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What is social engineering?

Dec 15, 2019 · 7 min read

What is social engineering?

Everyone probably thinks they’re too clever to fall for a scam – even the people who fall for them. Social engineering attacks consist of a powerful set of techniques that hackers, scammers, and thieves use to compromise your security and steal valuable data. Learn their strategies so you don’t fall into their trap.

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is the art of convincing a person to do what you want, even when it’s against their interests. Trust, stress and greed are natural feelings that social engineers use against you to cloud your judgment. When it comes to the digital world, it may or may not involve code or malware.

Read on to learn more about the most common social engineering attacks and how to protect yourself against them.

Social engineering examples



Phishing happens when a cybercriminal uses emails to impersonate someone else. They’ll usually pretend to be your bank, the government, a delivery company, or any other organization you trust. Their goal is to have you open a phishing email and download an attachment that hides malware or click on suspicious links. They want to trick you into disclosing sensitive information such as your login credentials, social security number or your bank card number.

Phishing can take different forms and use different methods. The most common ones include:

  • A spoofed display name. The email will appear to have been sent from a legitimate organization but the domain name will be entirely different. For example, it might look like Netflix, but if you hover over ‘Sender’, you’ll see that the email came from (a hypothetical example).
  • Embedded links. The social hackers might send an email asking you to click on a link and log back into your account (even though you haven’t changed your activity on that site). The spoofed URL will lead to an infected website. One way to protect yourself is to right-click on the link and check the address to see if it looks legitimate.
  • Email attachments. Invoices, order confirmations, event invitations, etc. can be used to disguise viruses or malware. Don’t open them or reply to the sender if they seem suspicious. Draft a new email to the person you think emailed you.

Spear phishing

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing is a type of phishing that requires more effort but also has a higher success rate. Phishing emails can be sent to thousands of people, while spear phishing targets individuals and small groups. They usually pretend to be a specific person you trust or, in a work environment, report to.

For this social engineering attack to work, hackers need to do some research about their victim(s) and use that information against them. Social media is a gold mine for this task. Hackers can gather almost any information, i.e., email address, the brands you trust and follow, your friends, etc. Once the research is done, the hacker will email the victim with a realistic pretext to get more information.

For example, on an individual level, hackers might pretend to be your best friend and ask for access to your Facebook account. On a business level, they could pretend to be a CEO of a company you work for and request to immediately transfer funds for a “new project.”

Spear-phishing attacks are difficult but not impossible to recognize. To protect yourself:

  • Check the source of the email.
  • Ask yourself whether it sounds like a normal request.
  • If it sounds suspicious, do not reply to the email and contact the person directly. Do this by sending them a separate email, giving them a call, or waiting to speak to them directly.



Vishing is yet another type of phishing. These scammers will pretend to be contacting you from a trustworthy organization using an old-fashioned route – the phone. First, they will spoof their phone number to impersonate you or a company you trust. Such hackers might use pre-recorded voice messages, text messages, or voice-to-text synthesizers to mask their identities. Others will even use humans from scam call centers to make the attack more convincing.

Vishing hackers will use a compelling pretext, such as suspicious activity on your bank account, overpaid/underpaid taxes, contest winnings, etc. Regardless of the technique or the pretext, their primary goal is to get your sensitive information, which can then be used for other attacks or to steal your identity. Check out this great example:

To determine if the call you’re receiving is a vishing attempt, follow these tips:

  • Question the company and the reason of their phone call. Have you ever heard of this company or have you ever done any business with it?
  • Are they offering unrealistic financial gains from contests you’ve never entered or are they offering to help you with debt you’ve never heard of?
  • Are they using hostile language to pressure you to give up your personal information?

All of these are warning signs of vishing.



Pretexting is a social engineering attack that can also be compared to phishing as it also uses a catchy and exciting pretext. However, if phishing is based on fear and urgency, then pretexting is the opposite – it’s based on trust and rapport.

Pretexting requires a lot more research than other social engineering techniques. These cybercriminals will pretend to be your friend or your colleague. They won’t just lie, they’ll come up with a whole scenario to fool you that might include fake personalities, product images and even industry lingo. In a company environment, these hackers will work they way up and won’t stop with a single attack. Their goal is usually to get information from someone at a certain level of seniority.

It’s difficult to spot such a scammer due to the amount of research and effort they put into the creation of their fake persona. However, if someone seems to be too friendly and asks for data you shouldn’t be sharing with anyone, don’t be afraid to question them.



Catfishing is when scammers create fake social media profiles by using other people’s photos, videos and even their personal information. These fake identities are usually used to cyberbully or seek attention (as well as romantic relationships). Sometimes, they can also be used to extract money or the victim’s personal details, which later could be used in another attack or to steal their identity.

If you’ve made an online friend who is extremely nice but constantly finds excuses to not meet in person or to share information about themselves, it’s very likely that you’re being catfished. Here are some warning signs:

  • Pity stories and requests to donate money;
  • Strange excuses such as why their webcam or phone doesn’t work;
  • Excuses not to meet up or last minute cancellations due to personal emergencies;
  • Offering to meet somewhere private rather than in a public place.



This social engineering attack uses bait to persuade you to do something that allows the hacker to infect your computer with malware and therefore get your personal details. Many social engineers use USBs as bait, leaving them in offices or parking lots with labels like ‘Executives’ Salaries 2019 Q4’. People who find them are tempted by curiosity and insert them into a computer. The virus hidden within quickly spreads to their device.

However, the use of USBs is decreasing, so baiting is now mainly used on P2P websites. Social engineers create false mirroring sites, and while someone might think they are downloading a movie, they’ll actually be downloading a virus. You’re always at risk downloading any files from an untrusted source, but to avoid being hacked, you can take precautions such as always double check the type of file you are getting or having an up to date antivirus.

Quid pro quo

Quid Pro Quo

A quid pro quo attack happens when a scammer offers you a service in exchange for your personal information. A few years ago, quid pro quo attacks consisted of emails telling you that a Nigerian Prince has died and you inherited all his money. All you needed to do was provide them with your bank details or send them a small “handling fee” so they could transfer you the money. Even though such attacks now sound humorous, quid pro quo attacks are still relevant today.

The most common quid pro quo attacks these days happen when hackers pretend to be IT support specialists. The victim usually has a minor problem with a device, or it needs a software update, so they don’t question the caller. The impersonator tells them that they need to access their computer to fix the problem. Once they gain access, they install malicious software or steal other sensitive information.

Contact spamming

Contact spamming

Contact spamming is the oldest trick in the book. A cybercriminal who uses this technique will hack into your email or your social media account and reach out to your friends with a message such as “I’ve seen this amazing video, check it out!”

Unfortunately, we tend to trust messages that seem to come from our close friends. But if you click on this link you will end up infecting your device with malware. What’s even worse is that once these viruses spread to your device, they can spread the same message to your contacts, too.

How to protect yourself

  1. Learn about different types of social engineering attacks. If you know what to expect, it will be easier to avoid the trap. If you run a company or manage a team, it’s essential to educate your team about such attacks too.
  2. Be vigilant. Double check the identity of whoever you’re communicating with, especially if it’s an email, text or call you weren’t expecting. Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  3. Keep an eye out for mistakes. Legitimate businesses tend to triple-check their content before sending it out. Hackers, on the other hand, leave countless grammatical and spelling errors.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you think someone is trying to scam you over the phone, feel free to question their friendliness or their authority. Most importantly, listen for answers that don’t match their story.
  5. Practise good internet behavior.
  6. Limit the information you share online. Leaving easily accessible data can help someone gather information about you and use it for social engineering attacks.
  7. Take care of your software – install regular updates, invest in a good antivirus, install spam filters, and use browser extensions.
  8. Use a VPN. A VPN will help mask your identity and prevent would-be hackers from intercepting your communications, especially on public Wi-Fi. NordVPN’s Cybersec feature will also help prevent you from visiting scammers’ websites.

Secure your data by using NordVPN. Try it risk-free with a 30-day money-back guarantee!

Emily Green
Emily Green successVerified author

Emily Green is a content writer who loves to investigate the latest internet privacy and security news. She thrives on looking for solutions to problems and sharing her knowledge with NordVPN readers and customers.

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