Trickery and Deception: Using Social Engineering

social engineering cyber wise guy

Social engineering involves manipulating people to get sensitive information or make them do things they wouldn’t normally do. Instead of using technical methods, like hacking, social engineers prey on human weaknesses.

They use different tricks to deceive people. Here are some common examples:

  • Phishing – Sending fake emails pretending to be a legitimate company to get login credentials or bank details. The emails urge users to click on links that install malware or direct them to fake sites to harvest information.
  • Pretexting – Making up a scenario like a customer service call to obtain private details from victims. Social engineers pretend to need certain info to verify accounts or reset passwords.
  • Baiting – Leaving infected USB sticks or devices in public places hoping victims will plug them into computers, allowing malware installation.
  • Quid Pro Quo – Offering a fake service or benefit in exchange for information, exploiting human inclination to reciprocate.
  • Tailgating – Following an employee into a restricted building area without proper authorization.
  • Impersonation – Pretending to be a figure of authority like an IT support person or police officer to gain compliance.

Social engineers are good at understanding people and using psychological tricks to take advantage of human behavior. They use people’s willingness to help, their obedience to authority, their fear of trouble, or their desire for rewards. A main tactic is to build a connection and gain trust to make people do what they want. Social engineering doesn’t need technical know-how, just clever manipulation.

Why Use Social Engineering in Pen Tests?

Penetration tests simulate real-world attacks to check an organization’s security. While they usually focus on technical weaknesses, many major data breaches involve social engineering. It’s important to test the human element to get a full picture.

Social engineering uses human psychology and trust to deceive people. Even those who are very security conscious can fall for tactics like phishing, pretexting, baiting, and tailgating. These methods can help attackers get sensitive information or access systems.

Including social engineering in pen tests helps organizations see how their staff might handle real social engineering attempts. The goal is to find weak spots and improve training to make the human defense stronger. Testing the human element with technical controls gives a better understanding of the risks.

Common Social Engineering Tactics

Social engineering uses different methods to trick people into sharing private information or giving access to systems. In penetration testing, some common tactics include:

Phishing Emails

Phishing is when scammers send fake emails that look real to trick people into downloading harmful software or sharing private information like passwords. They might pretend to be from IT departments, banks, or well-known services to see how many people fall for their tricks.


Pretexting is when someone makes up a situation to trick people over the phone. For instance, a person might pretend to be a tech support worker to persuade an employee to install remote access software. Or they might act like a new contractor to get access to a building.


Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo means giving a benefit in return for information. For instance, a tester may pretend to be from IT support and offer a software upgrade in return for login credentials to install it. This method takes advantage of a person’s desire for rewards.


Tailgating means following someone through a locked door to get in without permission. Testers check how often employees allow tailgating and make sure access rules are followed.

These tactics check the human side of security. By targeting common behaviors and using psychological tricks, testers find where regular training, rules, and technical controls are not enough. Responsibly using social engineering exposes weaknesses that technical checks might not catch.

Social engineering tests in a penetration test need to be carefully planned to make sure they are legal and ethical. The pen test rules should be clearly stated in a contract with the client beforehand. The client must give explicit permission for any social engineering tactics to be used.

During social engineering tests, the pen test team should never actually steal data, even if they are successful. The goal is to gain access or information through manipulation, not to steal real data. Any information gathered should be immediately destroyed after the testing is finished.

It’s important for pen testers to avoid breaking laws during social engineering tests. This means they should avoid things like computer fraud, wiretapping, pretending to be government employees, or making threats or blackmail. The testing scenarios should focus on manipulating human psychology and emotions, rather than threatening, intimidating, or causing harm.

Responsible disclosure is also important. All social engineering findings should be fully reported to the client after the pen test is finished. Recommendations for improving defenses against similar attempts should be given. The client might also want a security awareness training program to help employees recognize and prevent social engineering threats.

Developing Scenarios

When preparing for a social engineering penetration test, it’s crucial to create scenarios that match the client’s goals, relate to their organization, and mimic the actual threats they may encounter. The scenarios should range from basic tricks like fake emails to more intricate attacks.

It’s essential to simulate the types of social engineering used by real attackers to breach the organization. This involves considering current threat trends, such as business email schemes, along with common human weaknesses like curiosity, fear, and the desire to help.

The scenarios should mirror threats relevant to the client’s industry, business model, location, and other unique factors. For instance, a financial services company might prioritize testing for fraudulent wire transfer requests, while a tech company might focus on intellectual property theft.

The scenarios shouldn’t be too obvious or too unrealistic. The aim is to find a balance between scenarios employees might believe and those that are too far-fetched. This helps pinpoint where the organization needs training.

Running social engineering tests that imitate real-world attacks, customized to the client’s environment and concerns, generates valuable insights for identifying and fixing vulnerabilities. This allows the client to enhance their defenses against social engineering threats specific to their organization.

Executing Tests

Once you have the social engineering scenarios and pretexts ready, it’s time to carry out the tests. This stage needs careful and precise handling to get useful results while keeping risks low.

Choose your targets wisely, only focusing on authorized individuals who have agreed to take part in the tests. The pretexts should be believable enough to work, but not overly manipulative or deceitful. Always remember the ethical principle of doing no harm.

Each test should be documented thoroughly, noting down all the steps, information collected, and results. Detailed notes help in analyzing what worked, what didn’t, and why. Audio and video recordings, with proper consent, can also be useful.

During the tests, penetration testers should avoid breaking laws or obtaining sensitive personal information that is not related to the authorized testing objectives. The tests should end once the desired data is obtained or no further progress can be made.

Comprehensive documentation gives auditors evidence that agreed rules have been followed. It also helps in analyzing how to improve security defenses based on the lessons learned from the testing. Responsible social engineering involves getting actionable results without compromising trust and goodwill within the organization, among the staff, and with clients.

Analyzing Outcomes

After doing different social tests, it’s important to study the results to find weaknesses and suggest improvements. Some important things to study are:

  • Employee response rates – Look at the overall percentage of employees that responded or engaged with the various social engineering attempts. A higher response rate indicates a greater risk exposure overall. Break down response rates by department or job function to see if certain teams are more susceptible than others.
  • Vulnerabilities identified – Document which types of social engineering tests were most effective in breaching security. For example, phishing emails may have been more successful than phone pretexting. Identify if certain employee behaviors created vulnerabilities, like sharing passwords or clicking malicious links.
  • Recommendations for improvement – Based on the vulnerabilities identified, provide tangible recommendations on how to improve security awareness and training. Suggest periodic simulated social engineering attempts to test employees over time. Advise strengthening password policies and practices. Recommend implementing technical controls like email filtering to complement employee education.

Analyzing social engineering testing results is important because it helps identify risks, shape training, and strengthen measures to prevent attacks. It’s crucial to disclose responsibly and follow through.

Reporting Findings

The reporting phase is very important for making sure the social engineering pen test is successful. The report needs to clearly show all the findings and give practical suggestions for improving security awareness and controls.

At the very least, the report should have:

  • Quantified results: This includes the percentage of staff that clicked malicious links, downloaded untrusted attachments, or disclosed sensitive information during the test. Metrics should be categorized by department, job role, or other relevant segments.
  • Areas for training: The report should highlight areas where additional security awareness training is needed. For example, if the test revealed that customer service reps are especially vulnerable to phishing attacks, customized training could be developed for that department.
  • Suggested controls: Based on the findings, the report should provide practical recommendations for reducing risk. This may include technical controls like email security tools, as well as policy changes like stronger password requirements.

The report is most valuable when the findings are linked to practical next steps that clearly connect to the weaknesses found during testing. Success means not only finding weaknesses but also providing a plan for stakeholders to improve their defenses over time.

Improving Defense Against Social Engineering

Social engineering heavily depends on people making mistakes and not being aware. Organizations can do many things to better protect themselves from social engineering and lower the risks.

  • Security Awareness Training – Ongoing security awareness training is crucial for employees at all levels. Training should focus on helping employees identify different manipulation techniques, phishing methods, pretexting scenarios and other social engineering tactics. Employees should know how to spot red flags and understand reporting procedures.
  • Simulation Exercises – Running mock social engineering attempts against the organization provides valuable hands-on education. Simulated phishing emails, phone scams and other tests prepare employees to detect and respond appropriately. Useful feedback can identify areas needing improvement.
  • Policies and Controls – Organizations need security policies that specifically address social engineering risks. Policies should outline expectations, limitations and consequences around information disclosure. Technical controls like email filtering, endpoint monitoring and network access restrictions also help mitigate social engineering threats.

Improving how people defend themselves by training, testing, and enforcing rules is important for making an organization less likely to be tricked by social engineering. Knowing how attackers work can help stop manipulation and protect information.

The Importance of Responsible Testing

Social engineering tests must always be conducted ethically and legally to minimize risks to individuals and organizations. Companies hiring penetration testers or conducting internal tests should ensure that proper protocols are followed.

It is crucial that testing scenarios are carefully designed to avoid any real theft, damage, or harm. Testers must not access or affect any sensitive user data. Any physical or digital items obtained during a test should be promptly returned.

Organizations and testers should adhere to industry ethical standards and principles. This includes obtaining full written consent from all parties involved, disclosing methods upfront, and allowing participants to opt-out at any time.

Testing activities should comply with all relevant laws regarding privacy, data protection, hacking, fraud, and impersonation. The scenarios should be reviewed by local legal counsel. Companies must not use tests to retrieve legitimate private information or threaten participants.

Proper precautions, oversight, and responsibility help maximize the benefits of social engineering while minimizing adverse side effects. Responsible testing allows companies to improve defenses without compromising ethics or breaking laws.