What Is a Tailgating Attack and How to Protect Against It?

Tailgaiting Attack

Updated: May 16, 2023 

5-minute read time

Have you heard of tailgating, but you’re unsure what it is and the risks it poses to your business? If so, you’re in the right spot!

A cyber attack aims to circumvent the defenses put in place by the target to achieve various corrupt goals. Some cybercriminals rely predominantly on their expert understanding of information technology systems and the exploits they contain.  

However, others don’t even bother directly exploiting IT systems because they know how to break the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain: the human element. Their weapon of choice is social engineering, which revolves around the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions that are against their best interest or divulging confidential information. 

Tailgating is an example of a social engineering attack. It is a hazardous and often overlooked technique. Social engineering techniques play a role in 98 percent of cyber attacks. Understanding how this attack works will help you protect your organization against it.

Continue reading to learn more, or use the table of contents below to find the answer to your questions quickly.

Table of Contents 

What Is a Tailgating Attack? 

Tailgating is a physical security breach in which an unauthorized person gains access to a restricted area. During a tailgating attack, a criminal enters a protected area by slipping behind a qualified employee. They rely on the employee to open doors and access restricted areas. 

People often refer to this as a piggybacking attack. In many cases, the tailgated employee has no idea they’re letting in a stranger. It’s not uncommon for a tailgater to ask an unsuspecting employee to hold the door open for them while pretending to be a delivery driver or a legitimate visitor.  

Because of how tailgating attacks work, they’re most effective when targeting organizations with multiple entrance points and many employees. That said, tailgating has been successfully used against small and medium-sized organizations, making it a threat nobody can ignore. 

Attackers often combine tailgating with other social engineering techniques to increase their chances of success, including:  

Who is at Risk of Tailgating Attacks?

All organizations are at risk of a tailgating attack. However, businesses are most vulnerable when: 

  • Employees do not have (sufficient) training on physical and cybersecurity procedures.  
  • They receive regular deliveries (e.g., supplies, food, documents, etc.). 
  • They have many employees – increasing staff unfamiliarity. 
  • The building possesses multiple entrance points. 
  • Employees often enter and leave the premises. 
  • They have subcontractors working for them. 

Let’s look at several tailgating examples to explain how this social engineering attack works. 

What are Tailgating Social Engineering Examples?

Everyone in your organization must know the tactics tailgaters use to prevent them from gaining access. Examples of tailgating include: 

1. A person claims to have lost/misplaced/forgotten their ID or access badge and asks you to give them access.  

This form of tailgating is commonly used when the target is a large organization whose employees don’t know each other well. 

The attacker waits for an employee to gain security’s approval before asking them to hold the door open, explaining that they’ve forgotten their ID. 

2. A person who enters behind you relying on you holding the door open out of courtesy. 

An attacker closely follows a legitimate employee to gain access to a restricted area. The closer the tailgater gets to the employee, the more it looks like they know each other. 

Automatic sliding doors make it especially easy for tailgaters to circumvent security measures and walk right in because employees seldom look behind themselves when they go through them. 

3. A person with their hands full tricks you into thinking you’re being helpful. 

Like the previous example, this approach is successful because of our natural tendency to be courteous and trusting of others.  

4. A person poses as a delivery driver or messenger. 

Social engineers like to improve their odds of success by combining tailgating with impersonation. For example, they often pose as delivery drivers, wearing branded clothes and carrying packages. 

Since most organizations receive deliveries regularly, employees generally don’t think twice when they see someone who looks like a delivery driver walking in a restricted area. 

5. A person gains access through a propped open door. 

Sometimes a third party goes against standard protocols and props a door open. This allows anyone easy access to your organization.  

What are the Business Risks of Tailgating?

Tailgating poses a significant risk for organizations. It can be carried out by:  

  • Disgruntled former employees 
  • Troublemakers 
  • Thieves 

Attackers may install spyware, malware, or ransomware on your computers. However, installing malicious programs on a computer located in a restricted area may not be the end goal. Other plans can include:  

  • Theft of private or sensitive information  
  • Disruption of IT systems 
  • Destruction of property 
  • Theft of equipment 
  • Cyberespionage 
  • Network access 

Tailgating poses a security risk for your property, data, equipment, and staff. It can disrupt business and create unexpected costs, safety issues, and damage. These risks make it necessary to always follow security protocols. 

How to Prevent a Tailgating Attack

A firewall or endpoint protection software won’t help you prevent tailgating attacks, but that doesn’t mean you’re defenseless. The key to avoiding tailgating attacks is to strengthen the human element. 

Security Awareness Training

Most employees have yet to learn that tailgating attacks are a significant threat. They also don’t properly understand the consequences of tailgating, which can lead to a costly data breach or extensive downtime caused by a malware infection. 

Organizations that have yet to address the threat of tailgating attacks should invest in security awareness training for all employees. An experienced training provider should regularly perform security awareness training for maximum effectiveness. 

Cybersecurity Awareness Training Program ebook

Learn how to implement an engaging and successful cybersecurity awareness training program

Video Surveillance 

A camera pointed at your entrance(s) is a powerful deterrent and helps spot suspicious activity – even after it has already happened. Determining how a security incident occurred by watching archived security camera footage can save you from a lot of head-scratching in case a tailgater manages to infiltrate your organization and gain access to your systems. 

Electronic Access Control 

Businesses can make tailgating attacks much more challenging to pull off using electronic access control systems that grant access to employees using smart cards and biometrics. Such systems have become relatively affordable, making them accessible even to organizations with limited budgets. 

Trained employees ensure that electronic access control delivers the desired results. They must closely follow physical access control policies regardless of how rude it may seem to not hold the door open for a delivery driver or someone who claims to have forgotten their ID. 

Cybersecurity Best Practices 

Tailgating is frequently a means to an end. That end is physically gaining access to a computer to steal sensitive information or infect the computer and other devices connected to the same network with malware. 

Foundational cybersecurity best practices (e.g., requiring employees to log off from their computers and other devices while these are not in use, storing all sensitive data in an encrypted form, etc.) can go a long way in making it impossible for tailgaters to achieve their goals.


Cybersecurity Posture ebook

Does your organization have the foundational security solutions implemented? Evaluate your cyber readiness in just 10 minutes with this checklist.

Swift Incident Response 

You may not always be able to prevent a tailgating attack. Still, you can always have a swift incident response plan to respond to any breach of your organization’s physical perimeter.  

There’s always time to minimize its consequences. Since theory and practice can be disparate, you should occasionally test your incident response plan to verify your ability to respond appropriately. 

Protect Your Organization with the Right Defenses  

Sophisticated malware, zero-day exploits, and other high-skill tactics cybercriminals use make attention-grabbing headlines. However, most attackers still rely on the same social engineering attacks that made Kevin Mitnick infamous in the 1990s. 

Tailgating is a hazardous social engineering technique. Cybercriminals use it to gain physical access to restricted areas to steal sensitive information or infect computers that would otherwise be difficult to access from the public internet. 

Fortunately, there are multiple defenses that all organizations can implement to make it much harder for cybercriminals to pull off tailgating attacks. If you want help with their implementation, don’t hesitate to contact a cybersecurity expert

Related content: What is Occupational Fraud & How Do You Detect It? 

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