Social Engineering: The Basics

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What is social engineering? What are the most common and current tactics? A guide on how to stop social engineering.

You've got all the bells and whistles when it comes to network firewalls and your building's security has a state-of-the-art access system. You've invested in the technology. But a social engineering attack could bypass all those defenses.

CSO's ultimate guide to social engineering

Say two fire inspectors show up at your office, show their badges and ask for a walkthrough—you're legally required to give them access to do their job. They ask a lot of questions, they take electrical readings at various wall outlets, they examine wiring under desks. Thorough, aren't they? Problem is, in this case they're really security consultants doing a social engineering 'penetration test' and grabbing access cards, installing keystroke loggers, and generally getting away with as much of your business's private information as they can get their hands on. (See How to rob a bank for details from this real-world example.)

Social engineers, or criminals who take advantage of human behavior to pull of a scam, aren't worried about a badge system. They will just walk right in and confidently ask someone to help them get inside. And that firewall? It won't mean much if your users are tricked into clicking on a malicious link they think came from a Facebook friend.

In this article, we outline the common tactics social engineers often use, and give you tips on how to ensure your staff is on guard.

Last updated September 27, 2012.

What is social engineering?

Social engineering is essentially the art of gaining access to buildings, systems or data by exploiting human psychology, rather than by breaking in or using technical hacking techniques. For example, instead of trying to find a software vulnerability, a social engineer might call an employee and pose as an IT support person, trying to trick the employee into divulging his password.

Famous hacker Kevin Mitnick helped popularize the term 'social engineering' in the '90s, although the idea and many of the techniques have been around as long as there have been scam artists of any sort. (Watch the video to see social-engineering expert Chris Nickerson size up one building's perimeter security)

Through a Social Engineer's Eyes

Social Engineering expert Chris Nickerson reveals what criminals are looking for when it comes vulnerabilities in building security.

How is my company at risk?

Social engineering has proven to be a very successful way for a criminal to "get inside" your organization. In the example given above, once a social engineer has a trusted employee's password, he can simply log in and snoop around for sensitive data. Another try might be to scam someone out of an access card or code in order to physically get inside a facility, whether to access data, steal assets, or even to harm people.

Chris Nickerson, founder of Lares, a Colorado-based security consultancy, conducts 'red team testing' for clients using social engineering techniques to see where a company is vulnerable. Nickerson detailed for CSO how easy it is to get inside a building without question.

In one penetration test, Nickerson used current events, public information available on social network sites, and a $4 Cisco shirt he purchased at a thrift store to prepare for his illegal entry. The shirt helped him convince building reception and other employees that he was a Cisco employee on a technical support visit. Once inside, he was able to give his other team members illegal entry as well. He also managed to drop several malware-laden USBs and hack into the company's network, all within sight of other employees. Read Anatomy of a Hack to follow Nickerson through this exercise.

In What it's like to steal someone's identity professional pen tester Chris Roberts, founder of One World Labs, says he too often meets people who assume they have nothing worth stealing.

"So many people look at themselves or the companies they work for and think, 'Why would somebody want something from me? I don't have any money or anything anyone would want,'?" he said. "While you may not, if I can assume your identity, you can pay my bills. Or I can commit crimes in your name. I always try to get people to understand that no matter who the heck you are, or who you represent, you have a value to a criminal."

Sneaky stuff. Give me some specific examples of what social engineers say or do.

Criminals will often take weeks and months getting to know a place before even coming in the door or making a phone call. Their preparation might include finding a company phone list or org chart and researching employees on social networking sites like LinkedIn or Facebook.

In the case of Roberts, he was asked to conduct a pen test for a client who was a high-net-worth individual to see how easy it would be to steal from him. He used a basic internet search to find an email address for the individual. From there, it snowballed.

Useful Books on Social Engineering!

By Hadnagy and Wilson (Wiley, Dec 2010)

"This book covers, in detail, the world's first framework for social engineering."

By Johnny Long et al (Syngress 2008)

"Whether breaking into buildings or slipping past industrial-grade firewalls, my goal has always been the same: extract the informational secrets using any means necessary."

"We searched for the e-mail address online were able to find a telephone number because he had posted in a public forum using both," said Roberts. "On this forum, he was looking for concert tickets and had posted his telephone number on there to be contacted about buying tickets from a potential seller."

The phone number turned out to be an office number and Roberts called pretending to be a publicist. From there he was able to obtain a personal cell phone number, a home address, and, eventually, mortage information. The point being from one small bit of information, a social engineering can compile an enitre profile on a target and seem convincing. By the time Roberts was done with his pen test, he knew where the person's kids went to school and even was able to pull a Bluetooth signal from his residence.

Once a social engineer is ready to strike, knowing the right thing to say, knowing whom to ask for, and having confidence are often all it takes for an unauthorized person to gain access to a facility or sensitive data, according to Nickerson.

The goal is always to gain the trust of one or more of your employees. In Mind Games: How Social Engineers Win Your Confidence Brian Bushwood, host of the Internet video series Scam School, describes some of the tricks scam artists use to gain that trust, which can vary depending on the communication medium:

-- On the phone:

A social engineer might call and pretend to be a fellow employee or a trusted outside authority (such as law enforcement or an auditor).

According to Sal Lifrieri, a 20-year veteran of the New York City Police Department who now educates companies on social engineering tactics through an organization called Protective Operations, the criminal tries to make the person feel comfortable with familiarity. They might learn the corporate lingo so the person on the other end thinks they are an insider. Another successful technique involves recording the "hold" music a company uses when callers are left waiting on the phone. See more such tricks in Social Engineering: Eight Common Tactics.

-- In the office:

"Can you hold the door for me? I don't have my key/access card on me." How often have you heard that in your building? While the person asking may not seem suspicious, this is a very common tactic used by social engineers.

In the same exercise where Nickerson used his thrift-shop shirt to get into a building, he had a team member wait outside near the smoking area where employees often went for breaks. Assuming this person was simply a fellow-office-smoking mate, real employees let him in the back door with out question. "A cigarette is a social engineer's best friend," said Nickerson. He also points out other places where social engineers can get in easily in 5 Security Holes at the Office.

This kind of thing goes on all the time, according to Nickerson. The tactic is als o known as tailgating. Many people just don't ask others to prove they have permission to be there. But even in places where badges or other proof is required to roam the halls, fakery is easy, he said.

"I usually use some high-end photography to print up badges to really look like I am supposed to be in that environment. But they often don't even get checked. I've even worn a badge that said right on it 'Kick me out' and I still was not questioned."

-- Online:

Social networking sites have opened a whole new door for social engineering scams, according to Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with U.K.-based security firm Sophos. One of the latest involves the criminal posing as a Facebook "friend." But one can never be certain the person they are talking to on Facebook is actually the real person, he noted. Criminals are stealing passwords, hacking accounts and posing as friends for financial gain.

One popular tactic used recently involved scammers hacking into Facebook accounts and sending a message on Facebook claiming to be stuck in a foreign city and they say they need money.

"The claim is often that they were robbed while traveling and the person asks the Facebook friend to wire money so everything can be fixed," said Cluley.

"If a person has chosen a bad password, or had it stolen through malware, it is easy for a con to wear that cloak of trustability," he said. "Once you have access to a person's account, you can see who their spouse is, where they went on holiday the last time. It is easy to pretend to be someone you are not."

See 9 Dirty Tricks: Social Engineers Favorite Pick-up Lines for more examples.

Social engineers also take advantage of current events and holidays to lure victims. In Cyber Monday: 3 online shopping scams and 7 Scroogeworthy scams for the holidays security experts warn that social engineers often take advantage of holiday shopping trends by posioning search results and planting bad links in sites. They might also go as far as to set up a fake charity in the hope of gaining some cash from a Christmas donation.

Why do people fall for social engineering techniques?

People are fooled every day by these cons because they haven't been adequately warned about social engineers. As CSO blogger Tom Olzak points out, human behavior is always the weakest link in any security program. And who can blame them? Without the proper education, most people won't recognize a social engineer's tricks because they are often very sophisticated.

Social engineers use a number of psychological tactics on unsuspecting victims. As Bushwood outlines in Mind Games, successful social engineers are confident and in control of the conversation. They simply act like they belong in a facility, even if they should not be, and their confidence and body posture puts others at ease.

This is your brain on social engineering

Brian Brushwood is really good at tricking people. So good he founded a website called "Scam School".

Brushwood understands how social engineers mislead people. Four basic principles:

  • They project confidence. Instead of sneaking around, they proactively approach people and draw attention to themselves.
  • They give you something. Even a small favor creates trust and a perception of indebtedness.
  • They use humor. It's endearing and disarming.
  • They make a request and offer a reason. Psych 101 research shows people are likely to respond to any reasoned request.

Read the details in Mind games: How social engineers win your confidence

"People running concert security often aren't even looking for badges," said Brushwood. "They are looking for posture. They can always tell who is a fan trying to sneak back and catch a glimpse of the star and who is working the event because they seem like they belong there."

Social engineers will also use humor and compliments in a conversation. They may even give a small gift to a gate-keeping employee, like a receptionist, to curry favor for the future. These are often successful ways to gain a person's trust, said Bushwood, because 'liking' and 'feeling the need to reciprocate' are both fixed-action patterns that humans naturally employ under the right circumstances.

Online, many social engineering scams are taking advantage of both human fear and curiosity. Links that ask "Have you seen this video of you?' are impossible to resist if you aren't aware it is simply a social engineer looking to trap you into clicking on a bad link.

Successful phishing attacks often warn that "Your bank account has been breached! Click here to log in and verify your account." Or "You have not paid for the item you recently won on eBay. Please click here to pay." This ploy plays to a person's concerns about negative impact on their eBay score.

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