The pretexting playbook: Examples, insights, and how to stay safe

April 8th · 9 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

The art of deception: Pretexting scams

Ever stumbled upon the term pretexting and thought, "Pretexting? Is that picking the perfect emoji for my next message? Or maybe it’s that text to your boss, loved one, or friend that you draft but never send. Heck, maybe it’s a pre-party warm-up ritual. Ok, ok, we know the suspense is killing you, so we’ll tell you what it means. Surprise—it's actually none of those, the term "pretexting" comes from the word "pretext," a term for a made-up story or an invented reason that's miles away from emoji conversations. It's a method cybercriminals love using, crafting stories so believable they could easily trick you into believing they’re true. The goal? To dupe you into revealing personal details, downloading malicious software, or even wiring money to a supposedly stranded relative.

98% of cyber attacks involve a form of social engineering. Shockingly, 50% of these are pretexting attacks.

In this article, we'll reveal the shady world of pretexting scams and arm you with savvy strategies for dodging them. We’ll also demonstrate how Guardio can be your digital bodyguard against these tricky tactics. Ready to secure your digital world? Let’s dive in!

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Scam message

What is a pretexting attack?

What do Nigerian prince scams, tech support scams, and “Hey Mom, It’s Me scams?.” No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. The common denominator in these scams is… drum roll… You guessed it - pretexting! Pretexting is a technique scammers love to use where they contact you pretending to be someone specific, with a specific reason. Pretexting is a social engineering method, not a scam per say, but being aware of the tactics and techniques scammers use might just help you if you get caught in the middle of a trap. that scammers use for targeted attacks.

An easy way to look at is imagining a pretexting attack as a scammer's favorite narrative tool, where they disguise themselves as a known individual, anything from your trusted bank teller to a tech support hero or that long-lost relative who's suddenly strapped for cash. They weave stories to gain your trust, aiming to get you to hand over the keys to your digital kingdom. Whether it’s through a craftily worded email, a phone call, or text, their endgame is always to lure you into their trap. And while the setup might seem like something straight out of a comedy sketch, falling for it can lead to real-life drama no one wants to star in.

Pretexting scams vs. phishing - What’s the difference?

So, you're probably wondering, “Wait, isn’t pretexting just a fancy way of saying phishing? Are they the same plot with different titles, or what?" We've written extensively about phishing in the past, highlighting it as the broader category of cyber fraud that encompasses a variety of tactics used to trick people into giving up sensitive information or money. Pretexting is just one of those tactics where the attacker invents a believable scenario or pretext to obtain your personal or financial data. It's a key strategy in more targeted forms of phishing like spear phishing, whaling, and business email compromise (BEC). While phishing serves as the broader attack medium, a pretexting attack is a specific method employed within this sphere, utilizing fabricated scenarios to win over the victim's trust and access sensitive information. Let’s break it down.

How pretexting scams work

Imagine kicking back on a lazy Sunday morning, your coffee in one hand and your phone in the other, when suddenly it buzzes. It's a message from an old friend, or so it seems, complete with a familiar nickname and an urgent plea for help. They're stuck in Thailand, their passport and wallet were stolen, and they need money fast. Your heart skips a beat. Sound dramatic? It is! And that’s exactly how pretexting scams can unfold, but how did the scammer snag your information? You’d be surprised at how easy it is:

  • The search mission: Our digital lives are an open book if you know where to look. Scammers scour social media, public records, and data breaches, piecing together your personal story.

  • The convincing setup: Armed with bits of information about your life, the scammer reaches out with a message tailored to tug at your heartstrings. They mimic your friend's tone, maybe even dropping in details only a close friend would know, all thanks to their social media detective work.

    The added twist: This can even become more believable if the scammer uses your friend’s actual cell phone number or social media account for the message. Achievable through phone cloning or social media hijacking, this tactic makes the scam alarmingly more convincing. But that's a story for another day (or article)…

  • The message spells trouble: Your friend is in a dire situation and needs money to get out of it. The request is detailed, believable, and urgent, pressing you to act before it's too late.

  • The trap is set: They stress the clock is ticking. Help now, or your friend remains in jeopardy. It's this pressure that clouds your judgment, making you consider bypassing your usual caution.

  • The hook: If you decide to send money or the information they asked for, the scammer's plan comes full circle. What felt like a lifeline to a friend was actually a well-laid trap, leaving you out of pocket and your 'friend' none the wiser.

  • The aftermath: While the scammer's long gone with the loot, this is only the start of your nightmare. You're left staring at your bank account, empty and echoing. Your personal info? It's taking a tour of the dark web's underbelly, handed off to whoever's buying. But the real horror show begins when your identity gets snatched. Out there, there's a "new you" opening bank accounts, snagging loans, and basically living a life on your tab. It's a mess, a real-life horror story with you in the lead role. And cleaning up this disaster? It's a long, grueling journey, with every step feeling like you're fighting through a maze of bureaucratic red tape

If you ever receive an urgent message from anyone, it's crucial to hit pause and verify. Reach out to your friend, family member, employer, or whoever sent you the message through another method or ask questions only they would know the answers to. Remember, when it comes to protecting yourself and your finances, a moment of caution can save a lot of heartache. People you really know and trust will understand the need for security in these situations.

In a world where scammers are getting sneakier and their tricks harder to catch, having cybersecurity like Guardio watching your back makes a world of difference. Guardio identifies and blocks scammy emails, texts, dodgy websites, and fishy links before they can do any harm. Plus, it throws an extra layer of protection on your social accounts. With Guardio hanging out in your corner, you're well-equipped to keep the digital creeps out of your way.

Scams are getting more sophisticated and harder to spot

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Social Engineering Attacks

Types of pretexting

Pretexting is the first step in many scams, making up stories to trick people into giving away private info. The tales these scammers tell have no limit—they're only held back by how creative they can get. Here are a few methods they use for pretexting:

Phishing with a pretexting twist: This method involves sending emails that appear to be from a trustworthy source, like an employer, requesting "urgent" actions like changing payment details. It's a sophisticated setup aiming for large-scale fraud. In an organization setting, these emails can also either target high-ranking officials like CEOs or CFOs, or impersonate them to gain employees' trust, making the scam appear more legitimate and convincing.

  • Vishing and smishing: Whether through a call claiming to be from the IRS or a text with an "urgent bank alert," these tactics seek to extract sensitive information or encourage clicks on malicious links, using the pretext of voice or SMS communication to create a sense of urgency.

  • Scareware: Alarming pop-ups claim your device is at risk, offering a "solution" through a download that turns out to be malicious software in disguise, preying on fear to prompt hasty actions.

  • Impersonation: Posing as someone familiar, scammers may impersonate a friend or bank employee, even spoofing phone numbers or emails to make their ploy more convincing. A classic example is the SIM swap scam, where they manage to reroute your security codes to their device.

In 2015, the Ubiquiti Networks incident marked a massive breach. Attackers skillfully impersonated company executives and engineered a sophisticated scam to swindle $46.7 million. This case emphasizes the potentially devastating consequences of well-executed impersonation scams and shows the lengths that scammers will go to dupe and swindle businesses.

  • Tailgating and piggybacking: This is like something straight out of a high-stakes spy movie: attackers gain unauthorized entry into secure locations either by stealthily tailing someone with access or by smooth-talking their way in, taking advantage of people's kindness or a momentary lapse of caution. It showcases a cunning mix of stealth and social engineering scams at their finest (or worst), turning everyday politeness or distractions into opportunities for intrusion.

  • Baiting: These attacks dangle an enticing promise to draw victims into a hitch, aiming to disseminate malware or steal sensitive data. These schemes sometimes employ hardware, like USB drives infected with malware, cleverly disguised with authentic-looking labels, such as a company's branding, making people think the USB drives are legit and hold valuable information.

Scammers place these USB devices in spots designed to grab your attention, like lobbies, bus stops, or public restrooms. Positioned to be just too tempting to ignore, these baits lure folks into plugging them into their personal or office devices, setting off the malicious software hidden inside.

And it doesn't stop at physical tricks, the baiting game goes digital too. From online ads that catch your eye to promises of free downloads, these tactics can easily lead unsuspecting clickers to risky websites or trick them into downloading software riddled with malware.

How to stay safe from pretexting scams with Guardio

After diving into the nitty-gritty of what a pretexting attack is, you're probably thinking, "Great, but how do I guard myself against fraud?" Don't worry, Guardio's got your back always on alert, ready to:

  • Stops scams in their tracks: Whether it’s dodgy phishing emails, sketchy texts, or fake shopping sites if something fishy tries to get through, Guardio is on it, keeping you safe.

  • Account protection: Keeps your social media and session cookies safe so scammers aren’t able to hijack your accounts.

  • Blocks dangerous websites and links: No more worrying about landing on a bad site or clicking a sketchy link. Guardio blocks them before they can bother you.

  • Alerts of any data breaches - Real time alerts if your info's leaked, breached, or popped up where it shouldn't, like the dark web.

  • Security for your team: Guardio’s not just for you. It’s for your whole crew, even at work. It offers online privacy solutions for everyone at work, ensuring the team is always safe online.

  • Coverage for family and friends: Guardio’s got a plan that covers up to 5 loved ones. It’s like one big safety net for everyone at home.

  • 7-day fee trial: No tricks, no strings. If you dig it, awesome. If not, no sweat, you can cancel anytime.

Guardio makes sure you can do your thing online without worrying about scams or creeps. In a world full of online scammers, having Guardio is like having a personal security team on call 24/7. So, why not give Guardio a whirl? With a free trial for seven days, you’ve got nothing to lose. Find out how it can make your online world a safer place. If it’s a good fit, you’re all set. If not, just say bye. In the battle against scams and sneaks, Guardio’s here to keep you and your loved ones safe and sound.

Scammers have their scripts ready. Do you have your shield?

It's time for a plot twist, stay safe online with Guardio!

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