Social engineering (security)

Social engineering (security)

Social engineering is the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.Mitnick, K: "CSEPS Course Workbook" (2004), p. 4, Mitnick Security Publishing.] While similar to a confidence trick or simple fraud, the term typically applies to trickery for information gathering or computer system access and in most cases the attacker never comes face-to-face with the victim.

ocial engineering techniques and terms

All social engineering techniques are based on specific attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases. [Mitnick, K: "CSEPS Course Workbook" (2004), unit 3, Mitnick Security Publishing.] These biases, sometimes called "bugs in the human hardware," are exploited in various combinations to create criminal attack techniques, some of which are listed here:


Pretexting is the act of creating and using an invented scenario (the pretext) to persuade a targeted victim to release information or perform an action and is typically done over the telephone. It's more than a simple lie as it most often involves some prior research or set up and the use of pieces of known information (e.g. for impersonation: date of birth, Social Security Number, last bill amount) to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target. [" [ Pretexting: Your Personal Information Revealed] ," "Federal Trade Commission"]

This technique is often used to trick a business into disclosing customer information, and is used by private investigators to obtain telephone records, utility records, banking records and other information directly from junior company service representatives. The information can then be used to establish even greater legitimacy under tougher questioning with a manager (e.g., to make account changes, get specific balances, etc).

As most U.S. companies still authenticate a client by asking only for a Social Security Number, date of birth, or mother's maiden name, the method is effective in many criminal situations and will likely continue to be a security problem in the future.

Pretexting can also be used to impersonate co-workers, police, bank, tax authorities, or insurance investigators — or any other individual who could have perceived authority or right-to-know in the mind of the targeted victim. The pretexter must simply prepare answers to questions that might be asked by the victim. In some cases all that is needed is a voice that sounds authoritative, an earnest tone, and an ability to think on one's feet.


Phishing is a criminal technique of fraudulently obtaining private information. Typically, the phisher sends an e-mail that appears to come from a legitimate business — a bank, or credit card company — requesting "verification" of information and warning of some dire consequence if it is not provided. The e-mail usually contains a link to a fraudulent web page that seems legitimate — with company logos and content — and has a form requesting everything from a home address to an ATM card's PIN.

For example, 2003 saw the proliferation of a phishing scam in which users received e-mails supposedly from eBay claiming that the user’s account was about to be suspended unless a link provided was clicked to update a credit card (information that the genuine eBay already had). Because it is relatively simple to make a Web site resemble a legitimate organization's site by mimicking the HTML code, the scam counted on people being tricked into thinking they were being contacted by eBay and subsequently, were going to eBay’s site to update their account information. By spamming large groups of people, the “phisher” counted on the e-mail being read by a percentage of people who already had listed credit card numbers with eBay legitimately, who might respond.

IVR or phone phishing

This criminal technique uses a rogue Interactive voice response (IVR) system to recreate a legitimate sounding copy of a bank or other institution's IVR system. The victim is prompted (typically via a phishing e-mail) to call in to the "bank" via a (ideally toll free) number provided in order to "verify" information. A typical system will reject log-ins continually, ensuring the victim enters PINs or passwords multiple times, often disclosing several different passwords. More advanced systems transfer the victim to the attacker posing as a customer service agent for further questioning.

A criminal could even record the typical commands ("Press one to change your password, press two to speak to customer service" ...) and play back the direction manually in real time, giving the appearance of being an IVR without the expense.

Trojan horse

"Trojans" take advantage of the victims' curiosity or greed to deliver malware. An example of a Trojan might be the "e-mail virus" which arrives as an e-mail attachment promising anything from a "cool" or "sexy" screen saver, an important anti-virus or system upgrade, or the latest gossip about a celebrity. Victims succumb by opening the attachment which is then activated. Since naive users might unknowingly click on an attachment without considering legitimacy, the technique can be quite effective and a number of these cases, for example, the "ILOVEYOU virus," even made international news as a result.

Similarly, a program which grants the attacker access while hiding inside other software (spyware being an example) or by pretending to be something it is not (for example a download pretending to be a "free" copy of a new software title) behaves much as the famous horse of Troy and allows an attack from inside the computer system.


Baiting is like the real-world Trojan Horse that uses physical media and relies on the curiosity or greed of the victim. []

In this attack, the attacker leaves a malware infected floppy disc, CD ROM, or USB flash drive in a location sure to be found (bathroom, elevator, sidewalk, parking lot), gives it a legitimate looking and curiosity-piquing label, and simply waits for the victim to use the device.

For example, an attacker might create a disk featuring a corporate logo, readily available off the target's web site, and write "Executive Salary Summary Q2 CURRENTYEAR" on the front. The attacker would then leave the disk on the floor of an elevator or somewhere in the lobby of the targeted company. An unknowing employee might find it and subsequently insert the disk into a computer to satisfy their curiosity, or a good samaritan might find it and turn it in to the company.

In either case as a consequence of merely inserting the disk into a computer to see the contents, the user would unknowingly install malware on it, likely giving an attacker unfettered access to the victim's PC and perhaps, the targeted company's internal computer network.

Unless computer controls block the infection, PCs set to "auto-run" inserted media may be compromised as soon as a rogue disk is inserted.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo means "something for something":

*An attacker calls random numbers at a company claiming to be calling back from technical support. Eventually they will hit someone with a legitimate problem, grateful that someone is calling back to help them. The attacker will "help" solve the problem and in the process have the user type commands that give the attacker access or launch malware.

*In a 2003 information security survey, 90% of office workers gave researchers what they claimed was their password in answer to a survey question in exchange for a cheap pen [] . Similar surveys in later years obtained similar results using chocolates and other cheap lures, although they made no attempt to validate the passwords.

Other types

Even if criminals lack cracking skills, common confidence tricksters or fraudsters also could be considered "social engineers" in the wider sense, in that they deliberately deceive and manipulate people, exploiting human weaknesses to obtain personal benefit. They may, for example, use social engineering techniques as part of an IT fraud.

The latest type of criminal social engineering techniques include spoofing or hacking IDs of people having popular e-mail IDs such as Yahoo, Gmail, hotmail, etc. Among the many motivations for deception are:

* Phishing credit-card account numbers and their passwords.
* Hacking private e-mails and chat histories, and manipulating them by using common editing techniques before using them to extort money and creating distrust among individuals.
* Hacking websites of companies or organizations and destroying their reputation.

Notable social engineers

Kevin Mitnick

Reformed computer criminal and later, security consultant Kevin Mitnick popularized the term social engineering for this type of criminal behavior, pointing out that it is much easier to trick someone into giving a password for a system than to spend the effort to hack into the system. He claims it was the single most effective method in his arsenal.

The Badir Brothers

Ramy, Muzher, and Shadde Badir - brothers, all of whom were blind from birth, managed to set up an extensive phone and computer fraud scheme in Israel in the 1990s using criminal social engineering, voice impersonation, and Braille-display computers. []


Other noted criminal social engineers include Frank Abagnale, Dave Buchwald, David Bannon, Peter Foster, Will Ronco, Razi Shaban, and Steven Jay Russell.

United States law

In common law, pretexting is an invasion of privacy tort of appropriation. [Restatement 2d of Torts § 652C.]

Pretexting of telephone records

In December 2006, United States Congress approved a Senate sponsored bill making the pretexting of telephone records a federal felony with fines of up to $250,000 and ten years in prison for individuals (or fines of up to $500,000 for companies). It was signed by president George W. Bush on January 12 2007. [ [ Congress outlaws pretexting] , Eric Bangeman, 12/11/2006 11:01:01, Ars Technica]

Federal legislation

The 1999 The "GLBA" is a U.S. Federal law that specifically addresses pretexting of banking records as an illegal act punishable under federal statutes.

When a business entity such as a private investigator, SIU insurance investigator, or an adjuster conducts any type of deception, it falls under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This federal agency has the obligation and authority to ensure that consumers are not subjected to any unfair or deceptive business practices.

US Federal Trade Commission Act, Section 5 of the FTCA states, in part:"Whenever the Commission shall have reason to believe that any such person, partnership, or corporation has been or is using any unfair method of competition or unfair or deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce, and if it shall appear to the Commission that a proceeding by it in respect thereof would be to the interest of the public, it shall issue and serve upon such person, partnership, or corporation a complaint stating its charges in that respect...."

The statute states that when someone obtains any personal, non-public information from a financial institution or the consumer, their action is subject to the statute. It relates to the consumer's relationship with the financial institution. For example, a pretexter using false pretenses either to get a consumer's address from the consumer's bank, or to get a consumer to disclose the name of his or her bank, would be covered. The determining principle is that pretexting only occurs when information is obtained through false pretenses.

While the sale of cell telephone records has gained significant media attention, and telecommunications records are the focus of the two bills currently before the United States Senate, many other types of private records are being bought and sold in the public market. Alongside many advertisements for cell phone records, wireline records and the records associated with calling cards are advertised. As individuals shift to VoIP telephones, it is safe to assume that those records will be offered for sale as well.

Currently, it is legal to sell telephone records, but illegal to obtain them. [Mitnick, K (2002): "The Art of Deception", p. 103 Wiley Publishing Ltd: Indianapolis, Indiana; United States of America. ISBN 0-471-23712-4]

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo, Michigan), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed concern over the easy access to personal cell phone records on the Internet during Wednesday's E&C Committee hearing on "Phone Records For Sale: Why Aren't Phone Records Safe From Pretexting?"

Illinois became the first state to sue an online records broker when Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc., on 20 January, a spokeswoman for Madigan's office said. The Florida-based company operates several Web sites that sell cell telephone records, according to a copy of the suit.

The attorneys general of Florida and Missouri quickly followed Madigan's lead, filing suit on 24 January and 30 January, respectively, against 1st Source Information Specialists and, in Missouri's case, one other records broker - First Data Solutions, Inc.

Several wireless providers, including T-Mobile, Verizon, and Cingular filed earlier lawsuits against records brokers, with Cingular winning an injunction against First Data Solutions and 1st Source Information Specialists on January 13.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) introduced legislation in February 2006 aimed at curbing the practice. The Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 would create felony criminal penalties for stealing and selling the records of mobile phone, landline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) subscribers.

Hewlett Packard's former Chairman, Patricia Dunn, reported that the HP board hired a private investigation company to delve into who was responsible for leaks within the board. Dunn acknowledged that this company used the practice of pretexting to solicit the telephone records of board members and journalists. Chairman Dunn later apologized for this act and offered to step down from the board if it was desired by board members. [ HP chairman: Use of pretexting 'embarrassing'] Stephen Shankland, 2006-09-08 1:08 PM PDT "CNET"] Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting, and this case is being investigated by the California Attorney General.

Criminal social engineering in popular culture

* In the film "Hackers", the protagonist used a form of social engineering, where the main character accessed a TV network's control system by telephoning the security guard for the telephone number to the station's modem, posing as an important executive. Although the film is not highly accurate, the particular method demonstrates the power of social engineering when applied to criminal behavior.

* In Jeffrey Deaver's book "The Blue Nowhere", social engineering to obtain confidential information is one of the methods used by the killer, Phate, to get close to his victims.

* In the movie "Live Free or Die Hard", Justin Long is seen pretexting that his father is dying from a heart attack to have an OnStar representative start what will become a stolen car.

* In the movie "Sneakers", one of the characters poses as a low level security guard's superior in order to convince him that a security breach is just a false alarm.

* In the movie "The Thomas Crown Affair", one of the characters poses over the telephone as a museum guard's superior in order to move the guard away from his post.

* In the James Bond movie "Diamonds Are Forever", Bond is seen gaining entry to the Whyte laboratory with a then-state-of-the-art card-access lock system by "tailgating". He merely waits for an employee to come to open the door, then posing himself as a rookie at the lab, fakes inserting a non-existent card while the door is unlocked for him by the employee.

ee also

* Phishing
* Confidence trick
* Certified Social Engineering Prevention Specialist (CSEPS)
* Physical information security
* Vishing
* Social engineering (political science)



* John Leyden. April 18, 2003. " [ Office workers give away passwords for a cheap pen] ". The Register. Retrieved 2004-09-09.
* SirRoss. January 20, 2005. " [ A Guide to Social Engineering, Volume 1] " " [ A Guide to Social Engineering, Volume 2] ". Astalavista.
* Kevin Mitnick, Alexis Kasperavičius. 2004. "CSEPS Course Workbook." Mitnick Security Publishing.
* Kevin Mitnick, William L. Simon, Steve Wozniak. 2002. "The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security". John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-23712-4.

Further reading

* Boyington, Gregory. "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (Bantam Books, 1990) ISBN 0-553-26350-1
* Mitnick, Kevin. "The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security" (Wiley, 2003) ISBN 0-764-54280-X

External links

* [ Social Engineering Fundamentals]
* [ Social Engineering, the USB Way] - Dark Reading (7 June 2006)
* [ Should Social Engineering be a part of Penetration Testing?] Darknet
* [ Federal Trade Commission on Pretexting]
* [ "Protecting Consumers' Phone Records"] - US Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation - February 8 2006
* [ Striptease for passwords]

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