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.
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
This is just one of the schemes Stickley and his merry band will use. Its all very reminiscent of “Oceans Eleven” and requires the attacker to be a great liar and cool under pressure. And such attackers always carry an authorization document from someone in authority in case they arouse suspicion, which Stickley insists is not very often.
When it happens its because someone was assiduous at following procedure, a trait that often goes unappreciated or even ridiculed in normal circumstances. If you were in charge, would you assign one of your people to follow the exterminator around?
Its also worth mentioning that large financial institutions like banks usually have internal security groups that do audits to cover situations like this, but I dont think they often get as creative as Trace Security.
Stickley also engages in the more common remote forms of social engineering of the Kevin Mitnick variety. If you got a call from the development group at headquarters and they asked you, for test purposes, to sign in to the new development Web site at dev-facelessnational.com, would you? You might, and then theyd have your log-in credentials. (Its in cases like this that two-factor authentication is useful, but its still not universal.)
Stickley also will e-mail e-greeting cards to users that attempt to use Windows vulnerabilities to install malware that gives him a backdoor to the system.
Do you want to worry about threats like Stickley every day while youre trying to get your job done? No, and neither do I. But unfortunately human failings are at the heart of most security breaches. In the end, the moral is that it can happen to you. Dont be complacent because youre in a big company that has security policies and even a budget for it. Dont think that because youre in a small company that you can fly under the radar. The Internet has made it too easy to attack anyone, and even small banks have money in them.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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