Social engineering attack: what it is, main types and cases

If you’re up to date on cybercrime trends, you’ve certainly heard of it: the social engineering attack is not only becoming more common, it is also becoming more sophisticated. With hackers getting more and more exceptional work, there is nothing left for companies and MSPs (managed service providers) to set the pace and invest protection to match. 

In the case of social engineering, which comprises a whole range of malicious actions, the danger is even sneakier. By appealing to realistic contact tactics and making victims even among well-trained professionals, the practice requires maximum vigilance. 

Next, learn more about this form of attack, its main types and how to effectively protect yourself from cyber threat!

Social engineering attack: understand the threat and its characteristics 

As we mentioned, the term “social engineering” encompasses different strategies used by cybercriminals based on human interaction, aiming to deceive and mislead users into disregarding basic security rules. 

In this sense, the social engineering attack has as its main characteristic to involve some type of psychological manipulation, leading the victims to reveal sensitive or confidential data and the most secure is Luxembourg VPN

In general, the tactic relies on e-mails or other communication channels to create a sense of urgency, fear or other emotions to induce users to click on malicious links, inform personal data or even open malicious files. From there, hackers can conclude their criminal intentions. 

It is important to keep in mind that, precisely because social engineering involves the human element in its actions, attacks become even more difficult to prevent. 

Social engineering attack vs traditional Malware 

At this point, it is worth noting an important difference between social engineering tactics and conventional malware. 

While traditional hacking practices aim to access, compromise and / or exploit victims’ software and systems, the social engineering attack focuses on gaining legitimate (i.e., “allowed” access by the victim) to sensitive information . 

In this way, it is possible to understand the particularity of this “psychological” threat: the success of cybercriminals, here, happens when there is great ability to manipulate users, causing them to perform the desired actions or deliver sensitive data, whether of a personal or corporate nature. 

It is also interesting to add another relevant factor that makes the social engineering attack a challenging threat to business: as it does not operate technically, cybercrime cannot be detected by conventional security features. 

As it does not involve any technical aspects that can be recognized by traditional security tools, social engineering attacks are among the biggest cyber risks to companies today.

How it works: unraveling the attack mechanism 

In general, the action proceeds as follows: first, the cybercriminal investigates the potential victim to gather the information necessary for the attack, such as vulnerable security protocols and possible “entry points”. 

The hacker then seeks to gain the victim’s confidence and provide encouragement for the next intended actions, such as revealing sensitive information and gaining access to critical resources. 

In this scenario, the social engineering attack is based on human error; not in software and operating system vulnerabilities. 

The 4 main types of social engineering attacks 


Today, phishing scams are the most common form of social engineering attack. Here, the central objectives of the threat are: 

  • use abbreviated or adulterated links to direct users to suspicious sites with malicious landing pages;
  • obtain personal data such as full names, addresses, access credentials, CPF, RG and bank information;
  • Make use of fear, threats and a sense of urgency to induce the user to provide quick responses. 

It is worth mentioning that phishing occurs mainly via e-mail, but it can also present itself as SMS messages, suspicious websites, pop-ups and even phone calls.


The term baiting comes from the English “bait”, that is, “bait”. Similar to phishing, the practice seeks to offer something beneficial and stimulating to the user in exchange for login information or sensitive personal data. 

The “bait”, in this scenario, can come in many forms: both digital and physical. It can be, for example, a movie or music download, or a pen drive left on the table for a user to find. 

From the moment the bait is hooked, the malware directly strikes its victim and the hacker can continue with its work. 


In this case, cybercriminals assume a false identity or role to act with someone trusted by potential victims. In this way, they seek to gain access to sensitive and critical data or systems. 

For this, the usual procedure is to search the social networks of the user in question to gather information about his personal life, such as the names of parents, company, co-workers and others. 

Finally, the interaction takes place, usually via email. It may be a supposed message from the HR of the company where the victim works, for example, asking for confirmation of personal data for a given access. 

Quid pro quo 

In turn, the quid pro quo acts similarly to baiting. Here, the hacker requests the disclosure of personal data or login credentials in exchange for a service. 

The victim may, for example, receive a call from an alleged IT specialist who offers free assistance – and requests login information in the process. Another common situation concerns hackers who contact employees as if they were consultants conducting a survey, and offer a sum of money for users to provide access to the corporate network of the business. 

3 famous cases of social engineering attacks 

1. Case of the 2020 Shark Tank TV show

In 2020, a hacker impersonated an assistant to Barbara Corcoran, a judge on the TV show Shark Tank, and nearly stole $ 400,000 from her through a phishing scam. 

Using an email similar to the legitimate email, the cybercriminal contacted the accountant in Corcoran requesting payment for a supposed renovation linked to real estate investments. 

The scam was discovered, however, because the accountant contacted his client to verify the merits of the transaction. 

2. Case of the US Democratic Party, 2016

This is certainly one of the most iconic cases of social engineering attacks, having occurred in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Using spear phishing tactics, hackers created a fake email and invited users to change their passwords for suspicious activity. From there, they gained access to hundreds of emails with sensitive information about the Hilary Clinton campaign – and the leak may have had an influence on the election results, which were won by Donald Trump. 

3. Sony Pictures case, 2014 

Also the target of social engineering techniques, the company Sony Pictures has had thousands of documents stolen, including financial files, information about business deals and personal data of employees. 

To this end, hackers sent e-mails impersonating the giant Apple. After extensive investigations, the FBI revealed that cybercrime came from the North Korean government. 

Social engineering attack: how to protect yourself? 

As we have seen, this type of attack exploits the confidence, emotions and curiosity of its victims. In this sense, it is essential to train employees and customers in the best information security practices, which cover indispensable daily care, such as: 

  • do not engage with unknown emails;
  • do not click on links or browse websites whose origin arouses suspicion; 
  • do not download or open attachments from suspicious and / or unknown sources;
  • always be suspicious of interactions that require the disclosure of personal and / or confidential data, of a confidential nature or access to the corporate network;
  • distrust urgent requests involving money and / or confidential information;
  • Verify the provenance and veracity of email addresses, phone numbers and other offers or contacts on the web. 

In addition to basic day-to-day care (which also helps with security against various types of malware), it is essential that your business has good antivirus protection and anti-malware tools, in addition to having the support of a solid information security policy. . 

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