Social Engineering Attacks: Human is the Weakest Link

Social Engineering Attacks: Human is the Weakest Link


Social engineering attacks target the human element of security systems, exploiting psychological vulnerabilities to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information. According to Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), social engineering attacks accounted for 35% of all breaches, with 85% of those attacks being email-based (Verizon DBIR).

Types of Social Engineering Attacks


Phishing attacks are a prevalent form of cyber deception. They typically involve the use of deceptive emails that appear legitimate to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, or personal details. Cybercriminals often craft these emails to look like they come from trusted sources, such as banks or reputable organizations.


Pretexting is a cunning social engineering tactic where an attacker fabricates a scenario or pretext to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information. This form of manipulation often involves the creation of a false identity or story to gain the trust of the target, ultimately leading to the disclosure of sensitive data.


Tailgating, in the context of security, occurs when unauthorized individuals gain physical access to a restricted area by closely following authorized personnel. This technique relies on the assumption that the attacker can blend in with legitimate personnel or simply tailgate behind someone with authorized access.


Baiting is a social engineering attack that entices victims by offering something tempting, such as a free download or exclusive content. However, the bait typically contains malware or malicious code that infects the victim’s device once they take the offered bait. This technique preys on people’s curiosity and desire for free or exclusive items.

Understanding these social engineering techniques and being aware of the associated risks is crucial in safeguarding sensitive information and personal security.

Statistical Analysis

YearPhishing AttacksPretexting IncidentsTailgating BreachesFinancial Loss (USD)
201828,0005,6001,300$1.2 Billion
201932,5006,4001,500$1.5 Billion
202040,0008,0002,000$1.9 Billion
Social engineering attacks stats

Data Source: FBI Internet Crime Report

Psychological Triggers for Social Engineer Attacks


Authority is a powerful psychological principle that influences human behavior and decision-making. People tend to be more inclined to comply with requests or directives coming from authoritative figures or sources they perceive as experts. This tendency is deeply rooted in our upbringing and societal norms, where respect for authority figures is instilled from a young age.

In the context of social engineering and persuasion, malicious actors may exploit the authority principle by posing as figures of authority.

For example, they may impersonate law enforcement officers, IT personnel, or even high-ranking executives to gain trust and manipulate individuals into divulging sensitive information.


Scarcity is a psychological trigger that plays on the fear of missing out. When people perceive something as being in limited supply or availability, they tend to place a higher value on it and are more likely to take action to obtain it. This principle is often leveraged in marketing and sales to create a sense of urgency and drive consumer behavior.

In social engineering attacks, cybercriminals may use the scarcity principle by creating a false sense of urgency. For instance, they might claim that a limited-time offer is about to expire or that a highly sought-after item is running out of stock.

This urgency can lead individuals to make impulsive decisions, including clicking on malicious links or providing personal information.


Urgency is closely related to scarcity and involves creating a sense of time pressure. When people feel that they need to make a decision quickly, they are more likely to act without careful consideration. This vulnerability to rushed decisions makes individuals susceptible to manipulation and persuasion.

In social engineering tactics, urgency is a common tool to coerce individuals into taking actions they might otherwise avoid. Cyber attackers may send urgent messages claiming security breaches, impending account closures, or time-sensitive issues that require immediate attention. Victims, fearing negative consequences, are more likely to comply with the attacker’s demands hastily.

Understanding these psychological principles of authority, scarcity, and urgency is essential for recognizing and mitigating social engineering threats.

By being aware of how these principles can be exploited, individuals can better protect themselves from manipulation and make more informed decisions.

Case Studies

The Twitter Bitcoin Scam (2020)

In a major incident, attackers used spear-phishing to gain access to internal Twitter systems, compromising multiple high-profile accounts and scamming people into sending them Bitcoin (Twitter Blog).

Ubiquiti Networks Breach (2021)

An attacker used an employee’s credentials, obtained through social engineering, to gain access to Ubiquiti’s AWS infrastructure, exposing customer data (Brian Krebs).

Mitigation Strategies

  1. Education & Training: Periodic security awareness programs to inform employees about the risks and indicators of social engineering.
  2. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implementing MFA can provide an additional layer of security.
  3. Monitoring & Response: Constant monitoring of network traffic and quick response plans to mitigate attacks.

Future Trends in Social Engineering Attacks

  1. AI-Based Attacks: The use of machine learning algorithms to craft more effective social engineering campaigns.
  2. Voice Phishing: Enhanced voice synthesis technologies will make voice phishing more prevalent.


While technology plays a critical role in the cybersecurity landscape, the human factor remains the most significant vulnerability. Comprehensive mitigation strategies that focus on both technical and human-centric approaches are essential for combating social engineering attacks.


  1. Verizon 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report
  2. FBI Internet Crime Report
  3. Twitter Blog: Security Incident
  4. Brian Krebs: Ubiquiti Breach

By recognizing the primacy of human psychology in cybersecurity, we can adapt and evolve our security frameworks to better defend against social engineering attacks, which remain the bane of modern cybersecurity.

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