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What is Pretexting? Types, Examples, & Prevention

by Chris Brook on Friday September 22, 2023

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Pretexting attacks come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Read this blog to familiarize yourself with the threat so you can keep members of your organization safe.

Pretexting is important for IT admins to understand as it helps them recognize and combat scams targeting individuals and companies. Perpetrators use various means of communication to deceive and gain access to sensitive financial accounts and private data.

Pretexting is a social engineering attack where cybercriminals deceive victims with fabricated scenarios to obtain valuable information for fraudulent purposes.

This article will give you a good understanding of what pretexting is all about and how you can keep it from catching members of your organization off guard.

In this article:

  • What is Pretexting?
  • Types of Pretexting Attacks
  • Best Practices for Staving Off Pretexting Attacks
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Pretexting?

Pretexting is a social engineering technique where attackers create a phony story, or "pretext," to deceive victims into providing valuable information or granting them access to something important. 

Bad actors often pose as authority figures or someone who can assist the victim when using this technique.

We’ll discuss the different ways that pretexting attacks can work below and give you a few tips to defend your organization more effectively.

Types of Pretexting Attacks

 woman on a computer with multiple screens

Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels

Pretexting attacks come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Where one attack hinges on having a connection within a given organization, another may center on reaching out to a key individual with a convincing story and an ulterior motive.

Here are a few types of pretexting attacks you should be aware of:

  • Piggybacking: Piggybacking occurs when an authorized person allows a threat actor to use their credentials, often by assisting them in gaining physical access to a restricted area based on a believable pretext.
  • Business Email Compromise: Business email compromise (BEC) is targeted social engineering where scammers impersonate company executives or associates, using urgent requests to trick victims into disclosing sensitive information or making fraudulent financial transactions. BEC is a highly costly cybercrime, resulting in major financial losses for many victims.
  • Impersonation: Impersonation involves imitating a trusted individual or institution, often by spoofing contact information, to gain credibility and deceive others. It can be seen in scams like SIM swaps, where attackers pose as victims to manipulate mobile operators and gain access to sensitive information.

For a bit more information about pretexting attacks, check out the following video:

Best Practices for Staving Off Pretexting Attacks

 digitized lock image

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Here are best practices for preventing pretexting attacks before they happen:

Have a Plan

Establish security protocols, policies, and procedures for handling sensitive information. Do not divulge sensitive information to unverified entities via email, phone, or text messages.

You cannot expect to defend against sophisticated pretexting attacks without first having a plan in place. In practice, this involves drafting detailed security protocols and organization-wide policies for accessing important information, handling mission-critical systems, and more.

Ensuring all personnel have access to documents covering these security procedures is also a must, which ties into our next tip for keeping pretexting attacks at bay — training personnel.

Train Employees to Recognize Threats

Without sufficient training, your employees are unlikely to know what constitutes an actual pretexting threat during day-to-day operations. Practical, hands-on simulations work well here.

Help your staff identify threats in real time by showcasing some of the techniques would-be attackers are known to use. You should also train employees to dispose of sensitive data correctly when it is no longer in use.

Dealing with pretexting attacks can be difficult for organizations with a large number of employees who have access to sensitive information and infrastructure.

Consider investing in appropriate training, as well as identifying the kinds of pretexting attacks your company is most vulnerable to, as a means of defending against these sophisticated threats.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the meaning of pretexting?

Pretexting is a type of deceptive technique often used by cybercriminals to gain access to sensitive information, steal money, or sabotage infrastructure. They do this by creating a phony story or "pretext" that fools their victims into cooperating with their requests.

Is pretexting the same as phishing?

Pretexting shares a number of traits with phishing as the two are often used for the same purposes. They can also use similar techniques, such as impersonation. However, they are actually two distinct types of attacks.

  • Phishing: Phishing attacks leverage misleading links and copycat landing pages alongside implied urgency to spur unwitting victims to share sensitive information.
  • Pretexting: In contrast, pretexting involves crafting a convincing story to get victims to comply with otherwise unreasonable demands.

What are the two main elements of pretexting?

Pretexting hinges on two key elements to convince victims that they should help attackers get their way. These are a plausible story or "pretext" and the character the attacker is playing (such as an executive).

Tags:  Social Engineering

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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