Social Engineering Attacks: Recognising and Avoiding Common Tactics


As social engineering attacks grow increasingly common, it is important to be able to identify them and take steps towards defending yourself and your organisation.

This guide provides insights from the Aspire team on how to identify, prevent and respond to these attacks designed to access confidential information. Equip yourself with the necessary tools so that you can respond effectively should any of these cyber threats come knocking on your door!

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding and recognising social engineering attacks
  • Implementing security measures such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), antivirus software, and human risk management
  • Key resources for staying informed

Understanding Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks involve calculated manoeuvres that leverage psychological tactics, exploiting various techniques to manipulate individuals into revealing confidential data or engaging in activities that compromise security.

These attacks capitalise on human errors and are orchestrated by threat actors through methods such as phone calls, emails, and other forms of corporate communication to coerce victims into divulging sensitive information. To safeguard your organisation’s critical information and systems, it is imperative to address human-related risks and implement user-awareness training.

Focusing on human risk management allows organisations to address vulnerabilities linked to social engineering attacks. User-awareness training plays a crucial role in educating individuals to recognise and thwart potential threats. Despite effective defence protocols tailored to thwart malicious actors exploiting vulnerabilities arising from employee errors and deceptive tactics, identifying and blocking such exploitation attempts can be challenging due to the adept use of human psychology. This underscores the ongoing importance of proactive measures in defending against these manipulative tactics.


Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks represent a pervasive risk demanding heightened awareness from both organisations and their employees. Effectively mitigating these threats necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the intricate manipulation techniques employed by cybercriminals. This multifaceted approach encompasses various tactics, each demanding distinct countermeasures.

Phishing – stands as a ubiquitous social engineering tactic, leveraging deceptive emails, messages, or websites to trick individuals into divulging sensitive information. Cyber criminals often mimic trusted entities, employing urgent or enticing language to manipulate recipients. Recognising and resisting these fraudulent communications is paramount for individuals and organisations alike to protect against this pervasive threat.

Baiting – exploits human curiosity by offering something enticing, such as a free download or possibly a USB drive, containing malicious software. Unsuspecting individuals take the bait, unknowingly compromising their devices and sensitive information. This form of social engineering relies on exploiting human tendencies, emphasising the importance of cautious behaviour and cyber security awareness.

Whaling – targets high-profile individuals within an organisation, typically executives or decision-makers. Cyber criminals meticulously tailor their attacks to exploit their authority. By impersonating trusted figures, such as CEOs, whaling attacks aim to deceive targets into divulging confidential information or authorising fraudulent transactions.

Business Email Compromise (BEC) – involves attacks compromising legitimate email accounts within an organisation. This sophisticated form of social engineering enables cyber criminals to impersonate employees, executives, or vendors, manipulating communication channels to orchestrate financial fraud or to gain unauthorised access. Mitigating BEC risks requires robust authentication measures and user-awareness training to identify and mitigate these deceptive tactics.

Pretexting – is a social engineering technique that involves the creation of a fabricated scenario or pretext to deceive individuals and extract sensitive information. Cyber criminals cleverly weave false narratives to gain the trust of their targets, often posing as someone in authority or with a legitimate need for the information. This elaborate ruse can include fictitious identities, fake job roles, or feigned emergencies, all designed to manipulate victims into revealing confidential data. Vigilance, scepticism, and thorough verification of requests are crucial defences against pretexting.


Recognising Social Engineering Red Flags

Identifying Phishing Emails

Be aware of phishing emails, which are crafted to get you to give out your confidential information or install malicious software. These messages could be requesting passwords, banking or credit card details. You should never click on any links that come in the email nor provide personal data if asked.

Detecting Pretexting and Baiting Attacks

Knowing the signs of pretexting and baiting attacks is essential for protecting yourself from social engineering. Pretexting involves false excuses or temptations, while in a baiting attack, there may be offers like free downloads which contain malicious files. To identify these types of attacks you should look out for deception scenarios such as email phishing attempts, CEO impersonation tricks or manipulation tactics meant to acquire sensitive information. Physical media can also be used to bait victims into providing confidential details, through expensive prizes offered on malicious sites that appear too good to pass up. Awareness of any communication with an underlying motive helps prevent security breaches involving engineering techniques aimed at obtaining private data without consent.

Real-Life Examples of Social Engineering Attacks

Targeted Phishing Attack on DNC

One infamous example is the targeted phishing attack on the United States’ Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 Presidential election. Cyber criminals, suspected to be state-sponsored actors, sent deceptive emails to key DNC members impersonating trusted entities. The recipients unknowingly clicked on malicious links, leading to the compromise of sensitive emails and data. This incident highlighted the potency of phishing as a social engineering tactic with far-reaching consequences.

Business Email Compromise (BEC) at Facebook and Google

In arguably what is one of the most significant BEC scams to date, an attack against tech giants Facebook and Google resulted in over $100 million in collective losses. The elaborate scheme unfolded between 2013 and 2015, with fraudsters assuming the identity of a Taiwan-based hardware company that was a known partner of both companies. Their fraud involved setting up a company in Latvia impersonating the hardware company. Under the pretence of the trusted hardware provider, the group then sent false emails, invoices and contracts to the tech companies, duping Facebook and Google into unwittingly paying out millions of dollars over the course of several years.

Social engineering attacks inflict not only immediate financial harm but also lasting reputational damage on organisations. The aftermath of successful attacks often involves significant financial losses, like that of Ubiquiti. Beyond monetary repercussions, compromised trust and credibility can tarnish an organisation’s reputation. The fallout from these attacks extends beyond the balance sheet, affecting customer trust, investor confidence, and overall brand perception. Recognising the dual threat of financial and reputational consequences underscores the urgency for organisations to fortify their defences against the ever-evolving landscape of social engineering attacks.


Secure your organisation
from cyber security threats

Secure your organisation
from cyber security threats

Implementing Security Measures

Social engineering attacks can be combated through various security practices being applied at both a personal and organisational level. Individuals must ensure their devices have antivirus protection as well as endpoint defence systems to detect malicious messages or links connected with websites recorded in threat intelligence databases. Companies should adopt multi-factor authentication (MFA), continuously track essential networks, and apply advanced cloud web application firewalls for extra safety assurance of emails sent from sender identities that are recognised legitimate ones.

As part of the prevention process against social engineering assaults, employees need to be educated on potential dangers so they can recognise phishing simulations along with becoming aware how to avoid getting duped by false pretences over fraudulent emails.

All of these measures support preventing risks associated with such criminal activities and promote awareness.

Personal Security Practices

Having awareness of the latest social engineering techniques and actively practising cyber security habits is key to protecting yourself against potential attacks. Habits that can help protect sensitive information from being exposed include remaining vigilant in a digital space, engaging in security training, utilising strong account management protocols, implementing an effective cyber policy and safeguarding identity/financial data. Doing all these will effectively reduce the risks posed by social engineering threats, which could result in downloading malware or leakage of personal infomation.

Organisational Security Policies

Organisations can reduce the risk of social engineering attacks and protect their sensitive information by implementing certain security practices. These include: providing security awareness training, running phishing simulations to prevent pretexting, setting up email gateways for additional protection. Establishing good processes for monitoring activity on devices connected to networks, enforcing multi-factor authentication (MFA); conducting regular updates and patching operations plus cultivating a strong culture focused on safety measures around data. All these procedures will help companies take extra precautions when it comes to safeguarding against potential cyber threats like social engineering attacks.

Human Risk Management

When it comes to controlling human risk in the realm of social engineering, staff training is key. Companies must invest in conscious education and regular reinforcement to disrupt conditioned behaviour patterns amongst their employees and make them more aware of potential security threats. Having clear policies can also assist workers with understanding what they should do if such an attack were to occur.

Assessing how susceptible personnel are to these types of manipulations may be done through tactics like penetration testing, simulated phishing experiences as well as drilling response plans and monitoring activity for any malicious attempts at infiltration or control by social engineers alike. This offers a proactive approach instead of solely relying on reactive measures when dealing with risks caused by intentional acts from outside sources.

Overall, this method enables organisations to reduce both the likelihood that engineered attacks take place against them while minimising feasible damage should one actually materialise successfully.

8 Key Tips for Tackling Long-term Human Risk Management

  1. Make training short & engaging – Use short video training courses to engage staff.
  2. Cover the essentials –Be sure to cover key security topics.
  3. Train staff regularly – Monthly training keeps knowledge fresh in the mind.
  4. Avoid technical jargon – Many employees won’t understand industry terms.
  5. Replicate common phishing simulations –Test the scams they’re likely to face.
  6. Deploy quarterly phishing simulations – This helps monitor risks without overkill.
  7. Keep policies up-to-date – Review and update policies each year.
  8. Measure the impact – Track training performance and simulations over time.

Responding to Social Engineering Attacks

Effective reporting plays a pivotal role in responding to social engineering attacks. It is imperative that employees grasp the methodologies employed by criminals using these techniques and undergo training to identify potential threats. In case of suspicious activity, organisations should engage with local law enforcement, relevant authorities like the National Crime Agency (NCA), and leverage online reporting tools.

Equally significant is the proactive prevention of future incidents to uphold security against attackers employing engineering tactics. Organisations must foster a culture of vigilance regarding the sharing of personal data among their workforce and institute rigorous verification processes before acting on any request or clicking on links, especially in email campaigns.

All employees (including executives) should receive education on defence strategies and the necessary protective measures to be taken if targeted by phishing attempts. Cultivating a cyber-safe environment within business settings is essential for successful prevention efforts against advanced attack types, aligning with the evolving landscape of cyber security.


Resources for Staying Informed

Staying informed about the latest cyber security threats and social engineering tactics is crucial for users to fortify their defences. Here are some valuable resources that individuals can utilise:

  1. Cybersecurity News Websites: Keeping abreast of current events in the cybersecurity landscape is essential. Websites such as Cyberwire and Krebs on Security provide regular updates on emerging threats, security breaches, and insights into the world of cybercrime.
  2. Government Security Agencies: Government agencies often provide valuable resources and alerts. In the UK, individuals can refer to the National Cyber Security Centre for guidance, advisories, and best practices in maintaining online security.
  3. Threat Intelligence Feeds: Subscribing to threat intelligence feeds, such as those provided by IBM X-Force Exchange, allows users to receive real-time information about the latest threats and vulnerabilities.
  4. Events & Webinars: Engaging with cyber security events and webinars is a dynamic and insightful approach to staying well-informed about the latest threats and security best practices. At Aspire, we provide insightful Cyber Security Webinars, providing real-time analyses, case studies, and expert perspectives on cybersecurity incidents. Additionally, participating in events like our 2023 event Cyberfest offers a comprehensive experience, featuring live discussions, industry insights, and the chance to interact with cybersecurity professionals.

By regularly consulting these resources, users can enhance their awareness of potential risks and adopt proactive measures to mitigate the impact of social engineering attacks. Continuous learning and staying informed contribute significantly to individual and collective cyber security resilience.



Social engineering attacks are an ongoing danger to both people and organisations, taking advantage of human weaknesses for getting unauthorised access to sensitive data or systems. Staying informed on the different forms these types of social engineering assaults take can help in spotting signs that something might be suspicious as well as setting up necessary security steps. To best combat against such threats proactively, it is crucial to remain aware and prepared so you do not fall prey to them in future endeavours.


Aspire can help

Shine a light on your business’s current human risk areas and start building a security-savvy workforce with our fully managed HRM service.

We know that time, budget and simply just not knowing where to start are often the key blockers for launching a new internal process.

That’s why we’ve launched a low-cost and fully-managed Human Risk Management service that is quick to launch, non-disruptive and covers all of the key elements for driving secure user behaviour, including:

  • Engaging and bite-sized security awareness training programs.
  • Regular simulated phishing assessments.
  • Continuous dark web monitoring.
  • Essential policy implementation with trackable staff signatures.
  • Ongoing human risk scoring and regular summary reports.
  • Readily-made courses, phishing templates and policy documents.

Take a proactive stance and start tackling human cyber risk before a user-related data breach takes place.

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Avatar photoDaniel Brooks

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