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What Is Pretexting?

Pretexting is a strategy within social engineering where attackers fabricate scenarios to deceive individuals into divulging information or granting access to systems. This tactic, often initiated through email or personal interaction, sets the stage for future social engineering attacks.

Social engineering involves hackers assuming the identity of trusted individuals, like colleagues or delivery personnel, to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or systems. Pretexting typically involves crafting convincing narratives, supported by authentic-looking formats and language, whether through email or face-to-face interaction. This method aims to establish a foothold for subsequent network infiltration or data theft attempts.

During pretexting attacks, perpetrators employ persuasive storytelling, utilizing genuine-seeming message layouts, logos, and language, whether in digital or real-world scenarios. This technique circumvents security measures like DMARC, designed to prevent email address spoofing, thus enhancing the likelihood of successful future breaches.

What Is Pretexting

What Is the Difference Between Pretexting and Phishing?


The main distinction between pretexting and phishing lies in their execution: pretexting lays the groundwork for a future attack, whereas phishing itself constitutes an attack. In practice, many phishing schemes incorporate pretexting scenarios.

For instance, an attacker might send an email to a customer account representative containing malware disguised as a spreadsheet with customer data. In a spear-phishing scenario, a senior executive could be deceived into believing they’re conversing with a colleague or a partner company representative. Despite these instances, according to the definition of pretexting, they don’t qualify as pretexting attacks. Pretexting specifically aims to enhance the success of future social engineering exploits.

For example, an attacker posing as a third-party vendor might arrive at an organization’s premises claiming to have an appointment. To bolster the pretense, they might wear a badge adorned with the vendor’s logo. The disguise is integral to the pretext, facilitating the subsequent sending of convincing phishing emails to individuals they’ve built rapport with.

Phishing can also be integrated into a pretexting strategy. While pretexting aims to optimize future attacks, phishing involves impersonation via email or text messages.

How Do Cybercriminals Use Pretexting at the Organizational Level?

At an organizational level, a pretexting attacker might take significant steps to impersonate a trusted manager, colleague, or customer. They might create a false identity using a fraudulent email address, website, or social media profile.

In certain situations, the attacker might even initiate face-to-face interactions with the target. For example, a hacker pretending to be a vendor representative seeking access to sensitive customer information might arrange a meeting in person with someone who can provide access to a confidential database. During this meeting, the attacker’s goal is to appear believable and build rapport with the target. This approach makes it more likely that the victim will perceive the request for sensitive information as genuine.

Real-World Examples of Pretexting

Below are actual instances of pretexting social engineering attacks and strategies to recognize them:

  • In 2006, Hewlett-Packard enlisted private investigators to ascertain whether board members were divulging information to the media. These investigators impersonated board members and acquired call logs from phone carriers.
  • In 2015, Ubiquiti Networks mistakenly transferred over $40 million to attackers posing as senior executives.
  • In 2017, MacEwan University inadvertently sent nearly $9 million to a scammer posing as a contractor. The scammer requested staff to update payment information via email.

In each case, the pretext attacker assumed a false identity. Therefore, a simple way to avoid falling victim to a pretexting attack is to verify the identity of all individuals you engage with, including those referred by colleagues and other professionals.

Pretexting Attack Techniques

Here are the seven most prevalent types of pretexting attacks:


An impersonator adopts the behaviors of another person, typically someone the victim trusts, such as a friend or colleague. This involves establishing credibility, often through the use of fictitious phone numbers or email addresses associated with fabricated individuals or organizations.


Perpetrators gain physical access to facilities through tailgating, another form of social engineering. Tailgating involves discreetly entering a facility behind an authorized individual without their awareness. The threat actor may quickly slip through the entryway before the door fully closes and locks.


Piggybacking occurs when an authorized individual grants a threat actor permission to utilize their credentials. For example, an unauthorized person approaches an employee at a facility entrance, claiming to have forgotten their access pass, key fob, or badge. Depending on the persuasiveness of the request, the employee may assist the attacker in gaining entry.


A baiting attack entices a target into a trap to obtain sensitive information or distribute malware. This may involve providing flash drives containing malware. The bait often incorporates authentic-looking elements, such as recognizable company logos.


Phishing entails impersonating a trusted entity via text messages or emails. The objective, like other social engineering attacks, is to acquire confidential data such as passwords or credit card numbers. Although pretexting and phishing are distinct, they can overlap, as phishing attempts frequently rely on pretexting scenarios.

By creating the illusion that the target is interacting with an employer or contractor, for instance, pretexting increases the likelihood of a successful phishing attempt. Compromised employee accounts can be utilized to launch targeted spear-phishing campaigns.


Vishing, or voice phishing, is a tactic utilized in various social engineering attacks, including pretexting. This technique involves using phone calls to coerce victims into divulging private information or granting access to their computer.

For example, an attacker might pose as an IRS representative during a vishing call. Vishing attackers often employ threats or intimidation tactics to pressure targets into providing personal information or funds. While senior citizens are frequently targeted in IRS fraud schemes, anyone can fall victim to a vishing scam.


Scareware inundates targets with false alerts about supposed threats. For instance, a scareware attack might deceive a target into believing that malware has infected their computer. The victim is then prompted to install purported “security” software, which is actually malware itself.

How to Protect Your Organization Against a Pretexting Attack

Here are some steps you can take to protect your company from pretexting:

Thoroughly Assess the Pretext

A key vulnerability of pretexting lies in the use of well-known brand names by perpetrators. This allows potential victims to contact the claimed company to verify the attacker’s legitimacy. It’s essential for employees to routinely verify pretexts as part of your organization’s standard procedures.

Always Request Identification

Insist on seeing identification from anyone attempting to enter your premises or engage with you in person. An ID is generally more difficult to fake than a uniform, helping to identify potential threats and maintain your business’s security.

Educate Your Staff

Your employees are the first line of defense against attacks. Provide comprehensive training on security best practices, including how to recognize and prevent pretexting attempts. Encourage staff to confidently verify credentials, particularly if they have any doubts.


What exactly is pretexting when it comes to social engineering?

Pretexting in social engineering involves creating deceptive scenarios to manipulate individuals into disclosing sensitive information or granting access to systems. Attackers typically employ various communication channels, such as email or face-to-face interaction, to fabricate convincing narratives and pave the way for future attacks.

How does pretexting differ from phishing tactics?

Pretexting focuses on laying the groundwork for future exploitation by establishing credibility through fabricated scenarios. In contrast, phishing directly involves impersonating trusted entities to extract confidential information or credentials. While distinct, these tactics often intertwine, with phishing frequently utilizing pretexting strategies to enhance effectiveness.

How do cybercriminals leverage pretexting at the organizational level?

At an organizational level, cybercriminals may assume false identities, such as trusted managers or clients, to gain access to sensitive data or systems. They employ fraudulent contact details, websites, or social media profiles and may even engage in in-person interactions to build trust and increase compliance with information requests.

Can you provide examples of real-world pretexting attacks?

Certainly. Instances include Hewlett-Packard’s use of private investigators to impersonate board members for obtaining call logs, Ubiquiti Networks falling victim to attackers posing as executives resulting in substantial financial loss, and MacEwan University’s scam involving a fraudulent contractor request via email. In each case, attackers exploited false identities to manipulate trust and access sensitive information.

What are some common types of pretexting attacks organizations should be aware of?

Common pretexting attacks encompass impersonation, tailgating (sneaking into facilities behind authorized personnel), piggybacking (using others’ credentials), baiting (enticing victims with fake documents or drives), phishing (deceptive emails impersonating trusted entities), vishing (voice phishing via phone calls), and scareware (using false alerts to induce malware installation).


Pretexting presents a significant threat in today’s digital landscape, exploiting human vulnerabilities to access sensitive information and systems. While distinct from phishing, it often complements such attacks, emphasizing the need for comprehensive cybersecurity measures. Real-world examples highlight the damaging consequences of pretexting. However, through vigilance, identity verification, and employee training, organizations can mitigate these risks. By staying informed and proactive, businesses can effectively navigate pretexting threats, safeguarding assets and preserving stakeholder trust in an interconnected world.


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