The Complete Guide to Social Engineering Attacks


Social engineering attacks are some of the most common threats that exist within networks.

Whether that is a personal network at home or within your organisation, it’s important to be aware of how these attacks can threaten data and privacy.

Rather than relying on weaknesses or vulnerabilities in networks, these attacks rely on human error, as hackers lure victims into clicking on links and downloads filled with viruses, or inputting credentials that can then be stolen.

Therefore, social engineering attacks can often be difficult to pinpoint, as it involves the targets of these attacks investigating and assessing each message they get to ensure they are safe and without risk.

In this post, we will be outlining how social engineering attacks occur, the most common examples and techniques, and how to prevent them with your organisation.

What Is A Social Engineering Attack?

Social engineering attacks come in many forms and put simply they are a broad range of malicious activities that require human interaction to be carried out successfully.

Cyber threat actors often use psychological manipulation to trick users into making mistakes or giving away information that is private and confidential.

These attacks can usually be conducted in a minimal number of steps, sometimes taking hackers only one step to gain the information they’re looking for.

Firstly, criminals detect their targets and find out more information about their online behavior and their networks, such as weak security, or possible entry points.

Then attackers move closer to the victim to gain their trust. They do this by creating the right environment or online persona that leads targets to believe they are trustworthy sources, as criminals often pose as colleagues, acquaintances, or other companies.

Hence why these types of attacks rely heavily on human error, as users can often be easily led or fooled into thinking they are communicating with someone they know, and accidentally give information away.

This is an advantage for hackers conducting this type of attack as mistakes made by users are far more difficult to trace back, and often cyber criminals can easily conduct these attacks and exit smoothly and without being recognised or discovered.

We have explained this process in simpler terms below using the social engineering life cycle framework, to help you better understand how these attacks occur over time.

magnifying glass on keyboard

Social Engineering Life Cycle

There are four main overarching stages when it comes to a social engineering attack: investigation, hook, play, and exit.

Each stage allows hackers to become either more acquainted with their target, or learn more about their online habits, for example, the websites they visit, their workplace, and how often human error is an issue for them online.

The stages below help to outline exactly what happens during every step of a social engineering attack.

Investigation: Preparing Ground for Attack

  1. The hacker will identify the victim
  2. The hacker will then begin to gather background information
  3. Then before the next stage, they must select their methods of attack

Hook: Deceiving Victim

  1. To start stage two, the attacker will begin engaging the target
  2. Then they will spin a believable story and keep the target engaged
  3. Finally, once the target is engaged the attacker can begin to take control of the interaction between the two users

Play: Obtaining Information

  1. To obtain the information from the victim, the attacker will expand their foothold to establish their position
  2. Then the attack will be executed and this will disrupt the workings of a business

Exit: Closing the Interaction

  1. To ensure no evidence of the hacker’s presence is left over, at this stage, they will remove traces of malware and cover their tracks
  2. This then brings the social engineering attack process to an end

Most social engineering attacks generally follow this same process, however, some techniques may differ depending on the attack’s motive or method used.

person with red numbers on their face

Social Engineering Attack Examples and Techniques

As social engineering attacks involve human interaction and actions online, they can come in many different forms.

They can occur physically or virtually, however, for this post, we will be focusing on the attacks that occur online only.

Below are some of the most common forms of social engineering attacks to look out for to be prepared for the event of any attack.


Phishing is the most common form of social engineering attack as it involves scamming targets through false email addresses with malicious links.

Cybercriminals will usually request that users input their credentials into a login page or financial information once they have clicked on the fake link. Then it’s simple for these actors to steal this information without the users knowing.

However, Phishing can be split into more than one category with Spear Phishing, Angler Phishing and Whaling, all of which have slightly different tactics and targets.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing uses the same process as a regular Phishing attack, however, threat actors target specific organisations or individuals, rather than sending out emails to any target they can.

This may be due to the financial standing of an individual or the likelihood of the user inputting their details without suspicion.

Angler Phishing

Angler phishing uses social media platforms in place of sending emails, as threat actors will pose as customer service accounts to steal information from users.

More often than not this is credit card details linked to a recent order that’s been made so for the user it is presented as a trustworthy request.


Whaling uses the same process as Phishing and Spear phishing however these malicious actors target high-level organizations and businesses.

However, for Whaling attacks, hackers usually pose as other high-level members of the company to give the illusion of credibility and send emails to ‘colleagues’.

These emails often contain messages about emergencies or urgent messages that need immediate action to lure targets into making decisions quickly.

This results in users giving access to information and credentials over to these threat actors, thinking they are colleagues, leading to the leak of private and confidential information that only high-level team members have access to.

Watering Hole

This type of social engineering attack requires slightly more preparation and background research, as malicious actors will discover a website that is frequently used by their target to infect this site.

Then when the user inevitably visits this website, they will log in and the hacker can then steal these credentials and use them to breach the target’s network.

A series of code on a computer screen


Baiting is a form of social engineering attack that coaxes users into sharing personal and sensitive information or credentials in exchange for a freebie.

This could be something of value for example a gift card, or a specific offer that is attractive to the victim, that is accessed by clicking on a link.

Then a login page loads, which is usually fake, and users input their details which are then sent to the cybercriminal on the other end of the attack.


Scareware is a social engineering attack that shocks victims into making decisions quickly, leaving them with little time to think about whether to trust the software or what they’re being asked to complete.

Cyber threat actors will insert malicious codes into a webpage causing pop-ups to flash upon the target’s screen that is brightly coloured and accompanied by the sound of an alarm.

These windows will alert users of a virus on their system and urge users to purchase and/or download a type of software to protect their data.

However, when users input their data, whether that be credentials or credit card information, cybercriminals will steal this data and most likely go on to install real viruses onto your device.


This type of social engineering attack is slightly more complicated and more sophisticated than other methods used online.

The malicious actor will create a pretext or fake scenario, for example requesting information and posing as a trusted user. This could be any type of credentials or personal information.

This type of social engineering attack equally doesn’t have to be online, it can occur in person as a criminal may act as a vendor or trusted contact to gain a victim’s trust and physically acquire personal information.

person typing on laptop

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Now that we have run through the most common social engineering attacks and the different techniques used to steal confidential information, personal data, and funds, we will explore how to prevent these attacks.

To prevent attacks such as these, it’s important to take your time and assess each situation to avoid acting quickly and losing data or allowing a virus onto your device.

Think Before You Click

Attackers can often use a sense of urgency or pressure to make you complete an action before checking the credibility of the source.

It is good practice to take a moment in the event of any social engineering attack and consider how trustworthy the source is, for example checking an email address, or considering who is asking for access or credentials and why.

The most reliable way to check if the email or message or alert is real and directly from the colleague or user is to contact them through another platform.

For example, you may be able to call or text them or use another messaging platform that is separate from the original method of communication. This way you can double-check whether they sent the original message, and prevent a scam.

Research The Source

This is particularly useful for any type of Phishing or Baiting attack, as you will be able to assess the email or message you receive before taking action.

For instance, if you received an email from another organisation while at work but you were unsure if the link or sender were trustworthy there are a few checks you can conduct before clicking.

Firstly, incorrect spelling and grammar are huge giveaways that emails and messages are most likely malicious, as a reputable organisation or sender would double check their emails to ensure professionalism.

Alongside this, it’s possible to check the information against the company’s website as most organisations have emails or contact information for members of their team.

Finally, hovering your cursor over the link will show a bar at the bottom of your screen displaying the URL you will be taken to if you click. Therefore, if this link doesn’t add up to the company’s website or the page they’re directing you to, the best course of action is to delete the email and block the sender.

Reject or Delete Requests for Information

If you receive an email requesting personal information such as banking and financial credentials, high-level access to company files, or log-in details for any account you own, it’s important to stay vigilant.

If this request is unsolicited and you haven’t been in contact with the person or company asking for your details it is likely a scam.

In this instance, it is good practice to reject or delete requests for your personal information as if the email or message is trustworthy the company will contact you another way such as via phone or an in-person meeting.

Organizations that have access to your private and confidential data will always have security measures in place such as PINs, security questions, or voice recognition to keep your data protected and out of reach.

Secure Your Devices

For all cyber security attacks, it’s important to install antivirus software and keep it regularly updated.

This may be a complete antivirus package, a VPN, a firewall or more specific software such as email filters, based on your network’s security goals.

Whichever antivirus software works best for your organisation, it’s important to keep in mind that it will need to be updated and it is recommended to still steer clear of unsecure websites and networks.

The Complete Guide to Social Engineering Attacks

When it comes to social engineering attacks it’s important to be mindful of the risks that they can present.

As we have covered in this post, these attacks come in various forms and hackers use different techniques to trick users into revealing information and avoid being caught.

However, there are several measures you can put in place to ensure the safety of your company data and members of your team.

At TLR we have a range of services to help you keep your network secure ranging from vulnerability scanning to spot weakness in your network, to cyber security training that can help to prepare your team for every type of attack.

If you’re looking for some expert guidance on how to tackle cyber attacks then get in touch with our team today!

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Written by

Dave Roberts