Social engineering attacks can seriously compromise your organization’s security and result in costly downtime and data theft. The reason they’re so effective? Social engineering attacks leverage human error and psychology, something that is very difficult for organizations to protect themselves against. This article looks at 8 of the most common types of social engineering attacks, offering actionable tips on how to best protect your organization from social engineering cyberattacks.

What is a social engineering attack?

Social engineering attacks are cyberattacks that exploit human psychology to breach cybersecurity infrastructures and extract sensitive data. These are some of the hardest cyberattacks to protect against because of the human element.

In an organizational context, a social engineering attack will be facilitated by employees inadvertently giving away sensitive information or compromising the integrity of your system’s security framework. Social engineering attackers employ various psychological techniques designed to induce the victim into trusting them, lowering their defenses, and ultimately becoming an unknowing accomplice to their cyberattack.

How does a social engineering attack work?

Although social engineering attacks can manifest differently depending on the strategy used, in general, this is how a social engineering attack occurs:

1. Identifying the victim

The attacker identifies the potential victim and gathers any necessary contextual information ahead of executing the attack.

2. Approaching the victim

The perpetrator initiates contact with the victim on a false pretense, duping them into trusting the reason for the interaction.

3. Extracting information from the victim

The perpetrator begins to draw the desired information from the victim, then carries out the attack with the aim of either maliciously disrupting the operation of systems or extracting sensitive data.

What are the main types of social engineering attacks?

‘Social engineering attacks’ is an umbrella term that covers a whole range of different cyberattack strategies, all of which leverage human error and psychology.


Baiting attacks are where attackers incentivize a victim with an appealing promise or reward in exchange for personal information, when in actual fact this is an avenue for the perpetrator to gain access to their system via malware infected applications, for example.

Phishing attacks

Phishing attacks are some of the most common social engineering attacks. Phishing involves email or SMS contact with a large group of victims that lures them into sharing data or information, accessing malicious sites, or opening malware-infected attachments. ‘Vishing’ refers to ‘phishing’ attacks that take place over the telephone.

Spear phishing

Spear phishing is a more focussed type of phishing attack. Instead of a broad victim pool, the perpetrator will deliberately identify and target their victims – usually specific employees within an organization – tailoring their SMS or email with details designed to add credibility to their attack.

Whaling attacks

Whaling is another type of phishing attack, but instead of targeting ‘small fry’ personnel within your organization, perpetrators aim for the ‘big fish’ – high-value targets – such as your CEO, CTO or CFO.

Honey trap

In honey trap attacks, perpetrators falsely enter into online romantic or sexual interactions with the victim in order to eventually extract sensitive information or data from them.


Pretexting is where the perpetrator extracts critical sensitive and personal data from the victim on the false premise that they are a trusted third party (such as a bank employee). This personal data can include bank details or personal addresses.


Scareware, also known as ‘deception software’, ‘rogue scanner software’, and ‘fraudware’, falsely convinces the victim to download malicious software with fake threats or warnings that malware has already infected their system.

Watering hole

Watering hole attacks are where perpetrators gain access to their target’s systems via a legitimate and credible website. The perpetrator will identify a website that is frequently used by their target, then lace that site with malicious code that enters the victim’s device when they access it.

How to protect against social engineering attacks

Social engineering attacks are some of the most difficult to protect against. Unfortunately, even the most robust cybersecurity infrastructure can fail to mitigate against a social engineering attack alone. In order to efficiently address the risk of social engineering attacks, organizations need to look to their biggest vulnerability: their employees.

Proactively train your employees

First and foremost, organizations should be proactively training their employees to not only understand social engineering attacks but to recognize the most common strategies employed by perpetrators. This shouldn’t involve a one-off training session, but a continual cyber awareness campaign that aims to constantly remind your employees of the risks they face. Raising awareness and understanding amongst your staff will empower them with the right amount of skepticism and hopefully ensure that they don’t become complacent.

Encourage self-reporting

Try as far as possible to create an environment in which your employees would feel comfortable reporting that they might have fallen victim to a social engineering attack. Humiliation about being duped by a social engineering tactic can result in delayed reporting and heightened risk

Leverage technology security tools

Your technology security tools should not only strengthen your cybersecurity infrastructure but be the first barrier of defense against social engineering attacks. You should ensure you have strong and reliable firewalls, email spam filters, antivirus, and malware tools in place, alongside effective network monitoring software and thorough patch management.

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