5 Social Engineering Tactics Hackers Use to Trick You Into an Attack

February 25, 2021

We’ve all been there: It’s your busiest time of day, and you’re multi-tasking like a champ. You quickly glance at a new email that has just hit your inbox — something about a password reset from the company administrator — and CLICK….oops.

Welcome to email phishing schemes in 2021.

Cybercriminals everywhere are devising increasingly underhanded and clever methods to fool employees and individuals into opening, clicking on, and downloading files from emails. These phishing schemes are executed in order to access valuable company data or to cause damage to an organization. Enterprises are well aware of the danger and many try to stay on top of the latest schemes by educating their employees about new phishing scams and the possibility of phishing.

So, with the proper education and training in place, how can these phishing schemes still be so successful?

The answer is simple: Hackers have figured out the easiest way to uncover sensitive company information using a method that does not involve exploiting technical flaws, or resorting to violence, threats, or personal contact. Instead, They simply utilize the basic tenets of social engineering that prey on human emotion. 

Let’s explore the top 5 social engineering tactics hackers use in phishing attacks to get their victims to click.

What Are Social Engineering Tactics?

Social engineering is designed to play on human emotions. Hackers will use psychological tricks in order to get unsuspecting victims to download a malicious file. Typically, social engineering cybersecurity tactics include an email created to make a targeted victim feel a sense of urgency, fear, or other strong emotion. These types of messages have been proven to cause the victim to unthinkingly carry out the desired action, which is often to click a malicious link or open an infected file. 

Humans have proven themselves — again and again — to be the weakest link in the cyber chain. As hard as enterprises try to prevent these phishing social engineering attacks, the human element will trump them every time: 90% of data breaches are caused by human error, according to TechRadar. It’s an unfortunate reality, but organizations must prepare their employees to face phishing attacks in any way, shape, or form they may come in. 

1. Social Engineering Psychology Plays on Your Fears 

The human sense of fear is activated when a victim believes something terrible will happen if they don’t act. The impending danger often seems so real that it entices the victim to respond. Cybercriminals have learned that phishing emails that cause panic or dread will result in the victim clicking to find out more. 

Consider this example: say an email claiming to come from a law firm about a court appearance comes with a “court notice” attached. Or, an email claiming to be from the IRS explaining that the victim owes back taxes or is being audited, with the document “details” attached. These two scenarios can easily entice victims to click out of fear. And then, before you know it, the victims who fall prey to the psychology behind these phishing attacks will click on these malicious links or download these files and end up downloading and installing malware on their systems.

2. Urgency is Low-Hanging Fruit

Email marketers have long known that creating a sense of urgency is one of the best ways to propel users into action. Words like “Act Now” or “Offer Ends Tonight” create a psychological reaction called FOMO: fear of missing out. Hackers have jumped on the urgency bandwagon as well, understanding that urgent messages will have victims act first and think later. 

For example, hackers use a business email compromise attack (BEC) where an attacker spoofs or hacks into a company email account and impersonates a “perceived authority”, such as a supervisor. This is all done in order to dupe victims into thinking a leader at their organization needs their help and that they must act quickly. The “boss” may send short, curt messages asking for a form to be filled out or a payment made right away. And who wants to make the boss mad by delaying? 

This is exactly why this social engineering tactic is one of the most common we see today. 

3. Money-Related Schemes Continue to Be Popular 

Money-related schemes are favorites of hackers because they know that most people are “greedy” by nature. Appealing to the victim’s desire for wealth or power is a proven hook of psychological manipulation.

Additionally, during times like now, where COVID-related layoffs are common, victims may be more likely to click on something that seems “too good to be true” due to desperation or anxiety. 

One example of this is an email from the IRS telling victims that their long-awaited refund checks are ready and directing them to open the attachment for instructions to receive their money. If the email is crafted carefully enough and looks, on the surface, to be official, many victims truly won’t know the difference. Another trick hackers try is sending a phony email from a bank alerting the company about a problem or letting them know that an interest payment has come in. The goal of this social engineering cybersecurity tactic is to trick the victim into entering their bank ID and password, which will land directly in the hands of the cybercriminal.

4. The Cybercriminal is in the Details 

Hackers lure victims with social engineering attack emails that include similar-looking logos or other elements designed to closely resemble a legitimate business. These emails are meant to focus victims’ attention elsewhere so they don’t pick up on small details that would give away the ruse. 

For example, phony FedEX or UPS shipping confirmation emails are especially difficult to tell apart from the real thing. Or a fake Dropbox password reset phishing email that drives unsuspecting users to “update their password” by clicking on a link. According to Wombat’s State of the Phish Report, the most effective password reset phishing email is the one that looks like it comes from your own IT department. This is why continuous education and training of your employees is strongly recommended, as these attacks will only become more and more sophisticated.

5. Forge a Personal Connection

The best way to convince a victim to drop their guard is by developing a sense of trust. Hackers may try to cultivate their own relationships with a target by creating fake social media profiles and connecting over time. They may ensnare a victim by sending phony job posts over LinkedIn or by sending bad links via Facebook Messaging. Or, they may take a shortcut by hijacking a legitimate conversation between two trusted parties. 

According to ZDNet, conversation hijacking occurs when hackers infiltrate email threads between two people, sending malicious content while making it seem like the person the victim was just talking to is the one sending messages back and forth. The social engineering psychology behind these attacks is especially strong, as they tend to hit closer to home with victims than other, workplace-based attempts. 

Achieve Complete Protection from Social Engineering Cybersecurity Tactics with Votiro 

Imagine a world where employees could click and download any email attachment they come across without thinking twice. Well, with Votiro’s Secure File Gateway, complete protection from malicious files — regardless of file source — is achievable.

Unlike detection-based security solutions that scan for suspicious elements and block some malicious files, Votiro’s revolutionary Positive Selection technology singles out only the safe elements of each file. This way, we can ensure every file that enters your organization is 100% clean, including email attachments and email files themselves — and ready to enter your network.

Ready to learn more about Votiro’s innovative approach to file security? Schedule a demo with us today to experience what 100% secure feels like. Or, if you’d like to speak with a member of our team, feel free to contact us today.