Tales of a Professional Social Engineer

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-04-07 Print this article Print

Opinion: Nobody thinks it will happen to them, but social engineering is the way the pros use to compromise your security. And you'll invite them in.

Jim Stickley robs banks, government offices and other allegedly secure locations. And he does it the unorthodox way. Stickley doesnt go in like Edward G. Robinson with a Tommy gun. He gets you to like him and trust him and leave him alone while he steals your confidential information and other assets that you should be guarding unceasingly. His is a field that has come to be known as social engineering.

Read more here about social engineering.
His firm, Trace Security Inc., is hired by organizations like banks to test the security of their offices the only right way there is, by challenging it. Faceless National Bank will hire him to see if the Podunk branch is paying attention to security policy. The bank may even say, "Go in and try to steal these specific corporate account records."

If you got an e-mail that appeared to be from your boss or from headquarters telling you to expect a visitor, an exterminator, for example, would you let them in the door? Of course you would. But its not too hard to fake a situation like that. Consider one way it might be done:
  • Its easy to determine who works in the branch. Sometimes its on the Internet, or you can just walk in and look at the names on the desks and badges. The names of people at headquarters are often as available on the Internet.
  • The social engineering team sends innocuous probe e-mails to some of these people in a variety of styles, like john.smith@facelessnational.com and jsmith@facelessnational.com and so on to determine what everyones address is.
  • Then the team registers a one-off domain name like facelessnationa1.com (notice the 1 at the end instead of an l).
  • When an e-mail comes in from the regional VP @facelessnationa1.com saying, for example, that an exterminator is coming, people are likely not to notice. And in fact, the "from" address of the message can actually say facelessnational.com with an "l" since thats easy to spoof, but if someone were suspicious enough to check headers they would quite possibly miss the "1."
Once the teams in the door and says they have to go around setting traps, the proper procedure should be to escort them anywhere and everywhere they go. Dont leave them out of your sight. When they crouch down under someones desk near the back of the computer, look at what they are doing, because if its Stickley hes probably installing a data-thieving dongle on the computer, which he intends to retrieve when he comes back to "check the traps." Other favorite scams are air conditioning tech and fire marshal.

Of course, Stickley really does leave some cheap glue traps, but he probably installs more pests than hell ever take away. And dont leave him alone in the computer center because hell probably walk out with the server backups tapes, the ultimate grand prize of such expeditions, since they contain mountains of sensitive data and are likely unencrypted.

Next Page: Reminiscent of "Oceans Eleven."

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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