Pretexting is a subtle yet potent threat, where personal and professional information is often just a few clicks away. With nearly 5 billion social media users globally, people will share everything from family vacations to workplace updates online. While that lets users stay digitally connected with others, it’s also an easy source of information for cybercriminals. By knowing personalized facts about a person or business, pretexters can create situations that feel far too real.
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What Is Pretexting?
Pretexting is a deceptive practice where an individual creates a fabricated scenario (or pretext) to obtain personal, sensitive, or confidential information. Often used in social engineering attacks, this technique involves a pretexter who pretends to need this information for a legitimate reason, thereby misleading the victim into sharing it. It’s commonly employed in identity theft, fraud, and information gathering, where the attacker aims to trick the victim into lowering their guard.
How Pretexting Makes Fake Situations Seem Real
The core of this cybercrime’s effectiveness lies in its ability to blend fiction with elements of reality, making a fake situation appear real. With so much personal and work data available online, pretexters can create convincing stories based on surprisingly little research of their targets. That could involve posing as a trusted figure, such as a bank employee, IT support personnel, or even a colleague. It may also include relevant jargon and referencing real events or people known to the target.
The challenge in identifying and countering pretexting lies in its exploitation of human nature. Around 74% of all data breaches involve some kind of human element. Pretexters often play on emotions like fear, urgency, or the desire to be helpful, making hiding ill intent easier. For example, they might create a scenario of an urgent security breach requiring immediate access to login credentials. This sense of urgency can lead people to bypass normal security protocols. Alternatively, they might gradually extract information over several interactions, building a relationship and trust with the target. Both approaches can be equally dangerous.
5 Examples of Pretexting
Pretexting can come in nearly any imaginable form. To better understand what that looks like, we’ll share five examples that have been used to target individuals and businesses.
Example 1: Impersonating IT Support
A classic pretexting scenario involves an attacker posing as an IT support technician. They might contact employees claiming an issue with their computer or network requires immediate attention. The pretexter asks for sensitive information, such as passwords or access to the employee’s computer, to resolve a non-existent technical problem.
Example 2: Fake Customer Surveys
In this approach, the cybercriminal pretends to conduct a customer satisfaction survey for a legitimate company. They ask a series of questions, slowly leading up to requests for personal details like account numbers or login credentials, supposedly to ‘verify the customer’s identity’ or offer a special reward for participating in the survey.
Example 3: Banking Scams
Here, the pretexter poses as a representative from the victim’s bank. They might claim that suspicious activity has been detected on the victim’s account, and urgent action is needed to secure it. The victim is then tricked into providing sensitive banking information to help resolve the issue.
Example 4: HR Policy Update Requests
An attacker posing as a human resources representative may contact employees about an ‘urgent update to HR policies’. They may request personal information, such as social security numbers or dates of birth, under the pretext of updating company records, exploiting the trust employees place in their HR departments.
Example 5: Repair Services Fraud
In this case, a pretexter might pose as a utility or repair service representative, claiming that an urgent issue needs to be addressed at the victim’s home or office. This scenario can be used to gain physical access to a location for theft or to solicit personal information from individuals under the guise of verifying their accounts for the service call.
Each of these examples showcases the deceptive nature of pretexting. They demonstrate how pretexters exploit trust and authority to manipulate their targets into divulging confidential information, emphasizing how people must be careful with sharing information.
User Targeting Makes Pretexters Hard To Defend Against
Many cyberattacks use broader strategies, sending out bulk attacks in many different ways without a specific target. It can come in many forms, like malware, QR code scams, spam emails, software exploits, and more. In contrast, the threat of pretexting lies in its personalized approach that targets specific users instead of devices or groups of people. Much like spear phishing, since pretexting attacks are customized to each of their targets, it can trick even the most cautious person.
For cybersecurity experts, it presents an especially difficult challenge. Pretexters attempt to bypass many standard security measures by contacting targets directly. That can be through phone calls, text messages, or even emails to personal accounts. As a result, behaviors that would otherwise be flagged as suspicious are completely ignored. That being said, attackers that use credentials stolen from pretexting attacks can still be discovered during the login process.
What You Share Online Can Be Used Against Others
When we share details about our daily lives, workplaces, or acquaintances, this information doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can be harvested and manipulated as part of a cyberattack. For example, a simple post about a work project or a team outing can provide a pretexter with enough context to fabricate a story or impersonate someone you know.
This isn’t just about personal data security; it’s about understanding the broader implications of our online footprint. The information we share can inadvertently arm cybercriminals with the means to craft more credible and targeted attacks against people we interact with. By adopting a mindful approach to what we post and share, we contribute to a safer digital ecosystem, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.
How To Defend Yourself Against Pretexting
Protecting yourself against pretexting requires a layered approach that blends awareness, proactive behavior, and the use of technology. Considering pretexting attacks have doubled in the past two years, it’s important to understand how to better protect yourself. Here are a few ways you can do that:
Stay Informed About Pretexting Tactics: Regularly update your knowledge about the latest pretexting methods and cybersecurity threats. That includes understanding the tricks used by pretexters and familiarizing yourself with the types of information they often target.
Recognize Red Flags: Be careful around urgent language, email address discrepancies, and out-of-character requests. Pretexters often create a sense of urgency, so the target makes hasty actions without thinking it through.
Exercise Caution with Links and Attachments: Avoid interacting with links or downloading attachments from unverified or suspicious sources. These could lead to malicious websites or install harmful software on your device.
Verify Identities Before Sharing Information: Always confirm the identity of anyone requesting sensitive details. If you receive an unusual request, use an independent and trusted method to verify the authenticity of the request, such as calling the official phone number of the organization they claim to represent.
Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) on all your accounts. That adds a security layer that requires a second verification form, such as a text message or an app notification, to access your account.
Report Suspicious Interactions: If you encounter a potential pretexting attempt, report it to the appropriate parties. This could be your workplace’s IT department, bank, or law enforcement agencies.
Be Wary of Unsolicited Requests: Treat unsolicited requests for sensitive information skeptically. Legitimate organizations typically have formal processes for information requests and are unlikely to ask for personal details via unsecured channels like email or phone.
By adopting these measures, you can significantly enhance your defense against pretexting. It’s about being proactive, questioning unexpected requests, and using technology to safeguard your personal and professional information.