What is pretexting?

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Pretexting definition

Through experience and awareness, modern users of computers and devices can usually spot common scams. People know to avoid fake emails, fraudulent texts, and malicious websites to preserve their security. They also know not to share their confidential email easily because cybersecurity companies, financial institutions, and government bodies are raising awareness about fraud.

In response, cybercriminals are upping their game by using social engineering attacks to trick their targets more easily. So, what is social engineering and how do hackers use it? In computing, social engineering refers to when cybercriminals leverage psychology to commit cybercrimes. In short, they manipulate emotions like anger, fear, love, lust, guilt, and greed to prevent their targets from thinking rationally.

An example of a social engineering attack is when a victim receives a fraudulent phone call from a threat actor pretending to be a government official, claiming that they owe taxes. The caller may play on the victim’s anxiety by saying that the police will arrest them unless they pay what’s owed immediately. These types of social engineering attacks are called vishing. Other kinds of social engineering methods include phishing, spear phishing, Trojan attacks, smishing, baiting, spoofing, and of course, pretexting.

So, what is a pretexting attack in cybersecurity?

Here is a brief pretexting definition: a pretexting attack is a type of social engineering attack where threat actors leverage a pretext to trick a target in order to commit a cybercrime. The pretext is usually a totally fictional scenario, and sometimes hackers chain pretexting with other types of attacks.

Common pretexting attacks examples

1. Romance Scam

A romance scam is a type of social engineering attack that manipulates feelings like love. Typically, the elderly are victims of such scams. Hackers target them because of their vulnerability. A scammer may pretend to be an online love interest in such a pretexting scam, taking weeks if not months to win the target’s confidence. Ultimately, they may ask for a large loan for an emergency, plane ticket, or a gift.

2. Grandparent Scam

In the grandparent scam, a threat actor will take time to gather intelligence on their target and their relatives. They may examine the target’s friends list on Facebook and look at the profiles commenting on public photos. Finally, they will create a fake profile with stolen information and media and approach a grandparent while pretending to be their grandchild, asking for money. The pretext may be trouble at school, a car accident, or some other type of emergency. Usually, the grandparent is sworn into secrecy so the scam can be repeated later until the victim or their family catches on. 

3. Cryptocurrency scam

Hackers are tricking people interested in investing in cryptocurrency with pretexting scams by pretending to be wealthy and experienced investors. After telling their targets tall tales of financial rewards, they convince them to “invest” in crypto with them. Once the scammers receive the money, they disappear.

4. Whaling attack

You may have read about whaling attacks, or whale phishing, in our Cybersecurity Basics section. Such hackers either pretend to be company leaders to target employees or directly target high-level players in an organization. Here, they may gain secret information or a sizable financial payment by using the pretext of a business deal.

5. Impersonation

Impersonation attacks are similar to whaling attacks, but the impersonator will pretend to be a friend, colleague, or unmet contractor rather than a high-level executive to avoid drawing attention. The hacker will use friendship as a pretext to gain access to company information, servers, and drop malware like ransomware or spyware. Neither the company nor the employee will realize there’s been a breach until too late. 

What is the difference between phishing and pretexting?

Although phishing and pretexting may seem very similar, phishing is an attack medium, while pretexting is an attack method. Phishing emails are fake emails that deceive recipients into downloading malicious attachments, visiting dangerous websites, or sharing confidential data. Phishing can also leverage pretexting though. For example, a highly targeted spear-phishing email may impersonate a target’s friend, relative, or employer.  

How to stop pretexting attacks

Some pretexting attacks are so sophisticated that there’s no guaranteed way to stop them. However, awareness campaigns like employee training can help. Email filters can also block certain phishing emails that utilize pretexting. Businesses should also have strong Endpoint Protection tools to protect computers and devices from scams, malicious downloads, ransomware, and exploits.

Pretexting Attack FAQ

A pretexting attack is a form of social engineering that involves fabricating a scenario to manipulate unsuspecting individuals into revealing sensitive information.

Spreading awareness on cybersecurity best practices helps keep your employees and organization safe from malware, pretexting, and other types of cyberattacks. Consider implementing an email filtering tool and enhancing your security stack with an endpoint security solution.

A frequent example of a pretexting attack involves a bad actor impersonating a C-suite executive or company leader to trick legitimate employees into divulging sensitive information.

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