Why Do Cyber Attackers Use Social Engineering?

John Price
Chief Executive Officer
January 6, 2023
4 minutes

Social engineering techniques are being used more and more in fraud and data breaches. Industry leaders like Agari, Symantec, and Verizon Enterprises have released reports showing that social engineering techniques like phishing, vishing, and imitation are being used with digital hacking techniques to make attacks more effective and, eventually, more profitable for the attackers. 22 percent of confirmed data breaches, according to the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, were caused by Social engineering attacks.

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is the skill of persuading others into disclosing sensitive information to one's advantage. However, when individuals are targeted, the malicious actors are usually attempting to trick you into providing them with your password or bank information, or accessing your computer in order to secretly install malicious software–which will give them access to your passwords and bank information as well as control over your computer–in order to steal your identity and steal your money.

Social engineering attacks are carried out via a series of steps. A perpetrator initially researches the target victim in order to obtain the essential background information, such as potential points of entry and lax security standards, that will be required to carry out the attack later in the day. The attacker then attempts to acquire the victim's trust in order to offer stimuli for later acts that violate security norms, such as disclosing sensitive information or granting access to key infrastructure.

What techniques do social engineering threat actors use?

Social engineering attacks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they can be carried out everywhere where people connect with one another. The following are the five most popular types of digital social engineering attacks that are currently being used.


Phishing scams are email and text message campaigns that are designed to instill a sense of urgency, curiosity, or terror in the minds of its victims. Phishing scams are one of the most common types of social engineering attacks. They are then encouraged to divulge sensitive information, click on links that lead to fraudulent websites, or open attachments that are infected with malware.

As an illustration, consider an email sent to subscribers of an online service informing them of a policy violation that necessitates prompt action on their part, such as a password change. It contains a link to an illicit website that is remarkably identical in look to the official version, requiring the unsuspecting user to enter their current credentials as well as a new password to continue. Following submission of the form, the information is sent to the attacker.

Because phishing campaigns send out similar or nearly identical messages to all of their victims, mail servers that have access to threat sharing systems will have an easier time detecting and preventing them.

Spear Phishing

As opposed to the traditional phishing scam, this is a more targeted variant in which an attacker targets specific individuals or businesses. They then personalize their communications depending on the traits, employment titles, and contacts of their victims in order to make their attack appear less noticeable to others. Spear phishing necessitates significantly more work on the part of the attacker and might take weeks or even months to complete. They're significantly more difficult to detect and have higher success rates if they're done correctly.

In a spear phishing scenario, an attacker may send an email to one or more employees of a business while posing as the organization's IT consultant. It is worded and signed exactly as the consultant would typically do, leading recipients to believe that they are receiving a genuine message from the consultant. The letter advises recipients to change their passwords and gives them with a link that sends them to a fraudulent page where the attacker obtains their login information and other information.

An example fake PayPal email


Scareware is a type of malware in which victims are inundated with false alarms and phony threats. Users are led to believe that their system has been infected with malware, leading them to download and install software that has no practical purpose (apart from benefiting the perpetrator) or is malware in and of itself. Scareware is also known as deception software, rogue scanning software, and fraudware, among other things.

A classic type of scareware is the legitimate-looking popup ads that appear in your browser while you're browsing the web, displaying language such as "Your computer may be infected with terrible spyware programs," or "Your machine may be infected with harmful spyware programs." It either offers to install the program (which is frequently contaminated with malware) for you or directs you to a fraudulent website where your machine becomes infected with malware.

Scamming software, sometimes known as scareware, is transmitted by spam email, which issues phony warnings or makes offers to users to purchase useless or hazardous services.


Baiting assaults, as the term implies, rely on making a false promise in order to stimulate a victim's avarice or curiosity. They trick consumers into falling into a trap where their personal information is stolen or their computers are infected with malware.

Baiting is one of the most despised forms of malware distribution since it makes use of physical media to spread malware. Examples include leaving the bait (usually malware-infected flash drives) in conspicuous settings where potential victims are guaranteed to see them, or leaving the bait in plain sight (e.g., bathrooms, elevators, the parking lot of a targeted company). The bait has an authentic appearance, such as a label portraying it as the company's payroll list, which adds to its authenticity.

Victims pick up the bait out of curiosity and insert it into a computer at work or at home, resulting in the automated installation of malware on the computer system.

Baiting schemes do not have to be carried out in the physical world in order to be effective. Baiting occurs online in the form of appealing advertisements that direct visitors to harmful websites or that entice them to download a malware-infected application.


Pretexting is a technique in which an attacker gets information by telling a succession of carefully designed lies. Perpetrators of this scam frequently approach victims by professing to require sensitive information from them in order to complete a key activity.

The attacker usually begins by gaining trust with their victim by impersonating coworkers, police officers, bank and tax officials, or other individuals who have the authority to know what is going on in their workplace. The pretexter asks inquiries that are apparently necessary to validate the victim's identification, but which are actually used to obtain sensitive personal information about the victim.

With the use of this fraud, all kinds of important information and data can be obtained, including social security numbers, personal addresses and phone numbers, phone logs, vacation dates for employees, bank records, and even security information relating to a physical plant.

Example shareware

So, why do cyber attackers use social engineering?

In order to successfully brute force their way into a network in order to obtain credentials, malicious actors are well aware that it could take hours, days, weeks, or even months. However, using social engineering techniques, those very same credentials can be taken in a matter of minutes, rather than hours or days. For example, all it takes is the appropriate pretext and a phone call or email to get someone to do something. Additionally, an attacker may attempt to obtain physical access to the computers that make up a company's computer network. An attacker may impersonate a delivery person, a construction worker, or a member of technical support to accomplish this. Sifting through open source information, dumpster diving, or conversing with a disgruntled employee all have the potential to generate information that can be utilized to acquire unauthorized access. Once the attacker has gained access to the computer, a standard USB thumb drive is all that is required to infect it.

How do I prevent social engineering?

Social engineers use people's emotions, like curiosity or fear, to pull people into their schemes and traps. So, be careful if an email scares you, if an offer on a website seems interesting, or if you find a piece of digital media lying around. Most social engineering attacks that happen online can be avoided if you are aware of your surroundings.

Also, the following tips can help you be more aware of hacks that use social engineering.

Be wary of tempting offers. If an offer sounds too good to be true, you might want to think about it again. If you Google the subject, you can quickly find out if the offer is real or if it is a trap.

Don't open emails or attachments from people or places you don't know. You don't have to answer an email if you don't know who sent it. Even if you know the person and are suspicious of what they are saying, check the news from other sources, like the phone or a service provider's website. Don't forget that email addresses are often faked. Even an email that looks like it came from a trusted source could have been sent by an attacker.

Use multifactor authentication. User credentials are one of the most valuable pieces of information that attackers want. Using multi factor authentication helps protect your account in case someone breaks into the system.Keep your antivirus and malware-fighting software up-to-date. Make sure that automatic updates are turned on, or make it a habit to download the latest signatures first thing every day. Check your system every so often to make sure the updates have been installed and to look for any infections.

Train, train and train some more. Providing your workforce with cyber awareness training can help build a firm security culture and leave your staff less susceptible to phishing and social engineering attacks.

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