protocols, such as multi-factor authentication.

By fostering a culture of awareness and vigilance, both individuals and organizations can collectively create a stronger, more resilient defense against the threat of social engineering scams.