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Social engineering — users are the weakest link
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What is social engineering?

DefinitionClick to read  

Social engineering in the IT context is a term used for various malicious activities made through human interactions. It is based on psychological manipulation. The point is to push a user to make a security mistake. In other words, the social engineering attack is possible only if the user is not aware of harmful intent.

Are you safe?


The weakest link

Social engineering attacks can hit you any time, no matter how big or small of a business you build.


The weakest link in the whole process is the user: you, your employees, your business partners. To minimize the risk you need to maximize awareness. How to do that?


What is social engineering attack?Click to read  

Understanding social engineering attacks is the first step to increase your and your employees' awareness. First of all, you need to remember that cybercriminals and fraudsters organize those attacks. However, it is not always about money. Any amount of information (like password) or sensitive data is enough to make a fraud.

What kind of data is considered sensitive?

• personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs
• trade-union membership
• genetic data, biometric data processed solely to identify a human being
• health-related data
• data concerning a person’s sex life or sexual orientation*
*Source: European Commission > What personal data is considered sensitive?


Principles of social engineering attacksClick to read  

Usually, a social engineering attack has 3 steps...

• identifying victims
• engaging a victim in a story
• executing attack
• background research
• taking control of the interaction
• removing all traces
• choosing attack methods
• gaining a foothold
• vanishing



In a social engineering attack, the attacker makes use of psychological manipulation. That is why it is even more dangerous than a cyberattack on your system. Why? Because you need to be sure that you and your employees can discern between manipulation and standard advertising. It is not easy because we are only humans.

What happens during the attack?

The attacker plays on the victim's weaknesses. So let's think about the social engineering attack like the dirty game, where only one person knows the rules, moreover, sometimes also creates them!

Like every game, this one also has some general mechanisms that should increase the chance of winning.

Most social engineering attacks are based on 5 principles: authority, social proof, scarcity, urgency, familiarity.

Who may become a victim?Click to read  

You have just known 5 principles of social engineering attacks. Those principles are linked with people's psychological drivers and motivation. These ones, of course, are created deep in our subconscious. 

Robert Cialdini, a psychologist, speaker, and author of the book entitled "Influence: Science and Practice" described how people can be influenced by others. According to Cialdini, key factors are:



Generally, people feel obliged to pay back after they get some help. This characteristic seems to be so natural for all cultures that we don't feel uncomfortable when someone asks us to return favors.

Cialdini mentioned that so-called compliance professionals often offer a small gift to potential customers to play on this trait. Studies show that even the unwanted gift will influence the recipient to reciprocate.


Commitment and consistency

People often stick to their habits and first choices. They want to look consistent in their behavior. They also appreciate consistency in others.

Cialdini mentioned it is also linked with people's strong desire to stand by commitments made by providing further justification and reasons for supporting them. 


Social proof

We have already mentioned that mechanism speaking about principles of social engineering attacks. Social proof means that people trust other people similar to themselves when making decisions. That is more obvious in uncertain or ambiguous situations.

Cialdini mentioned that so-called compliance professionals provide fake information on what others are doing playing on this trait. For example, they prepare staged interviews, false data, or case studies.


Well, that is not a secret — people need to be liked. In consequence of playing on this trait, people are more likely to agree to offers from people they like. 

Cialdini mentioned that liking people can manifest itself in several ways, e.g. it may be a physical attraction or tending to a similar person.



That is probably the most dangerous influence factor, giving the attacker the biggest power. Generally, people follow those who seem to be strongest, better, self-confident in their eyes; who have something that they don't have. Studies show that people usually react in an automated mode to instructions from authority and even to symbols of authority (like expensive cars, uniforms, diplomas, academic degrees, etc.). That happens even when instinct hints that the instructions should be rejected.



Again, we mentioned this mechanism speaking about principles of social engineering attacks. Scarcity is based on people's desire to possess less available things. Less available may be exclusive or time-limited. 

This trait helps e.g. advertisers to promote goods as "limited availability", or "short time only".

So, who may become a victim of social engineering attacks?

In general — anyone. However, a person's psychological background and actual condition matter. 

Always keep in mind that social engineering base on manipulation.

Social engineering techniques

Message from a friendClick to read  

Imagine that you are at work, writing some reports in Excel in your company's cloud, and in the meanwhile, you take a look at your social media accounts. So, in one browser you have opened both, Excel and Facebook. 

You are filling these boring charts and, suddenly, your best friend (let's call him John) writes you on Messenger. John wrote you that your naked photos are available on the attached website — and he sent the link. You click  the link and... 

You probably just lost access to your account on Facebook and/or your business site as well. Maybe you have also compromised some data stored on your computer.

Why John did it to you?

Well, let's be honest. That wasn't John...

Probably it was a bot created to steal data. Your friend John was the victim same as you. The attacker used his identity (in this case, social media account) to gain your trust. After all, you know John very well, you grew up together, and you are best friends. How does the attacker could know that? 

Maybe you have many pictures together, speak a lot via Messenger or maybe it was a coincidence — but it worked. Now you are the next victim in the long chain called phishing.

When you can be attacked with this technique?

Using social media, instant messengers, chats, e-mails, SMS, etc.

PhishingClick to read  

Nowadays, the most popular social engineering technique is phishing. Phishing is any kind of messaging campaign planned to redirect the victim towards a particular form, site, or checkout. The attacker fakes a trusted source (e.g. friend, bank, insurance agency, investment funds) and prepares a reasonable scenario. The strong emotional theme usually helps with the suspension of disbelief.

How the scenario may look like?


Your "friend" got stuck abroad, has been robbed, beaten, and is in the hospital. He needs money and instructs you how to make a transfer. 


Your "friend" saw your naked pictures on the Internet and sent you a link. 

Your "bank" sent you an SMS with the link asking about the balance confirmation. 


Your "hosting provider" sent you an e-mail claiming that their data storage was hacked, and you need to contact them via the attached form.

Some authority figure asked you for your support in repairing the effects of a terrible natural disaster, political campaign, or charity. 


VishingClick to read  

Vishing is a variation of phishing done using voice technology such as a phone call, Messenger/ Zoom call, or fraudulent voice message. The manipulation mechanisms are the same as in phishing, but the attacker uses urgent voice mails or calls to convince the victim to make the move.

How the scenario may look like?



After the attacker's statement about an enormous danger, like bank account hacking or unpaid taxes, the victim feels the pressure to act quickly. Caught in the moment, the victim shares their sensitive data and passwords during the call.

When you can be attacked with this technique?

Having a public profile / site of your company with your phone number (not only yours but also your employees), sharing your phone number in social media, using instant messengers and apps with a voice call option, etc.

BaitingClick to read  

Sometimes instead of danger, there is a huge opportunity. You are the winner, the lucky one, you can invest small amount of money and in a short time turn it into a fortune! It is good to remember that attackers often use baiting under the cover of various European funds. You may be attacked by online form, phone calls, or even in person.

How the scenario may look like?


The attacker chooses something that people desire, e.g. downloading a new movie. Many people will take the bait to find something they want.


The attacker may create an announcement informing about an amazingly great deal on classified sites, auction sites, etc. Usually, the attacker opens a seller account with a good rating to minimize your suspicion.


If the victim takes the bait he / she will be infected with malicious software. It usually generates further actions against the victim and his / her contacts.

SummaryClick to read  

Of course, all mentioned scenarios are just examples of social engineering techniques. You need to remember that the attacker is a clever, technology-oriented person who has explored manipulative techniques.

Phishing, vishing, and baiting can have endless scenarios. It all depends on the ingenuity and creativity of the attacker.

Check the news regularly for current social engineering techniques to stay up to date.

Social engineering prevention

Dos and don'tsClick to read  

As you can see, social engineering techniques are effective and powerful because of psychological manipulation, lack of awareness and proper knowledge. The whole attack may happen only if the victim is susceptible to chosen mechanisms.

So what you can do to prevent social engineering attacks?

Increase awareness of malicious activities among yourself, your employees, partners and clients. Remember that social engineering techniques change across time and space, so it is necessary to update your knowledge regularly.

Teach your employees, partners, and clients how valuable are passwords and sensitive data. Remember that a funny post on Facebook asking you about your date of birth may be used against you. Think how many times you used your date of birth in a password...


Do not locate all sensitive data and crucial information in one place. If the attacker is able to steal them with one print screen, you need to work on your security system.


Do not click on any links and pictures you receive before you check the source.

Even if the source looks familiar, do not rush. Take a double look at an e-mail address, IP, link, etc.


Prepare transparent security standards for your company. Plan the protocol in the case of attack and teach your employees, partners, and clients what to do.

Do not cause unnecessary fear among your employees, partners, and clients. Fear helps the attacker manipulating people. Awareness and knowledge are the opposite.


Are you ready to face social engineering techniques?



social engineering; social engineering techniques; manipulation


At the end of this module the treinee will be able to: define social engineering; recognize and distinguish the most commonly used social engineering techniques; understand the manipulative mechanisms used by the attacker; ocate potential sources of attack; analyze the risk of social engineering attack on your company.


This module is about social engineering. In the first unit, you will find a definition of the term and all the basics.

In the second unit - starting from a story - we will introduce you to the techniques used by attackers. You will learn the characteristics of phishing, vishing, and baiting.

In the third unit, we will summarize all the content. You will get practical tips that will help you to take care of your safety in the network.


European Commission > What personal data is considered sensitive


Webroot > What is Social Engineering? Examples & Prevention Tips


Seon > What is Social Engineering? Attacks, Techniques & Prevention


Imperva > Social Engineering


Verizon > Data Breach Investigations Report > 2021 DBIR Master's Guide


Terranova Security > 9 Examples of Social Engineering Attacks


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The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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