Social engineering: 3 examples of human hacking

Social engineering expert Chris Hadnagy shares juicy tales of successful cons he's seen as a security consultant, and six prevention tips

Chris Hadnagy gets paid to fool people, and he's gotten pretty good at it over the years. A co-founder of social-engineering.org and author of Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking, Hadnagy has been using manipulation tactics for more than a decade to show clients how criminals get inside information.

Hadnagy outlines three memorable stories of social engineering tests that he's included in his new book (you can also read a short excerpt), and points out what organizations can learn from these results.

The Overconfident CEO

In one case study, Hadnagy outlines how he was hired as an SE auditor to gain access to the servers of a printing company which had some proprietary processes and vendors that competitors were after. In a phone meeting with Hadnagy's business partner, the CEO informed him that "hacking him would be next to impossible" because he "guarded his secrets with his life."

Also see Social engineering: The basics

"He was the guy who was never going to fall for this," said Hadnagy. "He was thinking someone would probably call and ask for his password and he was ready for an approach like that."

After some information gathering, Hadnagy found the locations of servers, IP addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, physical addresses, mail servers, employee names and titles, and much more. But the real prize of knowledge came when Hadnagy managed to learn the CEO had a family member that had battled cancer, and lived. As a result, he was interested and involved in cancer fundraising and research. Through Facebook, he was also able to get other personal details about the CEO, such as his favorite restaurant and sports team.

Armed with the information, he was ready to strike. He called the CEO and posed as a fundraiser from a cancer charity the CEO had dealt with in the past. He informed him they were offering a prize drawing in exchange for donations—and the prizes included tickets to a game played by his favorite sports team, as well as gift certificates to several restaurants, including his favorite spot.

For even more depth, read CSO's Ultimate Guide to Social Engineering [13-page PDF - free CSO Insider registration required]

The CEO bit, and agreed to let Hadnagy send him a PDF with more information on the fund drive. He even managed to get the CEO to tell him which version of Adobe reader he was running because, he told the CEO "I want to make sure I'm sending you a PDF you can read." Soon after he sent the PDF, the CEO opened it, installing a shell that allowed Hadnagy to access his machine.

When Hadnagy and his partner reported back to the company about their success with breaching the CEO's computer, the CEO was understandably angry, said Hadnagy.

"He felt it was unfair we used something like that, but this is how the world works," said Hadnagy. "A malicious hacker would not think twice about using that information against him."

Takeaway 1: No information, regardless of its personal or emotional nature, is off limits for a social engineer seeking to do harm

Takeaway 2: It is often the person who thinks he is most secure who poses the biggest vulnerability. One security consultant recently told CSO that executives are the easiest social engineering targets.

The theme-park scandal

The target in this next case study was a theme park client that was concerned about potential compromise of its ticketing system. The computers used to check-in patrons also contained links to servers, client information and financial records. The client was concerned that if a check-in computer was compromised, a serious data breach might occur.

Hadnagy started his test by calling the park, posing as a software salesperson. He was offering a new type of PDF-reading software, which he wanted the park to try through a trial offer. He asked what version they were currently using, got the information easily, and was ready for step two.

The next phase required on-site social engineering, and Hadnagy used his family in order to ensure success. Heading up to one of the ticket windows with his wife and child in tow, he asked one of the employees if they might use their computer to open a file from his email. The email contained a pdf attachment for a coupon that would give them discount admission.

"The whole thing could have gone south if she said 'No, sorry, can't do that,'" explained Hadnagy. "But looking like a dad, with a kid anxious to get into the park, pulls at the heart strings."

The employee agreed, and the park's computer system was quickly compromised by Hadnagy's bad PDF. Within minutes, Hadnagy's partner was texting him to let him know he was 'in' and 'gathering information for their report.'

Also read Social engineering techniques: 4 ways outsiders get inside

Hadnagy also points out that while the park's employee policy states that they should not open attachments from unknown sources (even a customer needing help), there were no rules in place to actual enforce it.

"People are willing to go to great lengths to help others out," said Hadnagy.

Takeaway 3: Security policy is only as good as it is enforcement

Takeaway 4: Criminals will often play to an employee's good nature and desire to be helpful

The hacker is hacked

Hadnagy gives a third example showing how social engineering was used for defensive purposes. He profiles 'John,' a penetration tester hired to conduct a standard network pen test for a client. He ran scan using Metasploit, which revealed an open VNC (virtual network computing) server, a server that allows control of other machines on the network.

He was documenting the find with the VNC session open when, suddenly, in the background, a mouse began to move across the screen. John new it was a red flag because at the time of day this was happening, no user would be connected to the network for a legitimate reason. He suspected an intruder was on the network.

Taking a chance, John opened Notepad and began chatting with the intruder, posing as a 'n00b' hacker, someone who is new and unskilled.

"He thought 'How can I get more information from this guy and be more valuable to my client?'" said Hadnagy. "John played to the guy's ego by trying to pretend he was a newbie who wanted to learn more from a master hacker."

John asked the hacker several questions, pretending to be a younger person who wanted to learn some tricks of the hacking trade and who wanted to keep in touch with another hacker. By the time the chat was over, he had the intruder's email, contact information—and even a picture of him. He reported the information back to his client, and the problem of easy access to the system was also fixed.

Hadnagy also points out that John learned through his conversation with the hacker that the hacker had not really been 'targeting' the company who he had hacked, he had just been out looking around for something easy to compromise and found that open system quite easily.

Takeaway 5: Social engineering can be part of an organization's defense strategy

Takeaway 6: Criminals will often go for the low-hanging fruit. Anyone can be a target if security is low

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