Social Engineering Attacks: The 4 Stage Lifecycle & Common Techniques

When it comes to high profile cybercrime incidents, it’s the major tech vulnerabilities and sophisticated state-sponsored threat vectors that make the headlines.

In reality, however, most of the cybercrime incidents exploit the human element as the weakest link in the cyberattack kill chain. These attacks use a mechanism of social engineering; statistics on this practice are alarming:

  • 98% of cyberattacks rely on social engineering.
  • An average business organization faces over 700 social engineering attacks annually.
  • 90% of data breach incidents target the human element to gain access to sensitive business information.
  • 83% of businesses in the U.S. have fallen prey to some form of phishing attack; 95% of successful network intrusions rely on spear phishing techniques and only half of employees are able to define this term correctly.
  • The average cost of a social engineering attack is around $130,000.

In this post, we will explore how cybercriminals use a variety of social engineering tactics and understand how to defend against a social engineering attack.

Defining social engineering attacks

A social engineering attack refers to cybercrime techniques that exploit the human element and use human interactions to gain unauthorized network and data access. We can categorize the human element in two ways:

  • Psychological manipulation
  • Human weakness

The goal of a psychological manipulation is to lead an unsuspecting user into performing an action that would facilitate a cyberattack. For instance, a phishing attack could trick an employee into downloading and installing a keylogger system onto his work machine. The keylogger would act as a spyware tool that collects login credentials to the corporate network and leaks this information to malicious parties without the knowledge of the victim.

Other forms of human weaknesses may involve the knowledge and consent of the victim — albeit manipulated psychologically by malicious parties. A victim could be tricked or incentivized to leak sensitive business information.

Social engineering attack lifecycle

How does this work? The social engineering attack lifecycle works in four clear stages:

  • Investigation. The initial stage where cybercriminals identify the victims, gather relevant background information and select appropriate attack strategies.
  • Hook. The bait: spinning a story and engaging with the victim. At this stage, the goal is to gain a strong foothold into the target systems. Examples include a phishing attack that tricks the victim into downloading and installing malware on their machine.
  • Play. Once malicious parties compromise the victim’s machine, they execute the attack further to disrupt the business network, access and leak sensitive business information or modify the systems that would help maintain network access over the long term.
  • Exit. Finally, the bad actors exit the network without leaving traces or arousing suspicion.

Techniques in social engineering attacks

How do cybercriminals convince unsuspecting employees to jeopardize information security — despite multiple layers of security defense in place?

The following techniques are common ways that social engineering attacks manipulate the human element.

Reverse social engineering

Cybercriminals trick users with relevant access privileges to contact perceivably seeking support and assistance. Malicious actors impersonate support agents and trick the victims into…

  • Handing over login credentials
  • Gaining remote access to target systems

Social/psychological attacks

Baiting and phishing victims into sharing sensitive details and login credentials on websites that impersonate legitimate websites such as online banking services. Another common approach is impersonating communications from a trusted party (a friend or colleague) that encourages the victim to download malicious files or click links.

Attack tools

Using data mining tools or a combination of social engineering activities that trick users into installing malware and keyloggers on their systems. This allows attackers to extract login credentials, user behavior and personal data stored on the machines and web browsers.

Communication channels

Various communication channels offer plenty of opportunity. For example: vulnerabilities in the network and internal communication tools allow hackers to impersonate a colleague. Or, using email domains that appear similar to their organization or other trusted source can trick victims into trusting the communications source.

Fear and authority

Giving the target a false sense of fear about the security of their machines and forcing them to install malware or allow remote access to implement a security patch. This often plays out in ransomware.

(How much time do you have before ransomware encrypts your system? Find out here.)

Identity exploration

Using data mining tools to extract relevant personally identifiable information shared on public forums online. By accessing this information, cybercriminals can narrow down their attack to the most vulnerable and valuable targets.


When tailgating, cybercriminals gain physical access to a location by compromising digital access codes or using personally identifiable information available online.

Water hole attacks

Compromising a trusted online source, injecting malware or compromising websites with expired security certificates. Trusting visitors are then tricked into sharing personal information with the compromised website or downloading malware on their local machines.

Stay vigilant against social engineering

So how do you protect against social engineering attacks? Most of the attacks are easily recognizable: look out for expired security certificates and fake domain names on the website. Read the email and communications text for language style, typos and grammatical errors.

If the communications from an apparently legitimate source is unexpectedly asking you to download file attachments, click on links or share login details, then it probably is a social engineering attack.

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Muhammad Raza
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Muhammad Raza

Muhammad Raza is a technology writer who specializes in cybersecurity, software development and machine learning and AI.