Social Engineering Attacks: How to Detect and Avoid Them?


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If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about social engineering attacks. Or do you believe it only aims to dupe unsuspecting victims to steal some money?

You may not realize that social engineering techniques can take many forms. And anyone can fall victim to one – even you.

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about social engineering attacks, including:

  • what a social engineering attack is;
  • the different forms a social engineering attack can take;
  • how to quickly detect a social engineering attack;
  • and most importantly, how to avoid falling victim to one!

So without further ado, let’s explore!

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What is Social Engineering?

First things first. What is social engineering?

Social engineering gathers many techniques to exploit our human nature to induce behaviors and mistakes that will lead to weakened security.

It will allow cybercriminals to access information, money or control what they’re looking for. It’s not a unique kind of attack but rather a group of different scams that share several similarities:

  • Scammers attempt to obtain sensitive information or money;
  • They exploit trust and human behavior to manipulate their victims and achieve their goals;
  • They exploit their victims’ lack of knowledge and their inability to implement security measures to protect themselves;
  • Their schemes often involve using personal information (identity theft) to appear more authentic.

Remember the ancient Greeks’ “gift” horse to the city of Troy? An excellent real-world example.

At the heart of every social engineering attack lies manipulation.

Forget about brute force tactics. With social engineering, attackers use manipulative tactics to lead their victims into compromising themselves or the security measures they rely on. Scammers connect with their victims to infuse confidence and influence their actions.

As attackers become more familiar with their targets’ motivations, they can craft persuasive tactics to lure them into potentially destructive behavior.

And it works: many cybersecurity incidents are successful social engineering schemes carried out by external attackers. They play with human weakness to make their victims unwittingly provide access to sensitive information or money.

How Do Social Engineering Attacks Work?

As we already mentioned, social engineering relies on manipulation. It can take on various forms (as we’ll explore later).

However, every social engineering attack will exploit one of the following human traits.


The hacker will send a message spoofing an organization’s communication codes, such as its logo and other brand features (fonts, writing style, etc.).

They want to trick the victim into doing things they would routinely do with this specific organization (click on a link, download a file, etc.) because they trust it and just don’t challenge the message’s origin.

Compliance with the authority

Obedience to authority is another human trait social engineering tactics can exploit.

Pirates will impersonate a high-ranking individual or a government agency to induce their obedient target to do something.

Sense of urgency and/or fear

People often act without thinking when faced with a sudden sense of panic.

They are vulnerable to social engineering scams that prey on such emotions. These deceptive tactics leverage fear and urgency in various ways:

  • false credit card alerts;
  • virus warnings;
  • exploiting one’s FOMO (fear of missing out).

The panicking victim is lured into taking action without taking the time to consider the implications of their actions. Often, under stress, they will forget to double-check the request’s legitimacy.


You wouldn’t refuse a gift, would you? Scammers understand this.

This is why many scams leverage our greed to attract us with money rewards, free iPhones and other prizes.

Ever heard of the “unexpected inheritance” scam? This is a classic phishing attack promising you a large sum of money from a distant relative or a wealthy benefactor. The money is supposedly blocked for some obscure reason… All you need to do is pay the administrative fees to get the money.

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is! This is a perfect example of a scam using our attraction to money, gifts, or easy rewards.


Finally, our generosity is often exploited in social engineering attacks.

Attackers exploit generosity by researching social media to find out what matters to you and impersonating organizations linked to your causes. For example, they might pose as a charity you support to solicit donations.

Social Engineering Attacks: What Do They Look Like?

There are many kinds of social engineering attacks with subtle varieties. Here are some of the most common ones.

Phishing scams are the most common types of social engineering attacks used today. Phishing scams rely on emails to make a connection with the target. Other specific types of phishing attacks exist such as:

  • smishing, a phishing attack that relies on SMS;
  • vishing which relies on actual phone conversations;
  • spear phishing which targets specific individuals with personal information to make it appear legitimate;
  • whaling attacks which are phishing attacks that target high-ranking executives.

Pretexting is another form of social engineering where attackers focus on creating a plausible pretext, or a fabricated scenario, that they can use to steal their victims’ personal information.

Baiting is, in many ways, similar to phishing attacks. However, what distinguishes them from other types of social engineering is the promise of an item or good that hackers use to entice victims, just like the Trojan horse.

Similarly, quid pro quo attacks promise a benefit in exchange for information. This benefit usually assumes the form of a service, whereas baiting frequently takes the form of a good.

Scareware aims to make its victims believe a virus infected their device, and they need to buy or download specific software to fix it.

Watering Hole Attacks happen when attackers compromise a website frequented by a specific group of users. When these users visit the site, their devices are infected with malware.

A Honey Trap is when attackers create fake social media profiles to befriend targets and extract confidential information through deceptive relationships.

Finally, Reverse Social Engineering creates a situation where the victim seeks help, allowing the attacker to pose as a helper and extract sensitive information.

Physical phishing attacks

Phishing attacks can also happen in the “real”, physical world.

The most common form is called “shoulder surfing“. This is when someone observes directly over your shoulder to gain information such as passwords or PINs after luring them into doing an action necessitating credentials.

Another social engineering attack type is tailgating, where someone seeks physical entry to a restricted area where they are not allowed to be. 

Common characteristics of social engineering attacks

Most of these social engineering attacks share the following characteristics:

  • Personal information: attackers seek information such as names, addresses, and social security numbers.
  • Link shorteners or embedded links: these links actually redirect users to suspicious websites in URLs that appear legitimate.
  • Malware: social engineering can also be used to set up malware either on top of stealing the victim’s credentials or with the sole purpose of compromising the victim’s device.

Social Engineering Attacks: How to Stay Safe?

Now that we’ve identified the different forms of social engineering and their characteristics, let’s talk about how to avoid them!

What follows are various steps you should take to identify social engineering attacks, and protect yourself from future ones.

#1: Take your time to evaluate the situation

Take the time to consider the whole situation and examine the message carefully, even if it is quite worrying.

  • Is this message unexpected?
  • Does it originate from where it’s supposed to?
  • Ensure you are interacting with trusted contacts by confirming their identity. Whenever possible, contact your sender directly to make sure they sent what was received.
  • Also, check for spelling mistakes, oddities in the logo, or other revealing details. Does this organization usually communicate in this manner?
  • Again, in case of any doubt, take your phone and call the official number or the number you’re used to call (and not the provided number) to get more information.

#2: Check the URL or file before clicking

Never, ever click on an attachment or link in email without double-checking.

Any attachment in a message can hide a virus or some other kind of malware, such as ransomware.

A link in a message can lead you to a staged website set up to steal your data or infect your device with malware.

Before clicking on them, inspect them carefully:

  • Is there any message or a prompt indicating the attached file contains macros? If yes, make sure you don’t enable macros to view the file.
  • Were you expecting this file or link?
  • In doubt, don’t hesitate to check and ask the sender directly if it’s coming from them (contact them with your usual means of contact).
  • If in doubt, DO NOT click! Ask a colleague, friend, or family member if you are unsure. Or refer to an IT expert if you don’t feel comfortable assessing the situation.

#3: Be aware of your valuables

Even if you’re not a millionaire, you own many things that could arouse the greed of cybercriminals:

  • your data (which can be sold on the dark net);
  • software access you have in the company you work for;
  • detailed social network accounts, with numerous pictures, and comments revealing what you like, what you support, etc.. This means it will be straightforward to profile you and determine the appropriate strategy to target you. Therefore, be careful with what you share on social media.

Take the time to look at your privileges, communications on the net, and try to understand the potential you offer for any scammer. Being more aware of this can improve your ability to detect social engineering attacks.

#4: Learn about social engineering scams

Congratulations! Just by reading this guide, you’ve already made yourself less vulnerable to social engineering attacks.

Education is key to avoiding social engineering attacks.

As individuals, we are in most cases at the origin of a potential attack due to our lack of awareness and knowledge.

If you want to learn even more, you can check out this guide on the 7 biggest email security mistakes to avoid. Or you can check this guide on tips to protect your computer, or follow our free email security and privacy awareness course.

#5: Use security software to avoid spam and phishing emails

To protect your device and your data from cyberthreats and intrusion attempts, you must use an antivirus and make periodic backups.

But you must also use a secure email solution to ensure messages coming into your inbox don’t include any malware or any malicious part, and to block them if that’s the case.

Emails are one of the most common gateways for hackers. So make sure you have MFA activated, and get accustomed to sending encrypted emails that are digitally signed.

#6: Avoid single points of failure

A single point of failure is a common term used to describe having all your eggs in one basket. If that point gets breached, all your data is compromised. This is why you should avoid connecting all your accounts with Facebook or Gmail.

The more intertwined and dependent your accounts are, the more damage a security breach can cause you.

#7: Unique logins and secure passwords

Linked to #6, use different logins for each service and strong, unique passwords. Consider using email aliases and password managers to manage your credentials.

#8: Get creative with security questions

This one might sound trivial. But the additional security questions websites ask you are to, usually, set up a 2-step verification (2SV) security measure.

So be creative and avoid easily guessed answers such as your date or place of birth. A hacker will find those in a few minutes. Also, do not confuse 2SV with Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) or TFA which we strongly suggest you set up anyway.

#9: Use credit cards wisely

If you use a debit card and a hacker gets access to the number, your entire bank account could be drained. You can further secure your credit card by not storing card numbers on websites or using disposable or virtual card numbers (offered by Citibank, Bank of America, and Discover).

#10: Frequently monitor your accounts

Be on the lookout for both identity theft and credit card fraud. Regularly check in with your account balances and credit score.

Last Word on Social Engineering Attacks

This wraps up our guide on social engineering attacks. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what social engineering is and how to detect them.

Make sure to send this guide to your friends and family too! To more people are aware of social engineering tactics, the less victims there will be. Finally, if you’ve got any questions, feel free to reach out to us at

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Picture of M Salman Nadeem

M Salman Nadeem

Salman works as an Information Security Analyst for Mailfence. His areas of interest include cryptography, security architecture and design, access control, and operations security. You can follow him on LinkedIn @mohammadsalmannadeem.

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