Social engineering (security) explained
Social engineering, in the context of security, is understood to mean the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. While it is similar to a confidence trick or simple fraud, it is typically trickery or deception for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or computer system access; in most cases the attacker never comes face-to-face with the victims.
“Social engineering” as an act of psychological manipulation had previously been associated with the social sciences, but its usage has caught on among computer professionals.
Social engineering techniques and terms
All social engineering techniques are based on specific attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases. These biases, sometimes called “bugs in the human hardware,” are exploited in various combinations to create attack techniques, some of which are listed here:
Pretexting is the act of creating and using an invented scenario (the pretext) to engage a targeted victim in a manner that increases the chance the victim will divulge information or perform actions that would be unlikely in ordinary circumstances. An elaborate lie, it most often involves some prior research or setup and the use of this information for impersonation (e.g., date of birth, Social Security Number, last bill amount) to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target.
This technique can be used to blame a business into disclosing customer information as well as by private investigators to obtain telephone records, utility records, banking records and other information directly from 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.
Pretexting can also be used to impersonate co-workers, police, bank, tax authorities, clergy, 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.
Diversion theft, also known as the “Corner Game” or “Round the Corner Game”, originated in the East End of London.
In summary, diversion theft is a “con” exercised by professional thieves, normally against a transport or courier company. The objective is to persuade the persons responsible for a legitimate delivery that the consignment is requested elsewhere — hence, “round the corner”.
With a load/consignment redirected, the thieves persuade the driver to unload the consignment near to, or away from, the consignee’s address, in the pretense that it is “going straight out” or “urgently required somewhere else”.
The “con” or deception has many different facets, which include social engineering techniques to persuade legitimate administrative or traffic personnel of a transport or courier company to issue instructions to the driver to redirect the consignment or load.
Another variation of diversion theft is stationing a security van outside a bank on a Friday evening. Smartly dressed guards use the line “Night safe’s out of order, Sir”. By this method shopkeepers etc. are gulled into depositing their takings into the van. They do of course obtain a receipt but later this turns out to be worthless. A similar technique was used many years ago to steal a Steinway grand piano from a radio studio in London. “Come to overhaul the piano, guv” was the chat line.
See main article: Phishing. Phishing is a 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
See main article: Vishing. This 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.
One 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.
Phone phishing is also called vishing.
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 disk, 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 from the target’s web site, and write “Executive Salary Summary Q2 2012” 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.
More attractive than memory, hostile devices can also be used. For instance, a “lucky winner” is sent a free digital audio player that actually compromises any computer it is plugged to. Technology security companyHBGary has sold such devices to the US government.
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.
See main article: Piggybacking (security). An attacker, seeking entry to a restricted area where access is by unattended, electronic access control, e.g. by RFID card, simply walks in behind a person who has legitimate access. Following common courtesy, the legitimate person will usually hold the door open for the attacker. The legitimate person may fail to ask for identification for any of several reasons, or may accept an assertion that the attacker has forgotten or lost the appropriate identity token. The attacker may also fake the action of presenting an identity token.
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.
A very recent type of social engineering techniques include spoofing or cracking 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.
- Cracking 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.
- Cracking websites of companies or organizations and destroying their reputation.
- Computer virus hoaxes
- Organizations must, on an employee/personnel level, establish frameworks of trust. (ie, When/Where/Why/How should sensitive information be handled?)
- Organizations must identify which information is sensitive and question its integrity in all forms. (ie, Social Engineering, Building Security, Computer Security, etc)
- Organizations must establish security protocols for the people who handle sensitive information. (ie, Paper-Trails for information disclosure and/or forensic crumbs)
- Employees must be trained in security protocols relevant to their position. (e.g., employees must identify people who steer towards sensitive information.) (also: In situations such as tailgating, if a person’s identity cannot be verified, then employees must be trained to politely refuse.)
- An Organization’s framework must be tested periodically, and these tests must be unannounced.
- Insert a critical eye into any of the above steps: there is no perfect solution for information integrity.
Notable social engineers
California police departments investigating red light violations
More than 30 California police departments mail out fake red light camera “tickets,” also called “Snitch Tickets,” in an effort to bluff registered owners into revealing the identity of the person who was driving the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation. Because these “tickets” have not been filed at court, they carry no legal weight and (in the US) the registered owner has the right to remain silent and is under no obligation to respond in any manner. In California, a genuine ticket will bear the name and address of the local branch of the Superior Court and direct the recipient to contact that Court, while a fake “ticket” generated by the police will not.  
Reformed computer criminal and later security consultant Kevin Mitnick points out that it is much easier to trick someone into giving a password for a system than to spend the effort to crack into the system.
Brothers Ramy, Muzher, and Shadde Badir—all of whom were blind from birth—managed to set up an extensive phone and computer fraud scheme in Israel in the 1990s using social engineering, voice impersonation, andBraille-display computers.
Security consultant, published author, and founder of the first official Social Engineering Framework. Involved in formalizing Social Engineering concepts to better define the various threats it poses. 
The white hat hacker, computer security consultant, and writer for Phrack Magazine, Archangel (nicknamed “The Greatest Social Engineer of All Time”) has demonstrated social engineering techniques to gain everything from passwords to pizza to automobiles to airline tickets.    
Security Consultant for Secure Network Technologies. Inventor of the USB thumb drive test where USB sticks contained exploits to test if employees would run them from within their business environments. This attack is now one of the most popular social engineering techniques in existence and is used to test the human element of security around the world.
Security consultant for IOActive, published author, and speaker. Emphasizes techniques and tactics for social engineering cold calling. Became notable after his talks where he would play recorded calls and explain his thought process on what he was doing to get passwords through the phone.  
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 12 January 2007.
The 1999 “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.
1st Source Information Specialists
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 mobile 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 mobile 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 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 13 January. 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.
Patricia Dunn, former chairwoman of Hewlett Packard, reported that the HP board hired a private investigation company to delve into who was responsible for leaks within the board. Dunn acknowledged that the 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.Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting. The four felony charges brought on Dunn were dismissed.
In popular culture
- In the film Hackers, the protagonist used pretexting when he asked a security guard for the telephone number to a TV station’s modem while posing as an important executive.
- 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 a On-Star Assist 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.
- In the television show Rockford Files, The character Jim Rockford used pretexting often in his private investigation work.
- In the popular TV Show The Mentalist, protagonist Patrick Jane often uses Pretexting to trick criminals into confessing to the crimes they committed
- Confidence trick
- Countermeasure (computer)
- Certified Social Engineering Prevention Specialist (CSEPS)
- IT risk
- Media pranks, which often use similar tactics (though usually not for criminal purposes)
- Penetration test
- Physical information security
- Piggybacking (security)
- Threat (computer)
- Vulnerability (computing)
- Ƥιяαтɛ. (1990). Baa Baa Hackforums Published by Ƥιяαтɛ ISBN 0-553-26350-1
- Harley, David. 1998 Re-Floating the Titanic: Dealing with Social Engineering Attacks EICAR Conference.
- Laribee, Lena. June 2006 Development of methodical social engineering taxonomy project Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School.
- Leyden, John. 18 April 2003. Office workers give away passwords for a cheap pen. The Register. Retrieved 2004-09-09.
- Long, Johnny. (2008). No Tech Hacking – A Guide to Social Engineering, Dumpster Diving, and Shoulder Surfing Published by Syngress Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-1-59749-215-7
- Mann, Ian. (2008). Hacking the Human: Social Engineering Techniques and Security Countermeasures Published by Gower Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-566-08773-1 or ISBN 978-0-566-08773-8
- Mitnick, Kevin, Kasperavičius, Alexis. (2004). CSEPS Course Workbook. Mitnick Security Publishing.
- Mitnick, Kevin, Simon, William L., Wozniak, Steve,. (2002). The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security Published by Wiley. ISBN 0-471-23712-4 or ISBN 0-7645-4280-X
- Hadnagy, Christopher, (2011) Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking Published by Wiley. ISBN: 0-470-63953-9
- Socialware.ru – The biggest RUnet community devoted to social engineering.
- http://the.feds.arewatching.us – The Archangel Website
- Social Engineering Fundamentals – Securityfocus.com. Retrieved on 3 August 2009.
- Social Engineering, the USB Way – DarkReading.com. Retrieved on 7 July 2006.
- Should Social Engineering be a part of Penetration Testing? – Darknet.org.uk. Retrieved on 3 August 2009.
- “Protecting Consumers’ Phone Records”, Electronic Privacy Information Center US Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation . Retrieved on 8 February 2006.
- Plotkin, Hal. Memo to the Press: Pretexting is Already Illegal. Retrieved on 9 September 2006.
- Striptease for passwords – MSNBC.MSN.com. Retrieved on 1 November 2007.
- Social-Engineer.org – social-engineer.org. Retrieved on 16 September 2009.
- http://www.jocktoday.com/2010/02/08/social-engineering-manipulating-caller-id/ – Social Engineering: Manipulating Caller-Id
- Overview of Social Engineering Threats -Presented for Parents & Teachers
Notes and References
- News: Social Engineering: The Basics. Goodchild. Joan. 11 January 2010. csoonline. 14 January 2010.
- Book: Anderson, Ross J.. Ross J. Anderson. Ross J. Anderson. Security engineering : a guide to building dependable distributed systems. 2008. Wiley. Indianapolis, IN. 9780470068526. 2nd. 1040. Chapter 2, page 17
- Jaco, K: “CSEPS Course Workbook” (2004), unit 3, Jaco Security Publishing.
- The story of HP pretexting scandal with discussion is available at
- “Pretexting: Your Personal Information Revealed,”Federal Trade Commission
- http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/30324.html Office workers give away passwords
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3639679.stm Passwords revealed by sweet deal
- Mitnick, K., & Simon, W. (2005). “The Art Of Intrusion”. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing.
- http://www.highwayrobbery.net “Police Going Too Far…”
- David Goldstein, CBS Television, Los Angeles “Are police tricking people into paying Snitch Tickets?”
- Web site: The Right To Remain Silent. http://www.almanacnews.com. 18 November 2011. 8 November 2011.
- Web site: Something Every Consumer Should Know. http://www.HandelontheLaw.com. 18 November 2011. 27 March 2009.
- Mitnick, K: “CSEPS Course Workbook” (2004), p. 4, Mitnick Security Publishing.
- Usenet sample citing moniker use-several examples. 1990s to present.
- Editorial. “Pro-Phile on groups” Phrack Magazine, 6 October 1986, sc. 12.
- Editorial. “Line-noise” Phrack Magazine, 13 August 2003, sc. 2.
- “Are Hackers Everywhere?” Money Magazine, July 1997, Malcolm Fitch
- Restatement 2d of Torts § 652C.
- http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20061211-8395.html Congress outlaws pretexting
- Mitnick, K (2002): “The Art of Deception”, p. 103 Wiley Publishing Ltd: Indianapolis, Indiana; United States of America. ISBN 0-471-23712-4
- http://news.com.com/HP+chairman+Use+of+pretexting+embarrassing/2100-1014_3-6113715.html?tag=nefd.lede HP chairman: Use of pretexting ’embarrassing’