What Is Pretexting in Cyber Security? Definition, Attack Types & Prevention

What Is Pretexting in Cyber Security? Definition, Attack Types & Prevention

Have you ever received a call supposedly from your bank asking you to verify personal information? If so, you may have been targeted by pretexting, a sly form of social engineering attack that is on the rise. Pretexting refers to the practice of manipulating people into divulging confidential information under false pretenses. It often relies on spinning an elaborate backstory to win the victim’s trust.

This article will break down exactly what pretexting is, what are the most common techniques used by attackers, and provide recommendations on how both individuals and organizations can shore up their defenses. 

By the end, you’ll be equipped to pick up on the warning signs of a pretexting scam so you can slam the door on these scheming cybercriminals. We’ll also weave in real-world examples of infamous pretexting incidents so you can get your head around how attackers dream up and carry out these stings.

With cybercrime projected to cost $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, it pays to be savvy to all the crafty ways cybercriminals try to wiggle through backdoors and side gates. Let’s dive in so you can keep all your precious data under lock and key!

What Is Pretexting in Cyber Security?


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Pretexting is a form of social engineering attack where a cybercriminal pretends to be someone else in order to trick a victim into handing over private information. It relies on spinning a fictional backstory and appealing to human instincts like helpfulness, curiosity, or fear to get people to lower their guard and reveal things they normally wouldn’t.

Attackers carry out pretexting over the phone, via email, or through other communication channels. They flesh out an elaborate pretense and false identity to worm their way into a target’s circle of trust. For example, a fraudster may ring up posing as an IT support worker, IRS agent, or even a police officer requesting sensitive data. These sham personalities allow scammers to dress up their scams with an air of authority to better reel in unsuspecting prey.

Once they have people buying their act, pretexters leverage sly psychological tactics to coax out bank account numbers, passwords, or access to a system. After getting their hands on the goods, attackers make off to sell them or exploit them for financial gain or to sneak into company networks undetected.

Pretexting Attack Techniques

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Pretexters employ tactics ranging from elaborate ruses over the phone to highly customized phishing attempts in order to win a victim’s trust and exploit human vulnerabilities. Some of the most common pretexting techniques include business email compromise, baiting, scareware, phone-based attacks like vishing, and in-person methods such as tailgating or piggybacking. Understanding how these techniques work provides a critical starting point for shoring up defenses.


The emergence of two-factor authentication using SMS and phone verification aimed to clamp down on account takeovers. But crafty cybercriminals have found workarounds by way of SIM swapping scams to bypass these fences.

In a SIM swap attack, an imposter sets their sights on hijacking a target’s phone number as a springboard to raid their other accounts. They begin by gathering personal details about the victim either through public records or the dark web to convincingly pull off the charade.

Armed with a dossier of data points – a name, address, social security number, and more – the attacker then reaches out to the target’s mobile carrier posing as the victim. They spin a story about losing their device and urgently needing service transferred to a new SIM card that the hacker procured. Customer service reps, aiming to seamlessly address what seems to be a legitimate issue, swap the victim’s number onto a SIM belonging to the fraudster.

Once service ticks over, the pretexter has successfully snatched the victim’s phone number. They then trigger password reset links on the target’s other accounts – social media profiles, banks, crypto wallets – and take control by having the ensuing one-time codes routed directly to them. Some hackers specifically target crypto holders to liquidate funds before the victim even catches wind their number was hijacked.

By the time targets realize what transpired, accounts have been emptied and sold off, leaving them embroiled in an agonizing recovery process. SIM swap attacks highlight the pressing need for training staff to recognize and flag deceitful caller behavior. Enhancing identity verification procedures also helps companies prevent smooth-talking social engineers from pulling a fast one.


Tailgating attacks prey upon people’s willingness to do the polite or considerate thing without prying too hard on specifics. To pull it off, an attacker stakes out a facility entrance and waits to swoop in behind an employee who presents their access card or credential. The scammer slips in quickly on their coattails so that sensors pick up the valid badge going through first. Unless deliberately delayed to allow doors to shut, the fraudster glides right in with the employee none the wiser.

Once inside the gates, tailgaters can meander through the premises, scouting vulnerabilities or sensitive assets. Clever intruders will dress the part, too with a stolen uniform or counterfeited lanyard to better blend into the environment. When accosted, they concoct plausible stories on the spot to defuse suspicions about their presence there. Over time, the trespasser pieces together a layout of security cameras, system weak points, and other useful intelligence to feed back to their criminal network.


Piggybacking relies on actively tricking people to provide access rather than just sneaking through. Attackers ambush employees as they swipe into buildings and spin tales of woe – having lost ID badges or keycards, for instance. An appeal to sympathy causes soft-hearted staff to hold open doors for someone seemingly in distress or with hands too full to dig credentials out. Allowing piggybackers through this one-off becomes standard practice until real malicious actors cash in posing as hapless colleagues.

Regular security awareness campaigns in any organization help guard against these ploys to manipulate basic human inclinations. Detailed policies that require vigilant badging and forbidding access to anyone unrecognized also cut down on successful incursions. Technical controls add another layer, too – like rapid door closure times, turnstile gates, manned checkpoint oversight, and video surveillance audits after the fact. Securing facilities demands attending to behavioral weaknesses alongside physical measures.


Baiting schemes appeal to human curiosity and temptation for gain to trick victims into compromising device security. Attackers leave behind flash drives or other gadgets embedded with malware in public spaces, hoping victims will take the bait. They rely on the finder plugging the devices into computers to satisfy their inquisitiveness about the contents. Once inserted, the infected USB drives unleash viruses, worms, and spyware to crack open systems for data plunder or sabotage.

Online baiting works much the same but through rousing interest in too-good-to-be-true offers. Scammers plaster websites with eye-catching ads for hot ticket items, lucrative investment opportunities, or downloadable apps that profess to enhance gaming or social media experiences. When users click through to the links and input payment details or run the files, hackers swoop in to steal financials or plant malware for future access.

Baiters add legitimacy using convincing corporate branding and packaging that blends into the surrounding environment. Targets focused on their own tasks lower their defenses just enough for these tricks to work. Organizations thus need to drill staff to pin down and inspect out-of-place objects rather than tuning out surroundings. Users everywhere must also hover over links first and check extensions on unexpected email attachments to uncover red flags. A healthy dose of suspicion makes people less likely to take criminals’ bait hook, line, and sinker.   


Phishing also preys on gullibility but through electronic rather than physical means. Scammers masquerade as trusted contacts to convince marks to share passwords or bank information. Spoofed emails and texts impersonate everyone from management requesting sensitive files to family pleading for emergency money.

They often build off data from previous breaches and then customize messages to key targets. Once insiders open infected links or attachments, criminals slide through backdoors to siphon more data and contacts for broader phishing. Combining these social engineering tactics expands the hacker’s reach and brings down more victims through interlinked façades.

The most vital phishing defense is fostering a vigilant and questioning culture in teams. IT departments should also continuously update spam filters to block the latest scam permutations. But ultimately, capitalizing on human vulnerabilities makes social engineering attacks difficult to eliminate entirely. Awareness and caution provide the best insurance against these criminal ruses.

Vishing and Smishing

Vishing leverages the telephone channel to lend credibility to social engineering scams. Attackers place calls impersonating trusted entities like government agencies, banks, or tech support to hoodwink targets. Spoofed caller IDs showing real organizational numbers lower people’s guard further. Once on the line, crafty criminals weave elaborate fictions around needing personal data, bank account access, or remote control of devices to supposedly “fix issues”.

As targets get drawn into the narratives, slick vishers coax out login credentials, install malware enabling backdoor access, or convince victims to wire money abroad. By exploiting presumed telephone security and authority, these scammers worm their way into systems to siphon valuable data or assets.

Smishing works very similarly but through text messages instead of calls. Attackers masquerade as legitimate contacts by spoofing SMS sender IDs, too. Urgent-sounding texts plead for sensitive info, embed malicious links claiming to resolve account issues, or try convincing targets they owe money somewhere. Isolated users are more apt to fall for these scams as mobiles become prime communication channels.  

Whether over the phone or by text, these techniques bank on people, presuming credibility at first contact. Promoting blanket suspicion of unsolicited messages counters this. Users should avoid clicking links or downloading attachments in messages from even familiar IDs without first verifying them through secondary channels. Adding friction before divulging data bolsters defenses against slick social engineers.


Scareware badgers users with disruptive false warnings their devices face imminent threats. Popup messages and sites designed to mimic anti-virus software bombard visitors with alarming system infection claims. Providing targets believe the façades, criminals trick droves into downloading fake security programs harboring Trojans, spyware, and worms instead.

Once nestled into systems, the malware consolidates footholds to exfiltrate sensitive files for sale on shadowy forums. Variants may also lock down devices until users pay hefty ransoms, turning victims’ fears about data loss against them. These schemes bank on impersonation and intimidation, overriding critical judgment during moments of panic.

But arming users to pinpoint misrepresentations and stay calm in the face of suspected security events cuts through the deception. Backups and authentic protections also assure folks their data remains secured against any true threats.

How to Prevent Pretexting Attacks

Here are some methods to prevent pretexting attacks:

DMARC Locking Down Domain Spoofing

Email sits at the heart of most business operations, making inboxes prime targets for pretexters masquerading as trusted contacts. Tactics like precise domain spoofing in the FROM fields allow these impersonators to perfectly mimic legitimate accounts. DMARC emerged to clamp down on this by authenticating sender domains against published policies.

Administrators first add special DMARC records to their DNS registries, laying out strict email validation rules. Mail servers then stamp approve outbound messages with sender domains and other metadata. Upon arrival, recipient servers cross-check packages against the published DMARC policies. Failures to comply trigger customized actions from discarding suspicious emails to simply quarantining them for review.

Over time, stricter DMARC policies trained user to pinpoint spoofing red flags for their domains. But nimble attackers evolved techniques like display name and cousin domain spoofing to sidestep protections. DMARC also demands complex, continual maintenance as organizations add new domains and email providers. Shopping for robust platforms with embedded compliance helps consolidate these ongoing efforts.

AI Unraveling Spear Phishing Linguistic Fingerprints

Sophisticated hackers manage to emulate trusted display names and domains just closely enough to bypass DMARC and human detection. AI solutions provide another fence by profiling normalized communication patterns to spot subtle anomalies bad actors introduce. Running entire email bodies through Natural Language Processing unveils grammatical oddities and wording uncommon from typical senders.

Platforms track granular details around sender identities, network traffic flows, and phrasing in bodies over time. Advanced behavioral modeling reveals what abnormalities deserve greater scrutiny. Security teams no longer need to manually craft filters to track emerging fraud permutations either. The AI continually tunes detection rules on its own to capture spear phishing trends in their infancy before attacks mushroom out of control.

Isolating the outlying emails for further review allows organizations to cull spoofing attempts without overburdening staff with false positives. Combining these enhanced controls with user awareness fosters an environment where risks face multiple levels of intellectual assessment. This compounds the effort criminals must expend to carry out convincing social engineering ruses.

Fostering A Culture of Vigilance Through Training

Ultimately, even robust technological measures depend on humans making sound security decisions. Regular user training workshops thus help organizations inoculate their last line of defense. Interactive modules that detail real-world breach case studies ground the learning in relatable contexts.

Employees learn to scrutinize language, grammar, and sender information in communications claiming urgent assistance. Establishing healthy doubting reflexes bolsters human judgment before simply trusting unexpected messages.   

Formal policies remind staff they bear responsibility for validating unusual financial or data requests through secondary channels before acting. Clear procedures for elevating suspicious messages to dedicated security teams ensure concerning signs do not slip through the cracks. 

Embedding these experiential lessons fosters the kinds of continuously vigilant mindfulness essential to batting away whatever clever schemes hackers cook up next. People with their eyes wide open offer the last barrier preventing pretexting from opening up full organizational breach exposures.

Real-world Examples of Infamous Pretexting Incidents

Here are some real-world pretexting incidents:

The Infamous Hewlett-Packard Boardroom Spying Scandal

One of the most notorious corporate pretexting affairs involved tech giant Hewlett-Packard in 2006. Suspecting leaks about confidential strategy and mergers, executives hired private investigators to unmask the sources. These gumshoes turned to pretexting by impersonating board members and journalists to wheedle out their personal call records from telecom companies.

Posing as their targets, the PIs spun fabricated stories to customer service reps, claiming they urgently needed their own phone logs due to technical issues. With enough stolen personal details to appear credible, the impersonators obtained full call data on targets’ private communications. They pieced together connection maps illuminating discussions between directors and media figures.

The scandal erupted after the pretexting came to light through leaks itself. It culminated in multiple resignations at HP, including their chairman and ethics chief, whose efforts to conceal the deceit sank her credibility. The whole debacle underscored how even security-conscious firms can have blind spots around insider threats. It also demonstrated the extensive damage pretexting can unleash when weaponized to settle personal agendas rather than purely for financial theft.

Bogus Executive Orders Drain Ubiquiti Networks of Millions  

In 2015, an attacker targeted finance staff at tech firm Ubiquiti Networks by spoofing an executive’s email to siphon $46 million into overseas bank accounts. The fraudster monitored internal communications for weeks, learning executive names and projects mentioned. They then crafted a credible impersonation asking for payments tied to false confidential acquisitions in Europe and Asia.

Two senior officials usually needed to sign off wire transfers, but only one approved these requests, not suspecting duplicity. The attacker followed up these pretexting messages with pushy phone calls, further preventing staff from inspecting the deceit too closely before acting. The company only uncovered the breach after the fact through audit trails showing the fake domain and IP address origins.

The massive loss highlighted how even security-focused companies can have huge blind spots around social engineering threats. It underscored the pressing need for better staff education about verifying unusual financial orders and strengthened multi-factor authentication. Cyber insurance managed to recover 75% of the stolen cash, but the remainder still dealt the firm a staggering blow. The case remains a warning sign other enterprises still often ignore to their detriment.

Canadian University Gets Taken for Millions Over Fake Invoices

Pretexting scammers managed to siphon $11.8 million from Canada’s MacEwan University by posing as a construction contractor with falsified invoices. The fraud spanned nearly a decade, with the attacker posing as a vendor rep named Mike Monk whenever finance staff questioned odd charges. At some point, the schemer even roped in a local woman to actually play Monk’s wife on related phone calls further obscuring the scam.

University personnel continued directing millions in duplicate and inflated payments to the swindler’s account. The fraud only came to light after nearly ten years when new staff questioned these long-unexamined records. Like many ruses that persist for years, the scheme succeeded by targeting older mundane systems that changed little over time and relied almost entirely on human checks.

The epic breach highlighted the pressing need for better security automation around things like purchase orders, supplier management, and payment scrutiny. Letting such business-critical pillars ossify allows savvy, persistent attackers to slowly milk weaknesses without tripping any alarms. Regular audits and upgrades help guard against financial systems becoming outdated, blind spot-ridden liabilities over time.

These incidents underscore how the human element is often the weakest link when it comes to cyber security. That’s why employee awareness and vigilance are so vital to help organizations avoid falling victim to even well-crafted ruses.


Pretexting continues to threaten individuals and organizations by exploiting human inclinations to trust first and question later. Whether over the phone, email, or text, these social engineering techniques allow criminals to duplicate trusted identities and communications channels in increasingly convincing ways. Technological controls like DMARC and AI detection help uncover signs of deception, but people remain pivotal as the last line of scrutiny.

Regular end-user education that grounds lessons in real-world breach examples is thus indispensable. Promoting greater skepticism, enhanced verification procedures, and tighter financial controls also help organizations button up vulnerabilities. People well-versed in common tricks like business email compromise, SIM swapping, baiting, and scareware fare much better at spotting scams before they mature into hugely damaging incidents.

Combining technological guardrails with an alert and questioning culture offers the most robust defense for both companies and citizens. CCS Learning Academy provides immersive cybersecurity skills training for infosec newcomers and veterans alike to help more professionals join the frontlines. Courses like Certified Ethical Hacking expose participants to the latest attack techniques so they can advise organizations on shoring up defenses. Others, including CISSP and Security+, incorporate essential modules on social engineering risks to round out critical skill sets.


Q1: What is pretexting in cyber security?

Answer: Pretexting in cyber security is a social engineering technique where an attacker creates a fabricated scenario (pretext) to obtain personal, financial, or sensitive information from a victim. The attacker typically impersonates someone in authority or a trustworthy individual to deceive the victim into divulging confidential data.

Q2: How does pretexting differ from other social engineering attacks?

Answer: Unlike phishing, which often uses generic and broad messages, pretexting involves creating a believable and often elaborate story or scenario to specifically target an individual or organization. It requires more in-depth knowledge and preparation to convincingly impersonate a legitimate entity or individual.

Q3: What are common types of pretexting attacks?

Answer: Common types of pretexting attacks include posing as IT support to gain access to computer systems, impersonating a bank official to obtain account information, pretending to be a senior employee to access confidential company data, or acting as a government official to gather personal information.

Q4: How can individuals and organizations recognize pretexting attempts?

Answer: Recognizing pretexting attempts involves being skeptical of unsolicited requests for sensitive information, verifying the identity of the person making the request through independent means, being aware of unusual or overly complex requests, and educating employees about the signs of pretexting.

Q5: What are the consequences of falling victim to a pretexting attack?

Answer: The consequences can include financial loss, identity theft, unauthorized access to confidential or proprietary information, legal and compliance issues, and damage to an individual’s or organization’s reputation. In a corporate context, it can also lead to significant security breaches and data leaks.

Q6: Can pretexting be automated, or is it always a manual attack?

Answer: Pretexting is typically a manual attack because it often requires direct interaction and the ability to adapt the pretext based on the victim’s responses. However, some elements, like initial contact emails or messages, can be automated.

Q7: What measures can be taken to prevent pretexting attacks?

Answer: Preventive measures include thorough employee training on social engineering tactics, implementing strict verification processes for sensitive requests, using multi-factor authentication, maintaining robust security policies, and encouraging a culture of security awareness within the organization.

Q8: How should an organization respond to a suspected pretexting incident?

Answer: An organization should immediately investigate the incident, document all details, inform and educate employees about the specific pretexting attempt, and, if necessary, contact law enforcement. It’s also crucial to review and strengthen security protocols to prevent future incidents.

Q9: Are certain industries more vulnerable to pretexting attacks?

Answer: Industries that handle sensitive personal or financial information, such as banking, healthcare, legal, and government sectors, are often more vulnerable to pretexting attacks due to the valuable data they possess. However, any organization can be targeted, especially those with less robust security practices or training.

Q10: How can technology help in preventing pretexting attacks?

Technology can help by implementing advanced email filtering to detect and block suspicious communications, using caller ID verification tools, employing AI-based anomaly detection systems to flag unusual requests or activities, and ensuring secure communication channels within the organization.

Q11: Is it possible to completely eliminate the risk of pretexting?

Answer: Completely eliminating the risk of pretexting is challenging due to the human factor involved. However, the risk can be significantly reduced through continuous education, robust security practices, and vigilance by employees and individuals.