Pretexting is a critical concern in the realm of cybersecurity because attackers craft deceptive scenarios to manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information. Pretexting is a sophisticated social engineering tactic that poses significant challenges to an organisation’s security posture, making it essential to develop effective strategies to protect against such calculated attempts at fraud.

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What Is Pretexting?

Pretexting is a social engineering attack where the attacker creates a fabricated identity or scenario to persuade a victim to divulge confidential information, grant access to restricted systems, or perform actions they would otherwise not undertake.

Unlike phishing attacks that often rely on inducing panic or urgency, pretexting typically involves building trust with the target through carefully constructed stories and background narratives. The success of these attacks hinges on the attacker’s ability to appear legitimate and trustworthy enough for the victim to lower their defences.

Attackers carrying out pretexting operations invest time in gathering background information relevant to their chosen narrative. This preparatory phase might involve researching an organisation’s structure, its employees’ roles and responsibilities, as well as any publicly available personal information about potential targets. Armed with this knowledge, attackers craft plausible stories—such as pretending to be an internal IT staff member conducting routine security checks—that require sharing passwords, financial details, or other sensitive data.

The execution of a pretexting attack can vary widely in complexity—from simple phone calls asking for password resets under the guise of technical support personnel—to elaborate schemes impersonating company executives requiring urgent access to specific documents while away from office resources. Regardless of its sophistication, each pretext attempts to exploit human psychology by establishing rapport and perceived authority. In turn, this makes it critical for organisations and individuals alike to remain vigilant against such deceitful tactics.

Pretexting vs. Phishing: Key Differences

Pretexting and phishing are both social engineering techniques designed to deceive individuals into divulging sensitive information, yet they operate under distinct methodologies and psychological tactics.


Phishing attacks are characterised by their broad approach, typically involving mass communication sent to a large number of potential victims. These communications often create a sense of urgency or fear, prompting recipients to act quickly, such as clicking on a malicious link or providing confidential information without thorough verification.

Phishing attempts are typically not personalised because attackers rely on the law of averages, expecting that even if only a small percentage responds, it will still yield valuable data or access.


Pretexting, on the other hand, involves a more targeted approach where attackers invest time in creating detailed backgrounds and scenarios tailored specifically toward their intended victim(s). Unlike phishing’s reliance on immediate emotional responses from targets through messages with urgent calls-to-action, pretexting builds upon establishing trust over time with its target through elaborate stories that justify the request for sensitive information.

The attacker assumes an identity or role that seems legitimate within the context provided—a process requiring extensive research about the victim to enhance credibility.

While pretexting and phishing aim to deceive individuals into compromising personal or organisational security boundaries, they diverge significantly in execution. Phishing casts wide nets, hoping some will bite out of haste or fear, whereas pretexting crafts convincing narratives around well-researched targets to slowly reel them in through perceived legitimacy and trustworthiness.

How Pretexting Works

Pretexting attacks unfold through a series of meticulously planned steps, each designed to build the attacker’s credibility and persuade the victim into divulging confidential information or performing specific actions.

  1. Research and information gathering: The initial phase involves extensive research about the target individual or organisation. Attackers may scour public databases, social media platforms, company websites, and other publicly available sources to gather detailed information to make their pretext more convincing. This preparatory step is crucial in crafting a believable story that resonates with the potential victim.
  2. Scenario development: Armed with sufficient background knowledge, attackers develop a plausible scenario tailored to their target. This narrative could involve impersonating someone within or outside the organisation, such as an IT staff member conducting routine checks, a financial auditor requiring sensitive account details, or even law enforcement officials demanding immediate cooperation on an urgent matter. The success of this stage hinges on a narrative that justifies why certain information is needed.
  3. Building trust and establishing authority: Once the target is contacted—often via phone call, email, or face-to-face interaction—the attacker employs psychological tactics to build rapport and establish authority within their assumed role. They might reference specific details gleaned during their research to enhance legitimacy and reduce suspicion from the victim’s side.
  4. Execution of request: With trust established under false pretences, the attacker makes direct requests for sensitive data (e.g., passwords), access permissions (to restricted systems), personal identification numbers (PINs), financial records—or persuades victims to perform actions beneficial for further compromising security measures (like enabling remote desktop protocols).
  5. Data collection and exit strategy: Once the attacker has successfully obtained the sensitive information, they carefully collect and secure it for their intended use, which may include accessing financial accounts, penetrating secure systems, or selling the data to other malicious parties. The exit strategy is executed with precision to minimise traces leading back to them, ensuring that by the time any suspicious activity is detected, they have already covered their tracks and exited without leaving a clear trail.

Pretexting attacks blend meticulous planning and psychological manipulation by leveraging detailed research and tailored narratives to build trust and authority with their targets.

Real-World Examples of Pretexting

Pretexting attacks can be highly dynamic schemes, often involving a combination of social engineering techniques. Some of the most notable, real-world cases of pretexting include:

  • Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal (2006): HP hired investigators to impersonate the company’s own board members and journalists to obtain their phone records through pretexting techniques. This scandal highlighted the legal and ethical implications of pretexting, resulting in changes to U.S. laws regarding the use of such social engineering tactics to obtain personal records.
  • Ubiquiti networks fraud (2015): Pretexters impersonating high-level executives of Ubiquiti Networks sent employees messages requesting they send funds to the threat actor’s bank accounts. The outcome of this elaborate social engineering attack cost the company $46.7 million in losses.
  • Twitter account takeover (2020): Leveraging a combination of hacking, pretexting, and spear phishing attacks, threat actors deceived Twitter employees into revealing account credentials, enabling attackers to control high-profile accounts like those of Barack Obama and Kanye West. This case was highlighted in the Journal of Cybersecurity Education, Research and Practice.


Examples of pretexting also involve specific target profiles and attack vectors. Below are scenarios and scams that often rely on pretexting mechanisms.

  • Account update scams: Victims receive fake messages from their bank asking for personal details, leading them to fraudulent websites designed to steal login credentials.
  • Business email compromise scams: With BEC attacks, threat actors impersonate high-ranking officials to request urgent money transfers or sensitive information, exploiting trust within organisations.
  • Grandparent scams: Scammers exploit emotional vulnerability in elderly individuals for monetary gain by pretending to be relatives in urgent need of financial help.
  • Romance scams: Fraudsters use fake dating profiles and fabricated stories to build relationships online before asking for money under false emergencies, often resulting in significant financial loss across international borders.
  • IRS/Government scams: Impersonators claim victims owe taxes and must pay immediately under threat of legal action, using fear tactics to extract money or sensitive data directly.
  • Cryptocurrency scams: Pretending to be investment experts, scammers offer bogus opportunities with high returns on crypto investments. Once the victim transfers cryptocurrency into the scammer’s account, recovery becomes nearly impossible due to crypto’s anonymity and decentralised nature.
  • Tech support scams: Attackers pose as tech support agents from well-known companies, claiming the victim’s computer is infected with malware. They trick users into granting remote access or paying for unnecessary software fixes.
  • Job offer scams: Fraudsters post fake job listings or reach out directly, offering lucrative positions. Victims are asked to pay upfront fees for training or background checks, only to find there is no actual job.

The diverse tactics employed in pretexting scams underscore the critical need for vigilance and scepticism, especially when faced with unexpected requests for information or money. Having keen security awareness and taking a moment to verify the authenticity of these communications can prevent significant financial and reputational damage.

Pretexting and The Law

Pretexting, the act of acquiring information through deceitful means, is not only unethical but also falls squarely against legal statutes in many jurisdictions. This practice often targets sensitive personal data such as telephone records or financial information, areas where the law explicitly prohibits pretext-based inquiries.

For instance, The Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 categorically makes it a federal crime to engage in pretexting for obtaining phone records without authorisation. This legislation was introduced as a direct response to growing concerns over privacy breaches and unauthorised data access.

Similarly, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) of 1999 addresses consumer financial privacy by making it illegal to use false pretences—pretexting—to collect individuals’ financial details. It further extends its reach by prohibiting the solicitation of others to acquire this type of information under deceptive conditions.

These acts underscore the seriousness with which U.S. law views such deceptive practices and establishes clear boundaries to protect consumers’ privacy and security.

How to Protect Against Pretexting Attacks

Protecting against pretexting attacks requires a multifaceted approach, blending employee education, robust verification processes, and stringent data access controls.

Employee Training and Awareness

One of the most effective defences against pretexting is an informed and vigilant workforce. Organisations should conduct regular training sessions to educate employees about the nature of pretexting scams, common indicators of fraudulent requests, and the importance of scepticism in interactions involving sensitive information.

Implement Strict Verification Processes

Organisations should establish strict protocols for verifying identities over phone calls or emails—especially when such communications request access to personal or corporate data. Such protocols might include secret questions only known between parties or requiring a callback through officially listed numbers.

Limit Access to Sensitive Information

Apply the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) across all levels within your organisation and ensure that individuals have access to only the information necessary for their job functions. Tight control over who has access to what minimises potential damage, even if an attacker successfully manages to deceive someone within the company.

Enhanced Simulation Exercises

Beyond fundamental training, incorporating simulation exercises that mimic real pretexting attempts can sharpen employees’ abilities to recognise and respond to attacks. Using login banners that remind staff of security protocols upon system access and circulating regular emails highlighting recent scam trends keep cybersecurity front of mind.

Multifactor Authentication (MFA)

Deploying multifactor authentication across all systems significantly bolsters defences by adding an additional verification step, thereby reducing the risk associated with compromised passwords. MFA ensures a higher level of security for accessing sensitive information or critical infrastructure.

Vigilance for Red Flags

Train employees to identify signs of potential pretexting, such as urgent requests, inconsistencies in email addresses compared to known contacts, or any communication that seems out of ordinary business processes. Early recognition of these red flags can prevent escalation into more serious data breaches.

Establish Policies

Collaborate with human resources (HR) and legal teams to create comprehensive policies detailing preventive measures against pretexting scams, as well as clear guidelines on how employees should report suspicious incidents. These policies help manage the aftermath of an employee inadvertently becoming entangled in a scam—ensuring swift action can be taken to mitigate damage.

Use Insider Threat Management Solutions

Implement advanced insider threat management tools designed to continuously monitor user behaviour patterns within your network. These solutions flag activities deviating from normal operations—such as unusual data transfers or access requests—enabling quick investigation and response before significant harm occurs due to internal vulnerabilities exploited through successful pretexting attempts.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Proofpoint stands at the forefront of cybersecurity solutions, offering a comprehensive suite of services designed to fortify organisations against cyber threats. Proofpoint offers several solutions to help protect against pretexting and social engineering attacks:

  • Targeted Attack Protection (TAP): Proofpoint TAP helps organisations stay ahead of attackers by detecting, analysing, and blocking advanced threats before they reach email inboxes. It includes features such as sandboxing, analysis of various file types, and protection against ransomware, phishing attacks, and other email threats.
  • Advanced BEC Defence: This solution, powered by NexusAI, is designed to stop a wide variety of email fraud, including payment redirect and supplier invoicing fraud from compromised accounts. It uses AI and machine learning to detect BEC attacks by analysing multiple message attributes like message header data, the sender’s IP address, and message content.
  • Insider Threat Management Solutions: Proofpoint’s ITM tools help organisations detect risky user activities in real-time, investigate incidents promptly, and prevent data loss. These solutions empower teams to manage insider threat risks effectively, including defence against pretexting and phishing scams.

By leveraging these Proofpoint solutions, organisations can enhance their security posture against pretexting attacks and other advanced threats that use creative social engineering tactics. To learn more, contact Proofpoint.

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