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Updated: Jun 7, 2024   |  

How social engineering attacks work

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With social engineering attacks, the criminal exploits human psychology and manipulates users to gain access to the information they want. This is different from your common hacking techniques whereby a criminal will force their way into your computer through hacking tactics.

There are several steps involved and we will discuss how social engineering attacks work and what steps criminals take to achieve their end result.

How do social engineering attacks work

To begin with, the cybercriminal will identify their victim(s) and may gather background information on them. This will help them to decide which cyber-attack method will work with this particular user or users.

Once they have identified their victim(s) and decided which method of social engineering they will use, they will start to get a foothold into the victim’s systems. This may be done by contacting the user, engaging with them, making up a story or a similar action. By taking control of the interaction, they are already starting the manipulation process to gain the information or access they want.

Once the attacker has made that first contact, they will start edging their way into the systems further, expanding that foothold they have. They may even start siphoning data or disrupting your business whilst accruing the information they are seeking.

When they have all the information they need, whether this is data, financial information or logins they will work on ensuring their tracks are covered. This is to avoid you or any authorities finding out who carried out the cyber-attack. This will include removing all traces of any malware they may have planted and if they are still in contact with the victim, they will bring their conversation to a natural end. By this point, they have probably successfully attacked your network and gathered everything they wanted.

How social engineering attacks work is by exploiting and manipulating human nature. Whether it is by greed, kindness, or curiosity, they will use these human traits to encourage their victims to provide the information they desire.


How do cybercriminals first make contact?

There are multiple ways you may encounter them, and, in many situations, you won’t even know about it. We have already covered many of the most common social engineering attacks in a previous post, but here are a few to look out for:

  • Phishing – emails and text messages mimicking important businesses, encouraging you to provide your information or update your records.
  • Spear phishing – a more targeted version of phishing, meaning more personalized emails or text messages
  • Baiting – using human nature’s greed or curiosity by luring out information with false promises of products and/or services – this could be an email, message, pop-up or on a website
  • Scareware – emails and/or pop ups may appear on your computer warning of false threats and stating you need to use a certain security tool to fix the issue
  • Pretexting – the attacker will pretend to be a member of society often with authority who needs your information for a valid reason – usually received through email or text message

There are several ways to stop social engineering attacks from happening and therefore keeping your data safe and secure. Read our post on how to prevent social engineering attacks to find out more.


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