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Social engineering (security)

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Social engineering (security)

OPSEC alert

Social engineering, in the context of information security, refers to psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. A type of confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional "con" in that it is often one of many steps in a more complex fraud scheme.

The term "social engineering" as an act of psychological manipulation is also associated with the social sciences, but its usage has caught on among computer and information security professionals.[1]


  • Techniques and terms 1
    • Pretexting 1.1
    • Diversion theft 1.2
    • Phishing 1.3
      • IVR or phone phishing 1.3.1
      • Baiting 1.3.2
    • Quid pro quo 1.4
    • Tailgating 1.5
    • Shoulder Surfing 1.6
    • Other types 1.7
    • Countermeasures 1.8
  • Notable social engineers 2
    • Kevin Mitnick 2.1
    • Christopher Hadnagy 2.2
    • Badir Brothers 2.3
    • JB Snyder 2.4
    • Mike Ridpath 2.5
    • Aaron Crawford 2.6
    • Others 2.7
  • Law 3
    • Pretexting of telephone records 3.1
    • Federal legislation 3.2
    • 1st Source Information Specialists 3.3
    • Hewlett Packard 3.4
  • In popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Techniques and terms

All social engineering techniques are based on specific attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases.[2] These biases, sometimes called "bugs in the human hardware", are exploited in various combinations to create attack techniques, some of which are listed. The attacks used in social engineering can be used to steal employees confidential information. The most common type of social engineering happens over the phone. Other examples of social engineering attacks are criminals posing as exterminators, fire marshals and technicians to go unnoticed as they steal company secrets.

One example of social engineering is an individual who walks into a building and posts an official looking announcement to the company bulletin that says the number for the help desk has changed. So, when employees call for help the individual asks them for their passwords and ID's thereby gaining the ability to access the company's private information.


Pretexting (adj. pretextual), also known in the UK as blagging or bohoing, 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.[3] 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.[4]

This technique can be used to fool 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 to create a pretextual scenario.

Diversion theft

Diversion theft, also known as the "Corner Game"[5] 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".


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 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

Phone phishing (or "vishing") 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.


Baiting is like the real-world Trojan Horse that uses physical media and relies on the curiosity or greed of the victim.[6]

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.

Hostile devices, more attractive than simple memory, can also be used.[7] For instance, a "lucky winner" is sent a free digital audio player that actually compromises any computer it is plugged to.

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 this person 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.[8] Similar surveys in later years obtained similar results using chocolates and other cheap lures, although they made no attempt to validate the passwords.[9]


An attacker, seeking entry to a restricted area secured 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 or the attackers themselves may ask the employee to hold it open for them. 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.

Shoulder Surfing

Shoulder surfing involves observing an employee's private information over their shoulder. This type of attack is common in public places such as airports, airplanes or coffee shops.

Other types

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 technique includes 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
  • Convincing users to run malicious code within the web browser via self-XSS attack to allow access to their web account


Organizations reduce their security risks by:

  • Establishing frameworks of trust on an employee/personnel level (i.e., specify and train personnel when/where/why/how sensitive information should be handled)
  • Identifying which information is sensitive and evaluating its exposure to social engineering and breakdowns in security systems (building, computer system, etc.)
  • Establishing security protocols, policies, and procedures for handling sensitive information.
  • Training employees in security protocols relevant to their position. (e.g., in situations such as tailgating, if a person's identity cannot be verified, then employees must be trained to politely refuse.)
  • Performing unannounced, periodic tests of the security framework.
  • Reviewing the above steps regularly: no solutions to information integrity are perfect.[10]
  • Using a waste management service that has dumpsters with locks on them, with keys to them limited only to the waste management company and the cleaning staff. Locating the dumpster either in view of employees such that trying to access it carries a risk of being seen or caught or behind a locked gate or fence where the person must trespass before they can attempt to access the dumpster.[11]

Notable social engineers

Kevin Mitnick

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.[12]

Christopher Hadnagy

Christopher Hadnagy is the security professional who wrote the first framework defining the physical and psychological principles of social engineering.[13] He is also the author of the book "Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking," [14] "Unmasking the Social Engineer: The Human Element of Security" and numerous podcasts and newsletters at Security through Education (a free online SE resource). He is the creator of the DEFCON Social Engineer Capture the Flag and the Social Engineer CTF for Kids.

Badir Brothers

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, and Braille-display computers.[15]

JB Snyder

Principal Consultant for Bancsec, Inc., and one of the world's top experts in banking cybersecurity, developed and proved in over 50 U.S. bank locations "the most efficient social engineering attack in history." This attack vector, primarily utilizing email, allows a social engineer to make unauthenticated, unauthorized, large cash withdrawals from bank branches[16] with an extraordinarily high success rate (over 90%) while enjoying low probabilities of immediate detection or subsequent incarceration. Among his other successful bank social engineering test accomplishments is wire transfer through a combination of emails and telephone pretexting.

Mike Ridpath

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.[17][18][19]

Aaron Crawford

Notable Social Engineering Consultant, runs talks and contests and is a known speaker for conferences like RSA and Besides on social engineering tactics. He also runs which is a platform for learning about social engineering and teaches several classes on social engineering to companies and the general public.[20][21]


Other social engineers include Frank Abagnale, David Bannon, Peter Foster, Alexander "Frank", Steven Jay Russell & Ed Williams.


In common law, pretexting is an invasion of privacy tort of appropriation.[22]

Pretexting of telephone records

In December 2006,

  • – The biggest RUnet community devoted to social engineering.
  • Social Engineering Fundamentals – Retrieved on 3 August 2009.
  • "Social Engineering, the USB Way". Light Reading Inc. 7 June 2006. Archived from the original on 13 July 2006. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  • Should Social Engineering be a part of Penetration Testing? – Retrieved on 3 August 2009.
  • Social Engineering Awareness Training video - Short video which describes social engineering techniques, and how to spot them.
  • "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 – Retrieved on 1 November 2007.
  • – Retrieved on 16 September 2009.
  • Social Engineering: Manipulating Caller-Id
  • Overview of Social Engineering Threats -Presented for Parents & Teachers
  • Freedom Downtime-Story of Kevin Metnick

External links

  • 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

Further reading

  1. ^   Chapter 2, page 17
  2. ^ Jaco, K: "CSEPS Course Workbook" (2004), unit 3, Jaco Security Publishing.
  3. ^ The story of HP pretexting scandal with discussion is available at Davani, Faraz (14 August 2011). "HP Pretexting Scandal by Faraz Davani". Scribd. Retrieved 15 August 2011. 
  4. ^ "Pretexting: Your Personal Information Revealed", Federal Trade Commission
  5. ^ "Train For Life". 5 January 2010. Archived from the original on 5 January 2010. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  6. ^ "Social Engineering, the USB Way". Light Reading Inc. 7 June 2006. Archived from the original on 13 July 2006. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Leyden, John (18 April 2003). "Office workers give away passwords". Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  9. ^ "Passwords revealed by sweet deal". BBC News. 20 April 2004. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  10. ^ Mitnick, K., & Simon, W. (2005). "The Art Of Intrusion". Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing.
  11. ^ Allsopp, William. Unauthorised access: Physical penetration testing for it security teams. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. 240-241.
  12. ^ Mitnick, K: "CSEPS Course Workbook" (2004), p. 4, Mitnick Security Publishing. A documentary based on Kevin Metnick "Freedom Downtime" was made featuring the real story of Kevin Metnick, featuring some real Hackers.
  13. ^ "Social Engineering Framework". 1 October 2010. Archived from the original on 22 September 2009. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  14. ^ "Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking". Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  15. ^ "Wired 12.02: Three Blind Phreaks". 14 June 1999. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  16. ^ "Hackers Get an A". American Banker. 26 May 2011. 
  17. ^ "B-Sides Portland 2011: Covert Calling - Secrets of Social Engineering Revealed". YouTube. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  18. ^ "BsidesPDX Track 1 10/07/11 02:52PM, BsidesPDX Track 1 10/07/11 02:52PM BsidesPDX on USTREAM. Conference". 7 October 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  19. ^ "Automated Social Engineering". BrightTALK. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  20. ^ " - Learn To Social Engineer". 
  21. ^ "Aaron Crawford on The World Championship of Social Engineering". YouTube. 13 August 2013. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  22. ^ Restatement 2d of Torts § 652C.
  23. ^ Congress outlaws pretexting, Eric Bangeman, 12/11/2006 11:01:01, Ars Technica
  24. ^ Mitnick, K (2002): "The Art of Deception", p. 103 Wiley Publishing Ltd: Indianapolis, Indiana; United States of America. ISBN 0-471-23712-4
  25. ^ HP chairman: Use of pretexting 'embarrassing' Stephen Shankland, 2006-09-08 1:08 PM PDT CNET
  26. ^ "Calif. court drops charges against Dunn". 14 March 2007. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 


See also

  • In the movie Identity Thief, Melissa McCarthy used pretexting to get the name and other identifying information of Jason Bateman enabling her to steal his identity.
  • 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 Die Hard 4.0, Justin Long is seen pretexting that his father is dying from a heart attack to have an 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.
  • In the TV show Burn Notice, many characters are seen using social engineering; in Michael Westen's psych profile it is stated that he is very skilled in social engineering.
  • In the TV show Psych, protagonist Shawn Spencer often uses pretexting to gain access to locations he would otherwise not be allowed into without police credentials.
  • In the videogame Watch Dogs, protagonist Aiden Pearce states that he studied social engineering when growing up into a life of crime and uses social engineering tactics to manipulate other characters throughout the game to get the information he wants.

In popular culture

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.[25] Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting. The four felony charges brought on Dunn were dismissed.[26]

Hewlett Packard

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.

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.

1st Source Information Specialists

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.[24]

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.

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."

Federal legislation


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