Tales of a Professional Social Engineer

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.

/zimages/7/28571.gifRead 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."