January 9, 2024

Social engineering explained: Tactics, detection, & prevention

Social engineering explained: Tactics, detection, & prevention

Cybercriminals are known to hack phones, computers, and Wi-Fi networks, but in order to do so they often hack people first. By manipulating people into revealing valuable personal information, company data, and financial account details, scammers rob American consumers of tens of billions of dollars every year. Scammers use these social engineering tactics often in order to pull off their schemes.

In the context of cybersecurity, social engineering describes the methods scammers use to influence their targets to give away personal information and assets. These methods typically involve impersonating trustworthy or authoritative figures, creating false pretenses, and convincing their targets that it is  in their best interest to take action.

Social engineering scams can have devastating consequences, but there are ways to avoid falling victim. Keep reading to learn more about social engineering attacks, including how to detect them and protect yourself.

What is social engineering? Understanding the psychology behind it

Social engineering uses psychological manipulation to trick people into revealing personal information, giving away money, or granting access to their company’s sensitive data. Understanding the motivations and techniques behind social engineering can help you protect yourself from attacks.

Principles of manipulation and trust exploitation

Scammers hack people by exploiting their trust and manipulating their view of reality. By posing as a well-known business or trustworthy person and creating an urgent situation, scammers are able to motivate their target to cooperate. Even if the victim notices red flags, they typically  consider the possibility that the scammer’s ploy is legitimate.

Common techniques used by cybercriminals

Cybercriminals may use a variety of techniques to pull off their scams, but knowing how to spot them can help you avoid falling for them.

Phishing is an umbrella term that’s often associated with email, but there are many types of phishing attacks.

  • Phishing is a type of fraud that aims to steal personal information by posing as a trustworthy business or person.
    • Smishing (“SMS” and “phishing”) are phishing schemes done via SMS texts or other messaging platforms, often using links to steal personal information or infect the victim’s device with malware.
    • Vishing (“voice” and “phishing”) are phishing schemes done by voice call. They convince targets to reveal information or send money over the phone.
  • Spear phishing, angler phishing, and whaling are specific types of phishing schemes.
    • Spear phishing targets a particular individual instead of a large, indiscriminate group.
    • Angler phishing poses as a customer service representative and responds to social media accounts that have made complaints.
    • Whaling aims for targets with large potential payouts, like CEOs, celebrities, or political figures.
  • Pretexting happens when a scammer creates a fake scenario (or pretext) that compels the target to give away money, network access, or sensitive data.
    • E.g., a scammer poses as your bank and texts you about a bogus fraud alert, asking for your financial information to secure your account.
  • Baiting uses the promise of an exclusive offer like a free vacation or discounted technology to lure targets into engaging with the scammer.
    • E.g., you get a voicemail that offers you an unbelievable deal on a new iPhone and instructs you to call a bogus number, which connects you to a scammer who solicits your information.
  • Tailgating and piggybacking occur when a fraudster gains access to a private network or other restricted area by following an authorized person.
    • Tailgating is when a scammer follows closely behind an authorized person into a restricted area or gains access to a network using an authorized device.
      • E.g., a criminal steals an employee’s laptop to gain unauthorized access to company data.
    • Piggybacking is when an authorized person voluntarily helps the fraudster access a restricted area or network.
      • E.g., an employee allows an unauthorized person to use their credentials to access the company’s network.
    • The major difference between tailgating and piggybacking is that piggybacking is generally done with the authorized person’s consent.
  • Romance scams use fake personas and dating profiles to trick the victim into thinking they’re in a relationship. Eventually, they ask for information, money, and other favors.
    • E.g., the scammer poses as a long-distance love interest and asks you to pay for them to visit you, but they take the money and don’t show up.

Identifying social engineering attacks

Although they can be dangerous and deceptive, social engineering attacks are less threatening if you know how to recognize them from afar. Catching on quickly gives you time to shut them down before they can do any harm.

Signs of social engineering in digital communications

If you get a bad feeling about a call, text, or email, trust your instincts. Always be on the lookout for signs of social engineering when communicating by phone or online:

  • Sense of urgency: Scammers create a sense of urgency so you’ll act quickly, hoping you’ll fall for the scam before you recognize the red flags.
    • E.g., you get a phone call offering an exclusive, limited-time offer that must be redeemed immediately.
    • Alternatively, you get an email demanding immediate payment for some bogus outstanding charge. If you don’t pay right away, you’ll supposedly face steep fees or other penalties.
  • AI voice cloning. Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more accessible, and scammers are using it to replicate people’s voices in scams. AI voice cloning uses convincing replicas of people’s voices to pressure their loved ones into giving away money or information.
    • You may get a phone call that sounds like a close friend or family member and appears to come from their phone number. Using the cloned voice, the scammer convinces you to transfer money, send gift cards, or reveal personal information to help your loved one out of a phony crisis.
  • Spoofed websites. Often used in phishing attacks, spoofed websites can look just like the real websites they imitate, but any information you enter into them is sent directly to the scammers.
    • E.g., you get a fake fraud-alert text that directs you to follow a link to your bank’s website, where you can “secure your account.” The website is really a facade, and attempting to log in will reveal your username and password to the criminal behind it.
  • Shady or unverifiable situations. Social engineering puts people in risky positions that legitimate businesses, government agencies, and friends wouldn’t. If there’s no undeniable proof that you can trust the other person on the other end, then you shouldn’t.
    • You may get a work email from someone claiming to have information they can’t talk about in person. If you open the attachment, it can infect your device with malware.
    • A romance scammer may claim they can’t meet because they live overseas, have been deployed by the military, or can’t afford to travel to you. They may ask for money or communications equipment, like a new cell phone or laptop.
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How to protect yourself against social engineering attacks

Proper online safety practices aren’t just for kids; no matter how old you are or how long you’ve been using the internet, it’s imperative to know how to protect yourself from cybercriminals.

Best practices for information security

Making your data more difficult to access can make you a less appealing target for scammers, and there are many ways you can secure your information.

  • Don’t share personal information. It’s best to avoid sharing personal information over the phone. You generally won’t get unsolicited calls, texts, or emails from legitimate companies asking for private details. If a friend or family member requests this type of information, make sure it’s really them.
  • Use complex passwords and change them regularly. Strong, complex passwords are essential in keeping scammers from accessing your accounts. Use different login credentials for different accounts, and change them all regularly to remove scammers who may have already gained access.
  • Remain vigilant and know when to say no. As convincing as some scammers can be, you can thwart their schemes by knowing what to look out for. Stay up to date on common phone scams to avoid, always look out for red flags, and don’t respond to suspicious communications.
  • Install a scam blocker. A dedicated scam-blocking app like Robokiller stops risky spam calls and scam texts from ringing your phone. If the scammers can’t reach you, they can’t socially engineer you into giving them what they want.

Training and awareness programs

Social engineering attacks may target individuals and businesses alike, and sometimes scammers exploit one to get to the other. For example, a criminal might pose as tech support or a high-level executive to trick an employee into giving them access to the company’s network. The target may then unknowingly spread malware or contribute to a data breach that compromises significant amounts of sensitive information.

Since phishing schemes and other social engineering attacks have become so popular and effective, it’s more important than ever to practice proper cybersecurity awareness. Without adequate training, every employee is a potential vulnerability in the company and a viable target for social engineering scams. We can help keep your team safe.

Responding to a social engineering attack

Knowing how to respond (and how not to respond) to a social engineering attack can help protect your data, finances, and identity. If you fall victim to a scam, it’s also important to know how to minimize the damage and recover your losses.

Immediate actions and reporting

If you get a spam text, scam call, phishing email, or other seemingly suspicious communication, think before you act. Use these tips to confirm the scam, report it to the authorities, and avoid falling into its trap:

  • Reach out to the real organization or individual the scammer used as a disguise, and verify whether the communication was legitimate or fraudulent.
  • Report fraud attempts to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
  • Forward scam and spam texts to SPAM (7726).
  • Delete and report scam texts and emails as junk so you don’t accidentally respond or click their links in the future.

Mitigating the impact

If you’ve given away money or information to a social engineering scam, it’s crucial to act quickly. While there is never a guarantee of recouping your lost money or data, acting quickly improves your chances of making a full recovery.

  • Change your login credentials. Change any usernames, passwords, and PIN codes you’ve revealed to the scammer. If you use the same login credentials for multiple accounts, change them all so that each requires unique access information.
  • Contact the major credit bureaus. If the scammer stole enough information to commit identity fraud, notify the three major credit bureaus and request a credit freeze. This stops the criminal from applying for new credit in your name.
  • File a police report. Social engineering attacks (and the crimes they’re associated with) are illegal, dangerous, and worth reporting to the police. In the case of identity theft and fraud, you may need a police report to further the investigation and receive reimbursement for unauthorized transactions. (Robokiller’s personal data protection helps you avoid becoming a target of identity theft to begin with.)
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Fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness

The more secure we are online, the tougher it is for cybercriminals to access our information, steal our money, and use our identities to commit fraud. Fortunately, you can strengthen your cybersecurity and protect yourself from dangerous cybercriminals by knowing the signs of social engineering, understanding how to stay safe from scammers, and using a comprehensive scam-blocking app like Robokiller.

Robokiller is 99% effective in blocking unwanted scam calls and spam texts, so you can comfortably secure your data, privacy, and peace of mind. Our customizable features, robust algorithm, and years of experience have helped us save Americans over $740 million in prevented losses to phone scams.

In the fight against phone fraud, it pays to be vigilant and proactive. Start your free 7-day trial of Robokiller to bolster guard against social engineering and eliminate 99% of phone scams.


What is social engineering in the context of cybersecurity?

Social engineering is the process of psychologically manipulating a target into revealing personal information that can be used to commit fraud. Scammers use social engineering tactics like phishing attacks to trick their victims into giving away personal and financial information, which they then use to empty bank accounts, apply for credit, or commit other forms of fraud.

How can I recognize a social engineering attack?

Social engineering attacks are designed to distill information by appealing to your emotions. If a phone call, text message, or email makes you feel especially pressured, excited, or scared, consider if it may be a scammer intentionally manipulating your emotions.

What are some common social engineering techniques?

Many of the most popular phone scam tactics are social engineering techniques. Methods like phishing, smishing, and vishing; baiting and pretexting; and romance scams all attempt to trick a target into revealing confidential information that can be used against them.

How can individuals and organizations protect themselves from social engineering?

Social engineering can have severe consequences for individuals and organizations alike, and data breach prevention is critical in both cases. People and businesses can avoid social engineering attacks by understanding the warning signs and practicing proper cyber safety, including using a comprehensive scam-blocking app like Robokiller.

What should I do if I or my organization is targeted by a social engineering attack?

If you’re targeted by a social engineering attack at work, quickly report it to your direct supervisor. Scammers often hack employees to gain access to a company’s data or network. If a business you own is targeted by a social engineering attack, notify the police and authorities like the FTC right away — you could be liable for damages in the case of a data breach.

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