Social Engineering: What It Is, Tactics, and Real-world Examples


Explore the clandestine world of social engineering, an illegal practice exploiting human vulnerabilities to gain access to personal information and secure systems. This comprehensive guide navigates through the various facets of social engineering, from its definition and tactics to preventive measures and the most common types of attacks. Unravel the complexities and learn how to shield yourself against these manipulative strategies.

Understanding social engineering

Social engineering is a nefarious practice that capitalizes on human weaknesses to breach personal information and secure systems. Unlike traditional hacking methods, social engineering manipulates individuals rather than exploiting technical vulnerabilities. This guide sheds light on the intricacies of social engineering.

How social engineering works

Social engineering involves manipulating a target into divulging sensitive information. It extends beyond stealing identities or compromising financial accounts to include obtaining trade secrets or even jeopardizing national security. An illustrative example is an attacker impersonating a spouse to gain unauthorized access to a victim’s bank account, exploiting the empathetic tendencies of customer service representatives.

Preventing social engineering

While social engineering is challenging to thwart completely, individuals can take precautions to minimize risks. Employing strong passwords, implementing two-factor authentication, and avoiding the sharing of confidential information are crucial steps. Vigilance on social media, using unique passwords, and monitoring financial accounts also contribute to reducing vulnerability.

Example: phishing attack

Sophia, an unsuspecting individual, receives an email that appears to be from her bank, claiming there is an urgent issue with her account security. The email states that to resolve the issue, she must click on a link provided and enter her login credentials for verification purposes.

The tactics employed:

The attacker utilizes several social engineering tactics in this scenario:


The email is meticulously crafted to mimic the exact format and language used by Sophia’s bank, making it difficult to discern its fraudulent nature. The sender’s email address may closely resemble the bank’s official address, adding to the deception.

Sense of urgency:

The email conveys a sense of urgency, suggesting that immediate action is required to safeguard her account. This urgency is a common tactic to prompt individuals to act hastily without thoroughly verifying the legitimacy of the communication.

Fear and concern:

The message induces fear by implying potential security threats to Sophia’s account. This emotional manipulation aims to override her logical judgment, increasing the likelihood that she will comply with the attacker’s instructions out of concern for her financial security.

The deceptive link:

The email contains a link that, upon casual inspection, appears to lead to the bank’s official website. However, in actuality, it directs Sophia to a malicious website that the attacker controls. Once she enters her login credentials, the attacker gains unauthorized access to her account.

Preventive measures:

Individuals can protect themselves from such phishing attacks by verifying the authenticity of emails, checking sender addresses, avoiding clicking on suspicious links, and directly contacting the institution using trusted contact information to confirm the legitimacy of any urgent requests.

Weigh the risks and benefits

Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • Increased awareness of potential risks
  • Empowers individuals to safeguard personal information
  • Encourages adoption of secure online practices
  • There is no foolproof defense against sophisticated social engineering
  • Requires ongoing vigilance and education
  • The potential for compromise remains

Social engineering tactics

Social engineering tactics involve exploiting simplicity and trust to manipulate individuals. Attackers often employ surprisingly straightforward methods to achieve their malicious goals. Understanding these tactics is paramount for maintaining digital and physical security.

Asking for help

Attackers may use the simple tactic of asking individuals for help. By appealing to the natural inclination to assist others, attackers can gain access to sensitive information or secure areas.

Exploiting disaster victims

Social engineering preys on disaster victims by requesting personally identifiable information under the guise of assistance. This can include details such as maiden names, addresses, dates of birth, and social security numbers, which can later be used for identity theft.

Pretending to be tech support or delivery personnel

Impersonating trusted figures, such as tech support professionals or delivery personnel, is an easy way for attackers to gain unauthorized access. Individuals are less likely to be suspicious of someone who appears to be fulfilling a legitimate role.

Sending seemingly legitimate emails

Emails can be disguised to appear as though they have originated from a known sender, even when sent by a hacker. These emails may contain malicious attachments or links that, when clicked, can lead to the theft of personal information or the compromise of a system.

Targeted phishing

Attackers may conduct targeted phishing by learning about individuals’ interests and sending them links related to those interests. These links can contain malicious code designed to extract personal information from their computers.

Types of social engineering

Social engineering encompasses a range of tactics aimed at manipulating individuals for nefarious purposes. Understanding the different types of social engineering is essential to fortifying your defenses against these deceptive strategies.

Online baiting

Online baiting occurs when hackers send out enticing ads or links, promising job opportunities, side income, or useful information. Clicking on these baits can lead to malware infecting your computer, compromising sensitive information.


Phishing scams take the form of texts or emails impersonating reputable entities, such as banks, financial institutions, or government offices. These scams induce fear or concern, tricking individuals into divulging sensitive information like bank account numbers or social security numbers.

Physical interactions

Social engineering attacks extend beyond the digital realm, manifesting in physical interactions. Attackers may impersonate office personnel, seeking unauthorized access by posing as colleagues in need of assistance. These tactics highlight the versatility and persistence of social engineering strategies.

Frequently asked questions

What is the most common form of social engineering?

Phishing, where scammers attempt to obtain social security numbers, addresses, and personal information, remains the most prevalent form of social engineering.

How common is social engineering?

Social engineering is highly common, with hackers continually refining their methods to exploit human vulnerabilities.

Is social engineering illegal?

Yes, social engineering attacks are illegal. Serious crimes, such as identity theft or unauthorized access to government facilities, fall under the purview of illegal social engineering activities.

Key takeaways

  • Social engineering exploits human vulnerabilities for unauthorized access.
  • Preventive measures include strong passwords and vigilance on social media.
  • Phishing is the most common form of social engineering attack.
  • Continuous education and awareness are crucial in mitigating risks.
View article sources
  1. Cyberslacking – SuperMoney
  2. How to recognize and avoid phishing scams – Federal Trade Commission
  3. Information Security Office – Carnegie Mellon university