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One of the most common types of cybercrime is social engineering attacks. This method is often used because it targets one of your company’s most vulnerable spots: your employees. Humans are often a weak spot in your network’s security, so it’s important to understand social engineering and how to defend against it to avoid costly data breaches.

What Is Social Engineering and How Does It Work?

Social engineering is a psychological technique that targets the mind. Socially engineered cyber-attacks work because they involve developing a trusting relationship with the target, who is a fallible person. Typically, a social engineering attack involves the cybercriminal communicating with the target by pretending to be from a trusted source.

This can range from well-known brands to a person the target may know. Once the cybercriminal gains the target’s trust, the attacker will encourage the victim to give away sensitive information, download malware through an infected file, or take some other unsafe action.

Types of Social Engineers

Social engineering does not always have to be malicious, so it is helpful to know what types of people use this technique. The following are a few categories of people who use social engineering:


Within the category of hackers, there are three different types: black hat, grey hat, and white hat. A black hat hacker is what most people think of when they hear the word hacker. They are cyber criminals who have hostile intent and take illegal actions to access entities for which they do not have permission.

A grey-hat hacker illegally looks for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a system without approval or permission but typically reports these issues to the entity and sometimes requests a fee to fix them. White-hat hackers are security experts who are hired by an organization to test their network.

Penetration Testers

Penetration testers (also known as white-hat hackers) are professionals who test for vulnerabilities or unauthorized access to systems that a malicious attacker could exploit.

Discontented Employees

An unhappy employee, or even an ex-employee who still has access to corporate applications, could potentially steal physical or intellectual property or share sensitive or confidential information as a way to extort money from your organization. These employees already have access to your network and likely have relationships they can exploit to get further information if necessary.

Examples of Social Engineering

In addition to knowing the common actors, it is also important to know which techniques cybercriminals will typically use to access information. A few examples of social engineering include:


Helpdesk employees are one of the positions most vulnerable to a cyber-attack because their work is to assist others. An attacker can exploit this to receive sensitive information by calling from a spoofed, blocked, or private phone number.

Because providing support and being polite and friendly is in their job description, Helpdesk personnel can answer any question quite easily. As long as the attacker has done their basic research, they can likely get enough information off of your company’s website and social media to know what questions to ask to try to gain information.

Tech Support

An attacker can also use social engineering to impersonate a tech support worker, which can have devastating effects on a network because the attacker can have physical access to network computers. Physical access allows a person to compromise a computer in seconds, often by using a USB thumb drive with malware. These are small, easy to conceal, and can be loaded with different payloads depending on what task needs to be done.

Why Is Social Engineering Dangerous?

Social engineering is a particularly dangerous technique because the attacks can succeed if even one person is successfully fooled. A single victim can provide enough information to trigger an attack that can affect an entire organization.

How to Avoid Falling for Social Engineering

The best way to prevent a social engineering attack is to implement security awareness training that familiarizes your employees with the technique and the most common methods used by attackers. This should be a comprehensive program that is regularly updated to address general phishing threats and new targeted cyber threats.

Additionally, make sure key staff — including senior executives and anyone authorized to make financial transactions — are updated on the latest online fraud techniques. It is important both staff and executives are included because many successful fraud schemes involve lower-level staff who are fooled into believing an executive is making an urgent request that usually requires bypassing normal procedures and/or controls.

It is also important to review existing procedures and processes to determine whether additional controls are needed. Test your current security measures and reverse-engineer potential areas of vulnerability. Hiring professionals, like ATSG, to evaluate your weak spots and provide solutions for better protection.

Additionally, ATSG can help train your employees to spot and avoid social engineering techniques. The social engineering assessment will determine your company’s vulnerabilities and allow for the creation of a customized training plan.

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