Pretexting is a form of social engineering attack where an attacker invents a fake scenario or pretends to be someone else in order to trick a victim into divulging sensitive information. This type of scam relies on the attacker creating a good pretext, or believable fabricated story, that will fool their target into lowering their guard and providing private data. 

Pretexting is essentially a con game and is considered a major cybersecurity risk, especially for small businesses. In this post, we’ll break down exactly what pretexting is, what forms it can take, and how you can avoid becoming a victim of this sneaky scam.

What is a Pretexting Attack?

Pretexting involves some variation of impersonation

A pretexting attack involves an attacker contacting a victim while posing or pretending to be someone else in order to extract sensitive data. The attacker creates a false pretext or makes up a fake cover story to appear legitimate and gain the victim’s trust. 

Some examples of common pretexting scenarios include:

  • Impersonating an IT worker and claiming that your password needs to be reset for security purposes
  • Posing as a banker or financial institution employee who needs to “verify account information” 
  • Pretending to be a coworker in another department who needs data for a new project
  • Acting as a vendor or supplier requesting updated payment details

The key to a successful pretexting attack is creating a compelling and believable story that gives the attacker a seemingly valid reason for requesting sensitive data. This allows them to catch the victim off guard and trick them into handing over login credentials, bank account numbers, social security details, or other private information.

How Pretexting Works as a Social Engineering Tactic 

Pretexting relies on human manipulation

Pretexting is a form of social engineering because it relies on manipulating human psychology rather than directly hacking systems. Social engineering scams trick people instead of technology.

This is why developing a believable pretext is so important. A good pretext uses social engineering tactics to build trust, create urgency, and pressure the victim all at once. 

The attacker uses the following psychological tactics:

  • Authority – Impersonating someone in a position of authority like a manager
  • Intimidation – Pretending the request is essential or the victim will face consequences
  • Flattery – Buttering up the victim to gain trust and get them to lower defenses
  • Familiarity – Pretending to have an existing relationship with the victim
  • Vanity – Appealing to the victim’s vanity by requesting their “expert” help
  • Greed – Promising rewards or bonuses if the victim cooperates
  • Fear – Warning the victim something bad will happen if they don’t comply

This multi-pronged social engineering approach results in the victim feeling comfortable divulging information they normally would keep private. Humans tend to want to help others, comply with authority, avoid negative outcomes, and gain rewards. Pretexting exploits these psychological tendencies.

Types of Pretexting Scams

Phishing email

While the basic pretexting structure is the same, these social engineering scams can take many forms, including:

  • Phishing – Fraudulent emails pretending to be from a legitimate company to trick users into entering passwords or sensitive data on a fake site.
  • Vishing – Phone-based phishing scams use urgent pretexts like pretending to be tech support.
  • Smishing – Phishing via text message instead of email or voicemail.
  • Baiting – Leaving malware-loaded USB sticks or devices in public places with fabricated documents. When someone plugs it in, the malware installs.
  • Quid Pro Quo – Offering a benefit in exchange for private data, like an attacker posing as an HR rep offering a bonus for SSN and bank details.
  • Tailgating – Following an employee into a secured building under the pretext of having forgotten their access badge.
  • Piggybacking – A variation of tailgating where the attacker asks to be let in, claiming they’re late for a meeting or interview.
  • Romance scam – Developing an online relationship under false pretenses to eventually ask for money or sensitive data.

The common thread is the attacker inventing a fictional scenario and impersonating someone trustworthy, respectable, or authoritative to lower the victim’s defenses. Building rapport makes the victim more inclined to comply with requests without asking too many questions.

Real-World Examples of Pretexting Scams

Beware of fake agents such as FBI, IRS, Banks etc.

Some notorious real-world examples of pretexting scams include:

  • Fake FBI Warning Scam – Attackers send pop-up messages posing as the FBI claiming the user’s computer is locked due to illegal activity. To unlock it, they ask for payment via gift card.
  • Fake Bank Call Scam – Fraudsters call claiming there is suspicious activity on your account, pretending to be the bank’s fraud dept. They ask you to verify personal information to “secure the account.”
  • Fake IRS Call Scam – Scammers pose as IRS agents claiming you owe back taxes and demanding payment via gift cards to avoid arrest or other penalties. 
  • Tech Support Scam – Attackers call pretending to be Microsoft/Apple tech support, warning that your computer has a virus. They ask for remote access and steal data.
  • Charity Scam – Malicious callers solicit donations for fake charities and pressure/guilt victims into handing over credit card details for a donation. 

In all these examples, the attackers use urgency, authority, fear, or other psychological tactics to establish a cover story that allows them to steal sensitive data while posing as someone trustworthy.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Business from Pretexting 

Cybersecurity Awareness Training is an effective resource for safeguarding your business against scams like pretexting

Since pretexting relies on exploiting human psychology rather than software, your strongest defense is awareness and healthy skepticism. Here are some tips to avoid falling victim to pretexting:

  • Never give sensitive info to unsolicited contacts. Legitimate companies won’t surprise you by requesting your SSN or account passwords out of the blue.
  • Verify requests by contacting the company directly using official channels, not the contact info provided by the suspected scammer.
  • Watch for urgent demands, threats, unreasonable deadlines, or overly pushy contacts insisting on sensitive data. These are manipulation tactics.
  • Double-check email addresses and phone numbers – small typos indicate fraud.
  • Don’t open attachments or click links in unexpected or unsolicited messages to avoid malware.
  • Use up-to-date antivirus and email phishing filters.
  • Turn on two-factor authentication wherever possible. 
  • Avoid plugging in random USB devices which could be baiting attempts.
  • Keep software patched and updated to eliminate vulnerabilities.
  • Educate employees on spotting pretext warning signs using cybersecurity training. 

With vigilance and common sense, you can avoid having your private data stolen through pretexting. But as cybercriminals get more sophisticated, it pays to stay skeptical and alert. Implementing ongoing education and testing employees using simulations can help identify vulnerabilities before an actual attack.

Stay Safe Online by Spotting Pretexting Scams

Person using public Wi-Fi cautiously on a laptop

Pretexting is a dangerous form of social engineering because it exploits normal human tendencies to want to help, obey authority, and avoid negative repercussions. By establishing a plausible pretext, attackers put victims at ease which allows them to steal login credentials, financial information, and other sensitive data.

Stay cyber secure by being wary of any unsolicited contact demanding private information, no matter how convincing the story may seem. Verify every request and double-check where emails, calls, and messages originated from to protect yourself from these insidious pretexting scams designed to take advantage of unsuspecting victims.

With vigilance and security awareness training, you can keep your data safe from these fraudulent social engineering schemes.

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Q&A

The following are some variations of frequently asked questions around the topic of “What is Pretexting?”. We hope you found the answer you were looking for and also take some time to dive deeper into ways to strengthen your cyber awareness education!

Pretexting is a social engineering attack where scammers invent a scenario to impersonate someone trustworthy to deceive victims into revealing sensitive data.

A common pretexting example is a fraudster pretending to be tech support and calling victims claiming their computer has a virus in order to gain remote access.

Pretexting methods include phishing emails, phone vishing scams, smishing text messages, baiting with malware USBs, and romance scams to manipulate victims.

Pretexting is prevented through user awareness, verifying contact details, ignoring suspicious requests for private data, and implementing security controls like two-factor authentication.

Pretexting uses impersonation and made up scenarios while phishing relies on mass emails pretending to be a legitimate company to steal data.

No, eavesdropping involves secretly listening to private conversations rather than inventing a fake scenario to trick victims.

Pretexting means inventing a false context or scenario in order to manipulate someone into giving out sensitive information.

In business, pretexting refers to fraudsters impersonating employees to gain unauthorized access to private corporate data.

Pretext calling is a scam where attackers impersonate someone over the phone, like pretending to be a banker to get victims to reveal account numbers.

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