What Is Social Engineering and Why Is It Important?

“The last king of Nigeria has died, and we have discovered that you are his long lost distant relative.” Countless people have been fooled because of such emails and shared vital details like their credit card number and social security details, losing a huge sum of money from their bank accounts in the process.

The last king of Nigeria is just one of the many elaborate scams that plays with the trust of victims, making them share confidential information. This process is known as social engineering and is a major issue, not just for individuals but for businesses as well. Once scammers get hold of sensitive data, they could use it extort the former and disrupt the latter. To avoid such a fate befalling you or your company, you must become aware of what is social engineering and how to spot a scam a mile away.

Social engineering is the art of exploiting somebody’s trust and convincing them to provide their confidential information. It is also known as human hacking as instead of targeting machines, the scammers lure unsuspecting users into exposing data and spreading malware infections.

Social engineering scams are designed based on general human behavior. It understands how to create panic in a reader’s mind or compels them to trust an authoritative voice and do whatever they ask.

Social Engineering – What’s the motive?

Social engineering attacks have two motives or goals, and every attacker intends to achieve at least one of these.

  • Sabotage: Disrupting or corrupting data to cause inconvenience.
  • Theft: Stealing information or money.

Social engineering hacking can happen in multiple scenarios. It can happen on an individual or an organizational level:

Individual social engineering

The hacker connects with a person via email, text, or call. The message often uses keywords like “urgent,” “free,” “last chance,” “update payment details,” “offer expiring,” etc. The subject line and the tone of message look and sound believable. Every year, thousands of people lose their hard-earned money because of scams like these.

Organizational social engineering

This style of social engineering is similar to what happens when an individual is targeted but here, the intent is different. The attacker sends malicious information to an individual hoping that they’ll share their vital info, giving the hacker access to their company’s data, files, and customer information. The attacker poses as a higher company authority or someone from the IT team and requests ID and password. If the strategy is successful, they enter the organizational system, causing disruption in internal operations or theft of data, money, or user info.

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Hackers know the 90/10 principle of information security — 90% of information security is dependent on humans and only 10% upon computer infrastructure. A good example is a door lock. A lock on your door does not mean your house is safe but remembering to lock the door and securing the keys ensures the safety of your house. It is easier to trick someone into giving you their password as opposed to hacking the system to get it. The three main types of social engineering tricks used by hackers are:


A phishing attack is a cybercrime where an attacker impersonates a legitimate entity and contacts a user via email or text. The purpose is to trick them into giving away sensitive information. This information is then used to access the user’s personal accounts, resulting in identity theft or fraud. Phishing techniques include spear phishing, content injection, vishing, smishing, keyloggers, etc.


Baiting is a type of social engineering scam where an attacker uses a reward as bait and entices a user into giving away sensitive information. The bait could be in the form of free music or free movie downloads after logging in to a fake website. Attackers steal these credentials and use them to commit identity theft, data theft, or install malicious software in a user’s system.


Pretexting is the process of creating a fake scenario to manipulate an individual. Most of these fake scenarios usually require the victim to confirm their identity. The victim falls into the trap of trusting an authoritative language or a cry for help and shares the information that they are being asked for. The attacker records their credentials and uses them to commit fraud.

Insider Threats

CERT refers to insider threats as a largely unrecognized and underestimated problem. The traditional and more conventional security measures largely focus on external threats. A majority of organizations don’t even consider detecting internal threats. The most prevalent cause of insider threat is the staff member’s lack of confidentiality and awareness. These issues lead to unauthorized access to the system. Since the threat occurs from inside the system, it is hence classified as an insider threat.

A foundational study showed that over 40% of security professionals are concerned that employees with a low level of security awareness may unintentionally hand over confidential information to malicious actors. Another variation of insider threat is Unintentional Insider Threat (UIT). Here, an employee causes a breach by inadvertently allowing a malicious software or website to access company data. UIT is the most common type of insider threat, though it is worth noting that the rate of intentional insider threat is also rising.

Classification of insider threats

  • Malicious insider: Also known as turn cloaks, these are malicious insider actors who intentionally target systems and abuse privileges to gain access to sensitive information. A turncloak has an upper hand as they are familiar with the system and can easily navigate without detection. Take Tesla for example. An insider sabotaged its infrastructure by sending proprietary information to unauthorized third parties. Insider-related incidents add unnecessary expenses, costing a company up to $8.76 million a year [1].
  • Careless insider: Careless insiders unintentionally expose the system to intruders by mistake. They often fall for phishing emails or leave their devices exposed.
  • Mole: A mole is an outsider with an imposter in the organization. They have access to the network and the system. They use this access to gain privileged information and exploit it for nefarious purposes.

How to Stop Social Engineering Attacks Using AI

The Best Way to Stop Social Engineering Scams with AI by Puneet Mehta

Tips to Anticipate a Social Engineering Attack

Phishing and social engineering attacks are rampant. As more of us are discovering the joys of the online world, the evils of this system are also getting exposed. Information and awareness are very important to avoid a social engineering attack. The tips below will help you understand what is a social engineering and how to avoid falling victim to it:

Think first, act later – Social engineering creates a sense of urgency by using high pressure conversation tactics. Always analyze the message and confirm if the sender is genuine.

Research the link – A lot of links are created in such a way that they sound like a genuine source but have a word missing or a typo. ‘I’ is replaced with ‘l’, ‘O’ becomes a ‘0’, so on and vice versa. Hovering over links in email will reveal the actual URL at the bottom.

Research the facts – Do you really believe that there is a king in Nigeria, and even if there is one, what are the odds of you being his last sole survivor? Similarly, if you never played in a lottery then there is no chance you have won something. By researching the context of the email, you’ll avoid falling in the trap of malicious actors.

Don’t download from untrusted sources – Free movies, music, games, and other things that cost you money in the market typically download some sort of malicious bug in your system. Don’t go downloading anything you find on the internet.

Read more about social engineering practices and how to avoid them

Train Your Employees and Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks are going to be a major problem in the era of globalization. The most effective way to prevent these issues in your organization is by educating end users and creating cybersecurity awareness. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) is a prestigious course that adds authority to your job profile and allows you to train employees to understand these issues on time. Awareness is the only way to prevent a social engineering attack because with time, the methodology will also evolve. EC-Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker Certification teaches all the techniques and tools hackers use to compromise systems. It enables you to use those same tools and techniques against the bad guys to help protect your clients.


Why are insider threats particularly dangerous for organizations?
Insider threats are particularly dangerous because they have legitimate access to computer systems and the network.
How do you mitigate insider threats?
  • Perform enterprise-wide risk assessments.
  • Consistently enforce policies and controls.
  • Establish physical security in the work environment.
  • Implement security software and appliances.
  • Implement strict password and account management policies and practices.
What are insider threat indicators?
Potential insider threat indicators include activities that indicate that an individual is gathering valuable data without authorization. It also includes disgruntled employees who are served with a letter of termination. These individuals may download or copy sensitive data to their personal drives.


[1] https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/02/03/1978699/0/en/Global-Cybersecurity-Study-Insider-Threats-Cost-Organizations-11-45-Million-Annually-up-31-Percent-from-2018.html

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