What is social engineering in cyber security?

Have you ever received an email claiming your account is about to expire, urging you to click a link to verify your information? That could be a social engineering attempt. Social engineering is a common tactic cybercriminals use to exploit human vulnerabilities, and understanding it is crucial for protecting yourself online.

This article explores how social engineering works, the different types of social engineering attacks, such as phishing and pretexting, and why it poses a significant threat to cyber security.


What is social engineering?

Social engineering is a deceptive practice that exploits human psychology rather than technology to gain unauthorized access to information systems. It involves manipulating individuals into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that compromise security protocols.

Unlike traditional hacking methods that rely heavily on exploiting technical weaknesses within a system, social engineering targets the human element, leveraging psychological tactics to deceive and manipulate individuals. Malicious actors often exploit innate human vulnerabilities, such as trust, curiosity, fear, or a desire to help.

By understanding how people think and behave in certain situations, cyber attackers can craft convincing schemes to trick unsuspecting individuals into divulging confidential data or granting unauthorized access.

This highlights the critical importance of incorporating a human-centric approach to cybersecurity, whereby organizations focus on educating and training employees to recognize and thwart social engineering tactics.

How does social engineering work?

Social engineering techniques work by leveraging psychological tactics to deceive individuals into divulging confidential information or granting unauthorized access to secure systems. One common method is phishing, where attackers send fraudulent emails to trick recipients into providing personal data or clicking on malicious links.

Another prevalent social engineering tactic is pretexting, where an attacker creates a fabricated scenario to obtain sensitive information. For example, an individual might receive a phone call from someone posing as a bank representative, requesting account details to 'verify' their identity.

Baiting involves offering something enticing, like a USB drive labelled 'Confidential' left in a public area. When used, the drive installs malware on the victim's device.

Tailgating occurs when an unauthorized person follows an employee into a secure area, taking advantage of courtesy or distraction to gain access.

Types of social engineering

Social engineering encompasses several tactics used by cybercriminals to manipulate individuals and organisations. Some prominent types include phishing, where fraudulent emails are sent to extract sensitive data; pretexting, which involves creating a false pretext to gain information; and baiting, where malicious actors lure victims into a trap.

These tactics prey on human psychology and vulnerabilities, exploiting trust and authority to deceive unsuspecting targets. In vishing attacks, scammers use voice communication to manipulate victims into divulging confidential information.

Shoulder surfing involves peeking over someone's shoulder to steal login credentials or other sensitive data. Tailgating is another method where attackers gain unauthorised access by following someone through a secure entrance.

Recognising red flags like unsolicited requests for personal info and staying vigilant are key to fending off these social engineering schemes.

You also might be interested in: Prevent social engineering attacks: 3 strategies for IT-leaders



Phishing is a prevalent form of social engineering that involves sending deceptive emails or messages to trick recipients into providing sensitive information or downloading malicious attachments. These phishing emails often contain links that lead to fake websites designed to steal personal data.

Phishing attacks rely on cleverly disguised emails that appear to be from legitimate sources, such as banks, companies, or government agencies. The attackers use psychological tactics like urgency, fear, or authority to manipulate the recipient into taking actions without questioning.

Common red flags in phishing emails include spelling and grammatical errors, generic greetings instead of personalised salutations, unexpected requests for sensitive information, and urgent calls to action.

Email security awareness training is crucial to educate individuals on how to identify and respond to phishing attempts effectively. It's also important to set up DMARC and email authentication to avoid phishing or impersonation attacks.


Pretexting is a social engineering technique that involves creating a fabricated scenario or pretext to deceive individuals into sharing confidential information. The attacker establishes trust with the target by posing as a legitimate entity or using false pretences to extract sensitive data.

This deception often plays on emotions or urgent situations to pressure the victim into disclosing information. For example, a common pretexting scenario is a scammer pretending to be a technical support representative from a trusted company, requesting login credentials under the guise of solving a technical issue.

Falling for such tactics can result in identity theft, financial fraud, or unauthorised access to personal accounts, highlighting the importance of being cautious and verifying the legitimacy of requests before sharing sensitive information.


Baiting is a social engineering tactic that involves enticing individuals with promises of rewards or gains to trick them into revealing sensitive information or compromising security measures. Attackers exploit human vulnerabilities and curiosity to lure victims into traps.

These tactics often prey on people's desire for immediate gratification, curiosity, or fear of missing out. Common forms of baiting attacks include enticing individuals with free downloads, clickbait links, or promising prizes in exchange for personal details.

By understanding the psychological triggers that make individuals susceptible to such tactics, individuals can be more vigilant in identifying potential baiting attempts. Being cautious of unsolicited messages, verifying the sender's credibility, and avoiding clicking on suspicious links can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to baiting attacks and ultimately enhance overall cyber security resilience.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo social engineering involves offering a benefit or service in exchange for sensitive information or access. Attackers entice individuals with rewards or perks to persuade them to disclose personal data or grant unauthorized system entry.

This type of scheme poses significant risks to both individuals and organisations, as personal information can be exploited for malicious purposes such as identity theft, financial fraud, or unauthorized access to confidential data.

To safeguard against quid pro quo tactics, it is crucial to maintain a cautious approach when dealing with unsolicited offers or requests, especially if they involve the exchange of personal details. Awareness and vigilance are key in detecting and responding to potential social engineering attempts effectively.

One common red flag is when someone demands sensitive information in exchange for a promise of exclusive benefits or rewards. If you encounter such a situation, it's important to verify the legitimacy of the request through official channels and refrain from sharing any personal data until you are certain of the other party's intentions.


Tailgating is a social engineering tactic where an unauthorised individual gains physical access to a restricted area by closely following an authorised person. It exploits the natural tendency of people to hold doors open for others without verifying their credentials.

This type of security breach can have serious consequences, as it allows intruders to bypass security measures and potentially compromise sensitive information or equipment.

To prevent tailgating incidents, organisations should implement strict access control policies, such as requiring all employees to use their access cards or badges at all times.

Conducting regular security awareness training sessions can help employees recognise the risks associated with tailgating and understand the importance of following proper security protocols.

By fostering a culture of vigilance and emphasising the significance of physical security, companies can reduce the likelihood of unauthorised access through tailgating.


Scareware is a form of social engineering that involves displaying false or misleading warnings to trick users into believing their system is infected with malware. The goal is to scare individuals into purchasing fake security software or disclosing personal information.

These deceptive tactics prey on individuals' fears and vulnerabilities, exploiting a sense of urgency to prompt immediate action. Scareware attackers often use alarming pop-up messages or aggressive alerts that claim the user's device is at risk or compromised.

The psychological manipulation involved is designed to create panic and pressure the victim into making hasty decisions, such as clicking on malicious links or providing sensitive data.

Recognizing the signs of scareware scams, such as unsolicited warnings, aggressive language, and requests for payment or personal details, is crucial in avoiding falling victim to these fraudulent schemes.

Why is social engineering a threat in cyber security?

Social engineering poses a significant threat to cyber security. It exploits human vulnerabilities to bypass technical defences. Malicious actors leverage psychological manipulation and deceptive tactics to gain unauthorised access to sensitive information, leading to security breaches and potential system compromises.

These attacks often target human psychology, exploiting trust, fear, or urgency to trick individuals into divulging confidential data or accessing secure systems. Unlike traditional hacking methods that primarily focus on exploiting technical vulnerabilities, social engineering preys on the inherent human element of decision-making.

It poses a formidable challenge for organisations as educating people on recognising and resisting these manipulative tactics is complex. Despite advanced cybersecurity measures in place, the human factor remains a critical weak point that cybercriminals adeptly exploit through social engineering.

What are the risks of falling for social engineering?

Falling for social engineering attacks can have severe consequences, including unauthorised access to personal or corporate data, financial loss due to fraud, and reputational damage. Victims may face compromised trust in digital interactions and heightened vulnerability to future attacks.

These risks highlight the critical importance of organisations investing in trust and awareness training to combat social engineering tactics effectively. For instance, in a phishing scam scenario, an employee mistakenly clicks on a malicious email link, leading to a data breach that exposes sensitive customer information.

This breach not only threatens the organisation's credibility but also subjects it to potential legal repercussions. Similarly, in a pretexting scheme, a scammer gains access to an employee's personal data by impersonating a trusted source, demonstrating how easily attackers manipulate human psychology to achieve their malicious goals.

How to protect yourself from social engineering attacks?

Protecting yourself from social engineering attacks requires a multi-faceted approach that combines cyber security measures, awareness training, and vigilance against deceptive tactics. By enhancing your understanding of common threats and adopting proactive security practices, you can reduce the risk of falling victim to social engineering schemes.

  1. One effective strategy to safeguard against social engineering attacks is to verify the authenticity of requests for sensitive information by contacting the organisation directly through trusted channels.
  2. Regularly updating your passwords and enabling two-factor authentication can add an extra layer of security to your accounts.
  3. It's crucial to remain cautious when sharing personal details online or clicking on suspicious links, as these are common tactics used by attackers to gain access to your information.

By staying informed about the latest scams and regularly reinforcing your cyber defences, you can better protect yourself against social engineering threats.

Educate yourself and your employees

Education is a key defence against social engineering attacks. Providing comprehensive awareness training to both individuals and employees can help them recognise deceptive tactics, understand the risks of human error, and foster a security-conscious culture within organisations.

Education is a powerful tool in safeguarding against cyber threats, equipping individuals with the knowledge and skills to identify and report suspicious activities. The impact of human error in security incidents underscores the critical need for continuous learning and adaptation in the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity.

Emphasising the importance of ongoing education not only bolsters defences against vulnerabilities but also instils a proactive mindset that promotes resilience and quick responses to emerging threats.

Keep personal information private

Protecting your personal information is crucial in preventing social engineering attacks. To minimise the risk of identity theft and unauthorised access, avoid sharing sensitive data such as passwords, financial details, or personal identifiers with unverified sources.

Always be cautious when responding to emails or messages requesting sensitive information. Cybercriminals often use phishing scams to trick individuals into divulging personal data.

To add an extra layer of protection, it is advisable to regularly update your security software and enable two-factor authentication on all your online accounts.

Encrypting important files and using secure communication channels like encrypted messaging apps can further safeguard your data both online and offline.

Use strong passwords

Strong passwords are a fundamental defence against social engineering attacks. Creating complex and unique passwords for each online account, regularly updating them, and employing multi-factor authentication can significantly enhance your cyber security posture.

In addition to strong passwords, proper password management is crucial in mitigating cybersecurity risks. One key aspect of this is avoiding the reuse of passwords across multiple platforms. When the same password is used for different accounts, it increases the vulnerability of all those accounts in case of a breach.

It's recommended that you use a reputable password manager to securely store and generate complex passwords. Regularly changing passwords, particularly after security incidents or breaches, is also essential to safeguarding your online accounts.

Implementing good cyber hygiene practices, such as being cautious of phishing emails and never sharing passwords with anyone, further fortifies your overall security measures.

Be wary of suspicious emails and messages

Vigilance is essential when dealing with emails and messages to avoid falling for social engineering traps. Be cautious of unsolicited communications, verify sender identities, and refrain from clicking on suspicious links or downloading attachments from unknown sources.

In the digital age, cybercriminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their tactics, making it crucial for individuals to stay vigilant in protecting their online security. One of the most common methods used by hackers is phishing, where deceptive emails are designed to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information.

To combat this threat, it is important to carefully examine emails for any signs of irregularity, such as grammatical errors or unfamiliar sender addresses. Always be wary of urgent requests for personal or financial information, as legitimate organisations typically do not seek this through unsolicited emails.

Install and update security software

Maintaining up-to-date security software is crucial in defending against social engineering attacks. Regularly installing security patches, updates, and antivirus programmes can help strengthen your cyber defences and enhance your overall cyber hygiene.

By proactively keeping your security software current, you are less likely to fall victim to cybercriminals' malicious tactics. These updates act as shields that protect your systems from vulnerabilities and potential exploits, reducing the risks of data breaches and unauthorised access.

In addition to fixing known security flaws, security software plays a vital role in identifying and blocking suspicious activities that may suggest social engineering schemes. By following best practices, such as enabling automatic updates and carrying out regular scans, you can stay ahead of emerging threats and protect your digital assets effectively.

Use multi-factor authentication

Employing multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security to your online accounts and devices, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and identity theft. By combining passwords with biometric data or verification codes, you can enhance your cyber security resilience.

This heightened security measure significantly bolsters protection against social engineering attacks, where hackers manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information.

With multi-factor authentication, even if malicious actors obtain your password through deceptive means, they would still need an additional authentication factor, like a fingerprint scan or a one-time code sent to your phone, to access your account. Implementing this security protocol is pivotal in safeguarding sensitive data and thwarting cybercriminals.

Let's delve into the steps you can take to set up multi-factor authentication across different platforms and services.

What to do if you fall for a social engineering attack?

In case you fall for a social engineering attack, it is crucial to act swiftly to mitigate the potential damage. Notify your organisation's IT security team, change compromised credentials, and report the incident following established cybersecurity policies to prevent further data breaches and enhance cyber resilience.

After alerting the IT security team and modifying compromised login details, it's advisable to conduct a thorough review of security measures across all digital accounts.

Implement two-factor authentication where possible, enhance employee training on recognizing phishing attempts, and reinforce data protection protocols. Assess the impact of the breach on sensitive information and outline steps to reinforce defences.

Continuously reassess and adapt cybersecurity practices to stay ahead of evolving threats, fostering a culture of resilience and proactive security measures within the organization.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is social engineering in cyber security?

Social engineering in cyber security involves using psychological manipulation techniques to deceive individuals into revealing sensitive information or performing actions that could compromise the security of a computer system or network.

How does social engineering work?

Social engineering works by exploiting the natural human tendency to trust and be helpful. Cybercriminals use various tactics, such as posing as a trusted individual or creating a sense of urgency, to trick people into providing access to sensitive information or performing actions that benefit the attacker.

What are some common types of social engineering attacks?

Some common types of social engineering attacks include phishing, pretexting, baiting, and quid pro quo. Phishing involves sending fake emails or messages to trick individuals into providing personal information, while pretexting involves creating a false scenario to gain access to sensitive information.

Baiting involves leaving a physical device, such as a USB drive, in a public place in hopes that someone will connect it to their computer and unknowingly install malware. Quid pro quo is when the attacker offers something in exchange for sensitive information or access.

How can social engineering attacks be prevented?

Social engineering attacks can be prevented by being cautious of unsolicited requests for information, not clicking on suspicious links or attachments, verifying the legitimacy of requests before providing information, and regularly updating passwords and security software.

What are the potential consequences of falling for a social engineering attack?

The consequences of falling for a social engineering attack can include financial loss, identity theft, compromised personal and sensitive information, and damage to a company’s reputation. It can also lead to further cyber attacks and malware infections.

Is social engineering only used in cyber security?

No, social engineering techniques can also be used in other areas, such as in person or over the phone, to manipulate individuals into providing sensitive information or performing actions that benefit the attacker.

About the author

DataGuard Insights DataGuard Insights
DataGuard Insights

DataGuard Insights provides expert analysis and practical advice on security and compliance issues facing IT, marketing and legal professionals across a range of industries and organisations. It acts as a central hub for understanding the intricacies of the regulatory landscape, providing insights that help executives make informed decisions. By focusing on the latest trends and developments, DataGuard Insights equips professionals with the information they need to navigate the complexities of their field, ensuring they stay informed and ahead of the curve.

Explore more articles

Contact Sales

See what DataGuard can do for you.

Find out how our Privacy, InfoSec and Compliance solutions can help you boost trust, reduce risks and drive revenue.

  • 100% success in ISO 27001 audits to date 
  • 40% total cost of ownership (TCO) reduction
  • A scalable easy-to-use web-based platform
  • Actionable business advice from in-house experts

Trusted by customers

Canon  Logo Contact Hyatt Logo Contact Holiday Inn  Logo Contact Unicef  Logo Contact Veganz Logo Contact Burger King  Logo Contact First Group Logo Contact TOCA Social Logo Contact Arri Logo Contact K Line  Logo Contact

Get to know DataGuard

Simplify compliance

  • External data protection officer
  • Audit of your privacy status-quo
  • Ongoing GDPR support from a industry experts
  • Automate repetitive privacy tasks
  • Priority support during breaches and emergencies
  • Get a defensible GDPR position - fast!

Trusted by customers

Canon  Logo Contact Hyatt Logo Contact Holiday Inn  Logo Contact Unicef  Logo Contact Veganz Logo Contact Burger King  Logo Contact First Group Logo Contact TOCA Social Logo Contact Arri Logo Contact K Line  Logo Contact

Get to know DataGuard

Simplify compliance

  • Continuous support on your journey towards the certifications on ISO 27001 and TISAX®️, as well as NIS2 Compliance.
  • Benefit from 1:1 consulting
  • Set up an easy-to-use ISMS with our Info-Sec platform
  • Automatically generate mandatory policies

100% success in ISO 27001 audits to date



TISAX® is a registered trademark of the ENX Association. DataGuard is not affiliated with the ENX Association. We provide consultation and support for the assessment on TISAX® only. The ENX Association does not take any responsibility for any content shown on DataGuard's website.

Trusted by customers

Canon  Logo Contact Hyatt Logo Contact Holiday Inn  Logo Contact Unicef  Logo Contact Veganz Logo Contact Burger King  Logo Contact First Group Logo Contact TOCA Social Logo Contact Arri Logo Contact K Line  Logo Contact

Get to know DataGuard

Simplify compliance

  • Proactive support
  • Create essential documents and policies
  • Staff compliance training
  • Advice from industry experts

Trusted by customers

Canon  Logo Contact Hyatt Logo Contact Holiday Inn  Logo Contact Unicef  Logo Contact Veganz Logo Contact Burger King  Logo Contact First Group Logo Contact TOCA Social Logo Contact Arri Logo Contact K Line  Logo Contact

Get to know DataGuard

Simplify compliance

  • Comply with the EU Whistleblowing Directive
  • Centralised digital whistleblowing system
  • Fast implementation
  • Guidance from compliance experts
  • Transparent reporting

Trusted by customers

Canon  Logo Contact Hyatt Logo Contact Holiday Inn  Logo Contact Unicef  Logo Contact Veganz Logo Contact Burger King  Logo Contact First Group Logo Contact TOCA Social Logo Contact Arri Logo Contact K Line  Logo Contact

Let's talk