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How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Feb 29, 2024
A person using a laptop receives a security code on a cellphone.

How to Prevent Social Engineering Attacks

Modern cybercrimes involve a computing device, digital data, and a bad actor with a motive. This may conjure up images of hackers using their coding skills to exploit vulnerabilities in firewalls and other cybersecurity defenses. While this does indeed occur, not all successful cyber attacks start out this way. Some of the most effective cyber attacks use tactics that have more in common with old-school con games meant to dupe unsuspecting individuals in plain sight.

These cyber attacks, known as social engineering attacks, are becoming increasingly popular with cybercriminals. According to a 2023 Verizon investigative report, 74% of all data breaches involve a human element.

Social engineering attacks pose a unique threat to cybersecurity professionals, as defending against them requires changing human behavior. Figuring out how to prevent social engineering attacks can be more difficult than determining the best tactics to address other cybersecurity issues. Pursuing an advanced education in cybersecurity can help cybersecurity professionals gain a thorough understanding of how and why social engineering works to be able to develop effective preventive strategies. 

What Is Social Engineering, and Why Does It Work?

Social engineering attacks are cybercrimes that use psychological tactics to manipulate unsuspecting individuals into providing sensitive information or doing things they would not ordinarily do. The goal of social engineering attacks is to trick victims into lowering their guard and performing any of a wide range of unsafe actions. These actions include providing personal information, opening malicious attachments, and clicking on suspicious website links.

Typically, a social engineering episode begins with a cybercriminal posing as a representative from a reputable organization. In some cases, the cybercriminal may impersonate an individual the target knows. If the manipulation is successful, the criminal can exploit the vulnerability in any of a wide range of ways. Examples include installing malware in the victim’s computer that gathers sensitive data or ransomware that freezes the computer’s functionality until the criminal receives payment from the victim.

Social engineering attacks can be particularly effective because they target an individual rather than a system. All it takes to launch an attack that can disrupt an entire organization is to successfully fool one person. These attacks are becoming more sophisticated in their visual realism and execution, making them harder to detect than in the past.

Different Types of Social Engineering Cyber Attacks

To understand how to prevent social engineering attacks, cybersecurity professionals have to understand how the different attacks work. This can help them develop proactive prevention strategies to keep their organization’s workforce on guard. 

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks, the most common type of social engineering attacks, employ phony emails posing as legitimate messages from a reputable source. The goal of these attacks is to trick the email recipient into providing information that is valuable to the cybercriminal, which can be anything from credit card information to network passwords or other sensitive data.

Phishing attacks fall into certain categories including spear phishing attacks, which are targeted attacks focused on specific individuals instead of a large group of people, and whaling attacks, which go after a company’s C-suite executives. 

Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks are indirect social engineering attacks that compromise a website that is visited by a specific group of people. For example, cybercriminals seeking to exploit information within a specific industry might deploy malicious code within a frequently visited industry discussion board or conference site. This code can unwittingly direct visitors to an illegitimate website that has been specifically designed to infect visitors’ computers with malware.

USB Baiting

USB baiting preys on people’s curiosity. Cybercriminals strategically drop malware-infected USB sticks in specific places, with the hope that someone will see one of them, pick it up, and plug it into a corporate system to find out what it contains. The malware then inserts itself into the system.

Physical Social Engineering

Physical social engineering involves gaining information that can be used to infiltrate a system in person. These attacks can be as simple as a person watching over another person’s shoulder as they enter a password or rooting through someone’s trash to find confidential data. They can also be sophisticated, such as an individual posing as an information technology repair person who alleges they need to fix a system issue.

Social Engineering Prevention Tips

Strategies to mitigate the dangers of social engineering attacks differ from those used to prevent other types of cyber attacks because they involve training workers to be a proactive part of the process. Fortunately, there are several tactics cybersecurity professionals can use to prevent social engineering attacks.

Conduct Routine Training

The delivery, sophistication, and complexity of the tactics used in social engineering attacks are continuously changing. As such, cybersecurity professionals need to regularly conduct training sessions to educate the workforce on the latest tricks cybercriminals are using to manipulate individuals into falling for their schemes. These sessions should also coincide with refreshers on the importance of cybersecurity and the fundamental elements of social engineering protection, such as not opening suspicious attachments and double-checking web address URLs.

Establish Security Protocols

Cybersecurity professionals should create mandatory security policies that organically keep users one step ahead of social engineering tactics. These policies can include requiring regular password changes, implementing multifactor authentication, and installing anti-phishing email tools.

Implement Social Engineering Defense Tools

Cybersecurity professionals need to ensure security tools are implemented across their organizations. Some of these tools help prevent social engineering attacks, such as firewalls and anti-phishing email security software, while others are designed to minimize the damage in the event of a successful social engineering penetration, such as anti-malware software.

Build a Positive Culture Around Security

When an individual unwittingly initiates a cyber attack via their own error, they can be embarrassed or worried about any repercussions they may face. To mitigate this, cybersecurity professionals should work to build a company culture that encourages individuals to report successful social engineering attacks as quickly as possible without fear of being punished for their errors.

Create a Safe Cyber Environment

Humans make mistakes. Learning how to prevent social engineering attacks minimizes the chances of these mistakes leading to catastrophic breaches. By integrating preventive strategies into an overarching cybersecurity plan, cybersecurity professionals can help keep their organization’s systems safe.

The University of Tulsa’s online Master of Science in Cyber Security program teaches students the knowledge and skills they need to create these comprehensive strategies. Our 100% online program is designed to prepare you to lead teams in staying a step ahead of cybercriminals, all at a pace that fits your schedule. Find out how TU can prepare you for a rewarding career in a critical field.

Recommended Readings

The Benefits of Earning Cybersecurity Certification

Cybersecurity and AI: A Changing Landscape

The Importance of Cybersecurity Leadership


Cisco, What Is Social Engineering?

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks

Fortinet, “Watering Hole Attack”

IBM, “What Is Social Engineering?”

IT Governance, What Is Social Engineering? Examples and Prevention Tips

TechTarget, “What Is Cybercrime?”

Verizon, “2023 Data Breach Investigations Report: Frequency and Cost of Social Engineering Attacks Skyrocket”

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