Social Engineering Penetration Testing: What Is It and Why You Should Consider It


There are many ways for hackers to infiltrate your network and steal data. Cybercriminals are often masters of their craft, and their sophistication continues to improve. An old tactic they’ve used for decades, phishing, has an entirely new and very modern iteration—social engineering. Hackers use manipulation and trickery via phishing to get unsuspecting users to make security mistakes or divulge secret information.

Social engineering has become a critical tool for cybercriminals, who use people’s online presence to set traps. Given the rise in these incidents, your organization should consider social engineering penetration testing.

In this post, we’ll review the state of social engineering, how hackers use it to attack, how a pen test like this works, the benefits of conducting one, and more best practices.

What Is Social Engineering?

Social engineering can involve a lot of different malicious activities. The attack can be one or more steps, starting with the perpetrator identifying a victim or victims. Thus begins the investigation phase.


The hacker’s next move is to investigate these chosen targets. They’ll collect background information and analyze the potential for weak security protocols or unprotected endpoints. With what they gather, the perpetrators will select an attack method.


The next phase is about earning trust and seeming legitimate. Cybercriminals engage with the target and attempt deception. They begin with a story that could seem credible and ultimately want to take control of the interaction.


Social engineering depends on building some relationships over time. When culprits do this, they can expand their foothold on the victim. At this juncture, the attack happens, and a breach or disruption to business follows.


Once the hacker has what he wants, it’s time to exit the system. They remove the malware and cover their tracks. The exercise is over, and the cybercriminals have won the game.

Social engineering is a complex and compounding threat. It’s not dependent on technical or system vulnerabilities. Instead, its Achilles’ heel is human weakness. Those who carry this out want personal information primarily for financial gain. Other times, it’s part of a large-scale cyberattack that starts with getting people’s credentials.

Social engineering may also be a tactic for hacktivists to gain access to organizations or governments they deem hostile. Next, we’ll look at standard techniques in social engineering.

Common Social Engineering Techniques

So, how common is social engineering? It was the number one attack type in 2022, and organizations face over 700 of these annually. Hackers have been successful because they target people rather than technology. 90% of cyberattacks fall into this bucket. Here are the ways cybercriminals leverage social engineering to cause havoc.

  • Posing as a trusted and known brand: This involves someone masquerading as an organization and spoofing to appear as a company familiar to the target. It doesn’t seem odd that people receive emails from the entity and often follow instructions without questioning them. There are even kits that enable hackers to stage fake websites.
  • Impersonating a government agency: Most people fear or respect authority, and social engineering assailants use this to get people to break security protocols.
  • Using fear and urgency: Often, the attack creates a situation where victims must make fast and rash decisions or suffer some consequences. As a result, they become fearful and have lapses of judgment in making decisions.
  • Appealing to the human helpful nature: Hackers also like to pull heartstrings and take an approach that motivates the target to help. For example, they could imitate a friend or colleague who needs assistance, and many people fall for the scam in their pursuit of doing the right thing.

Cybercriminals carry out these techniques in several channels. Let’s look at social engineering attack types.

Types of Social Engineering Attacks

Hackers can use several avenues to launch their attacks. The most common is phishing, which has evolved over time.


Phishing can occur via email, text, messaging apps, or voice. Their messages can look very convincing—a big step forward from the days of misspellings and broken English. There are several subcategories of phishing:

  • Bulk phishing emails: These messages reach millions of people at a time and appear to come from a reputable institution like a bank. The content typically contains an error, and the message urges people to take specific steps to remedy it.
  • Spear phishing: This type of attack focuses on a specific target, typically someone who has access to data, funds, or other valuable information. The hackers craft messages based on their research to look like they’re coming from someone they know and trust.
  • Business email compromise (BEC): In BEC, a cybercriminal has compromised credentials and sends an email message from the authority figure’s actual email account, which makes it even more likely for people to respond.
  • Voice phishing: This scam uses phone calls to lay the trap of urgency and threats.
  • SMS phishing: Hackers use text as the channel in these scenarios.
  • Angler phishing: This is phishing via fake social media accounts that pretend to be accounts of a legitimate company’s customer service or support teams.


Baiting lures targets into unknowingly or unwillingly revealing sensitive information. It could also include a valuable offer accessible with a click, which then downloads malware. The Nigerian Prince scam is the best-known example. Modern interpretations remain problematic and may involve free games, music, or software downloads with malicious code.


In this situation, hackers construct a fake event and pose as the person who can rectify it for the victim. Most of the time, scammers claim the target was breached and offer to help them recover information or “fix” the problem.

With many available ways to attack and spin a web of lies that play on human emotions, your organization likely has defenses for these. You train your people to recognize phishing, have access control policies, and use spam filtering and secure email gateways. These are a great foundation, but you may not know all the vulnerabilities without a social engineering penetration test.

What Is a Social Engineering Penetration Test?

Penetration tests simulate the actions of hackers to evaluate your defenses and identify weaknesses. They are a critical part of any cybersecurity program. With a social engineering penetration test, you partner with ethical hackers, and they carry out common social engineering attacks to test your defenses.

These actions can include:

  • Using social engineering to infect a user’s computer
  • Sending out phishing emails to trick users into giving up confidential information
  • Voice phishing traps mislead users and prompt them to disclose sensitive data, like usernames and passwords.

In the penetration test, those performing it mimic how a cybercriminal would manipulate the human component. It’s one of the only ways to understand how susceptible your people are to becoming victims. Remember, social engineering is different from other types of cyberattacks. It’s all about how aware and astute your employees are, not your technology.

What Are the Benefits of Social Engineering Penetration Tests?

Instigating a penetration test via social engineering can have many positive benefits to improving your security posture. Here’s what you can gain.

  • Measure the effectiveness of your Security Awareness training: You invest in this for employees as part of compliance and security programs. You can evaluate if the training changed employee behavior with a pen test.
  • Get clarity on security policy adherence: In addition to training, you have security rules that your staff should follow. Pen testing can evaluate how well they are doing so (or not), and the findings can inform future training and policy.
  • Build a remediation plan: You’ll receive a comprehensive report from the pen test. Inside will be details about attacks launched and how successful they were. You’ll also receive remediation recommendations to strengthen your defenses against social engineering.
  • Attain a new perspective on security: Pen testing and proactive stances often focus on technology and processes. Social engineering is about people. Both sets of information can give you a better 360-degree view of security flaws. The report you receive highlights the tactics and what information they were able to collect. It’s a unique and transparent view of people’s real-time decisions under duress.

Social Engineering Penetration Testing Should Be Part of Your Cybersecurity Program

Social engineering penetration tests help you understand the often weak link of human behavior. You can discover what’s working and what needs improvement through simulated attacks. It’s valuable information that is not available through any other testing.

It would help if you incorporated it into your cybersecurity program, and we can help. Our expert social engineering pen testers are ready to engage and assess how security-minded your employees are. Schedule a chat with us to learn more about the service.

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