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TUCoPS :: Wetware Hacking :: Others :: 1527.txt

Social Engineering Fundamentals Part I

Social Engineering Fundamentals, Part I: Hacker Tactics
by Sarah Granger
last updated December 18, 2001
A True Story

One morning a few years back, a group of strangers walked into a large
shipping firm and walked out with access to the firm’s entire corporate
network. How did they do it? By obtaining small amounts of access, bit
by bit, from a number of different employees in that firm. First, they
did research about the company for two days before even attempting to
set foot on the premises. For example, they learned key employees’ names
by calling HR. Next, they pretended to lose their key to the front door,
and a man let them in. Then they "lost" their identity badges when
entering the third floor secured area, smiled, and a friendly employee
opened the door for them.

The strangers knew the CFO was out of town, so they were able to enter
his office and obtain financial data off his unlocked computer. They dug
through the corporate trash, finding all kinds of useful documents. They
asked a janitor for a garbage pail in which to place their contents and
carried all of this data out of the building in their hands. The
strangers had studied the CFO's voice, so they were able to phone,
pretending to be the CFO, in a rush, desperately in need of his network
password. From there, they used regular technical hacking tools to gain
super-user access into the system.

In this case, the strangers were network consultants performing a
security audit for the CFO without any other employees' knowledge. They
were never given any privileged information from the CFO but were able
to obtain all the access they wanted through social engineering. (This
story was recounted by Kapil Raina, currently a security expert at
Verisign and co-author of mCommerce Security: A Beginner's Guide, based
on an actual workplace experience with a previous employer.)


Most articles I’ve read on the topic of social engineering begin with
some sort of definition like “the art and science of getting people to
comply to your wishes” (Bernz 2), “an outside hacker’s use of
psychological tricks on legitimate users of a computer system, in order
to obtain information he needs to gain access to the system” (Palumbo),
or “getting needed information (for example, a password) from a person
rather than breaking into a system” (Berg). In reality, social
engineering can be any and all of these things, depending upon where you
sit. The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that social
engineering is generally a hacker’s clever manipulation of the natural
human tendency to trust. The hacker’s goal is to obtain information that
will allow him/her to gain unauthorized access to a valued system and
the information that resides on that system.

Security is all about trust. Trust in protection and authenticity.
Generally agreed upon as the weakest link in the security chain, the
natural human willingness to accept someone at his or her word leaves
many of us vulnerable to attack. Many experienced security experts
emphasize this fact. No matter how many articles are published about
network holes, patches, and firewalls, we can only reduce the threat so
much... and then it’s up to Maggie in accounting or her friend, Will,
dialing in from a remote site, to keep the corporate network secured.

Target and Attack

The basic goals of social engineering are the same as hacking in
general: to gain unauthorized access to systems or information in order
to commit fraud, network intrusion, industrial espionage, identity
theft, or simply to disrupt the system or network. Typical targets
include telephone companies and answering services, big-name
corporations and financial institutions, military and government
agencies, and hospitals. The Internet boom had its share of industrial
engineering attacks in start-ups as well, but attacks generally focus on
larger entities.

Finding good, real-life examples of social engineering attacks is
difficult. Target organizations either do not want to admit that they
have been victimized (after all, to admit a fundamental security breach
is not only embarrassing, it may damaging to the organization’s
reputation) and/or the attack was not well documented so that nobody is
really sure whether there was a social engineering attack or not.

As for why organizations are targeted through social engineering – well,
it’s often an easier way to gain illicit access than are many forms of
technical hacking. Even for technical people, it’s often much simpler to
just pick up the phone and ask someone for his password. And most often,
that’s just what a hacker will do.

Social engineering attacks take place on two levels: the physical and
the psychological. First, we'll focus on the physical setting for these
attacks: the workplace, the phone, your trash, and even on-line. In the
workplace, the hacker can simply walk in the door, like in the movies,
and pretend to be a maintenance worker or consultant who has access to
the organization. Then the intruder struts through the office until he
or she finds a few passwords lying around and emerges from the building
with ample information to exploit the network from home later that
night. Another technique to gain authentication information is to just
stand there and watch an oblivious employee type in his password.

Social Engineering by Phone

The most prevalent type of social engineering attack is conducted by
phone. A hacker will call up and imitate someone in a position of
authority or relevance and gradually pull information out of the user.
Help desks are particularly prone to this type of attack. Hackers are
able to pretend they are calling from inside the corporation by playing
tricks on the PBX or the company operator, so caller-ID is not always
the best defense. Here’s a classic PBX trick, care of the Computer
Security Institute: “’Hi, I’m your AT&T rep, I’m stuck on a pole. I need
you to punch a bunch of buttons for me.’”

And here’s an even better one: “They’ll call you in the middle of the
night: ‘Have you been calling Egypt for the last six hours?’ ‘No.’ And
they’ll say, ‘well, we have a call that’s actually active right now,
it’s on your calling card and it’s to Egypt and as a matter of fact,
you’ve got about $2,000 worth of charges from somebody using your card.
You’re responsible for the $2,000, you have to pay that...’ They’ll say,
‘I’m putting my job on the line by getting rid of this $2,000 charge for
you. But you need to read off that AT&T card number and PIN and then
I’ll get rid of the charge for you.’ People fall for it.” (Computer
Security Institute).

Help desks are particularly vulnerable because they are in place
specifically to help, a fact that may be exploited by people who are
trying to gain illicit information. Help desk employees are trained to
be friendly and give out information, so this is a gold mine for social
engineering. Most help desk employees are minimally educated in the area
of security and get paid peanuts, so they tend to just answer questions
and go on to the next phone call. This can create a huge security hole.

The facilitator of a live Computer Security Institute demonstration,
neatly illustrated the vulnerability of help desks when he “dialed up a
phone company, got transferred around, and reached the help desk. ‘Who’s
the supervisor on duty tonight?’ ‘Oh, it’s Betty.’ ‘Let me talk to
Betty.’ [He’s transferred.] ‘Hi Betty, having a bad day?’ ‘No,
why?...Your systems are down.’ She said, ‘my systems aren’t down, we’re
running fine.’ He said, ‘you better sign off.’ She signed off. He said,
‘now sign on again.’ She signed on again. He said, ‘we didn’t even show
a blip, we show no change.’ He said, ‘sign off again.’ She did. ‘Betty,
I’m going to have to sign on as you here to figure out what’s happening
with your ID. Let me have your user ID and password.’ So this senior
supervisor at the Help Desk tells him her user ID and password.”

A variation on the phone theme is the pay phone or ATM. Hackers really
do shoulder surf and obtain credit card numbers and PINs this way. (It
happened to a friend of mine in a large US airport.) People always stand
around phone booths at airports, so this is a place to be extra

Dumpster Diving

Dumpster diving, also known as trashing, is another popular method of
social engineering. A huge amount of information can be collected
through company dumpsters. The LAN Times listed the following items as
potential security leaks in our trash: “company phone books,
organizational charts, memos, company policy manuals, calendars of
meetings, events and vacations, system manuals, printouts of sensitive
data or login names and passwords, printouts of source code, disks and
tapes, company letterhead and memo forms, and outdated hardware.”

These sources can provide a rich vein of information for the hacker.
Phone books can give the hackers names and numbers of people to target
and impersonate. Organizational charts contain information about people
who are in positions of authority within the organization. Memos provide
small tidbits of useful information for creating authenticity. Policy
manuals show hackers how secure (or insecure) the company really is.
Calendars are great – they may tell attackers which employees are out of
town at a particular time. System manuals, sensitive data, and other
sources of technical information may give hackers the exact keys they
need to unlock the network. Finally, outdated hardware, particularly
hard drives, can be restored to provide all sorts of useful information.
(We’ll discuss how to dispose of all of this in the second installment
in this series; suffice it to say, the shredder is a good place to

On-Line Social Engineering

The Internet is fertile ground for social engineers looking to harvest                                [Image]

passwords. The primary weakness is that many users often repeat the use
of one simple password on every account: Yahoo, Travelocity,,
whatever. So once the hacker has one password, he or she can probably
get into multiple accounts. One way in which hackers have been known to
obtain this kind of password is through an on-line form: they can send
out some sort of sweepstakes information and ask the user to put in a
name (including e-mail address – that way, she might even get that
person’s corporate account password as well) and password. These forms
can be sent by e-mail or through US Mail. US Mail provides a better
appearance that the sweepstakes might be a legitimate enterprise.

Another way hackers may obtain information on-line is by pretending to
be the network administrator, sending e-mail through the network and
asking for a user’s password. This type of social engineering attack
doesn’t generally work, because users are generally more aware of
hackers when online, but it is something of which to take note.
Furthermore, pop-up windows can be installed by hackers to look like
part of the network and request that the user reenter his username and
password to fix some sort of problem. At this point in time, most users
should know not to send passwords in clear text (if at all), but it
never hurts to have an occasional reminder of this simple security
measure from the System Administrator. Even better, sys admins might
want to warn their users against disclosing their passwords in any
fashion other than a face-to-face conversation with a staff member who
is known to be authorized and trusted.

E-mail can also be used for more direct means of gaining access to a
system. For instance, mail attachments sent from someone of authenticity
can carry viruses, worms and Trojan horses. A good example of this was
an AOL hack, documented by VIGILANTe: “In that case, the hacker called
AOL’s tech support and spoke with the support person for an hour. During
the conversation, the hacker mentioned that his car was for sale
cheaply. The tech supporter was interested, so the hacker sent an e-mail
attachment ‘with a picture of the car’. Instead of a car photo, the mail
executed a backdoor exploit that opened a connection out from AOL
through the firewall.”


The hackers themselves teach social engineering from a psychological
point-of-view, emphasizing how to create the perfect psychological
environment for the attack. Basic methods of persuasion include:
impersonation, ingratiation, conformity, diffusion of responsibility,
and plain old friendliness. Regardless of the method used, the main
objective is to convince the person disclosing the information that the
social engineer is in fact a person that they can trust with that
sensitive information. The other important key is to never ask for too
much information at a time, but to ask for a little from each person in
order to maintain the appearance of a comfortable relationship.

Impersonation generally means creating some sort of character and
playing out the role. The simpler the role, the better. Sometimes this
could mean just calling up, saying: “Hi, I’m Joe in MIS and I need your
password,” but that doesn’t always work. Other times, the hacker will
study a real individual in an organization and wait until that person is
out of town to impersonate him over the phone. According to Bernz, a
hacker who has written extensively on the subject, they use little boxes
to disguise their voices and study speech patterns and org charts. I’d
say it’s the least likely type of impersonation attack because it takes
the most preparation, but it does happen.

Some common roles that may be played in impersonation attacks include: a
repairman, IT support, a manager, a trusted third party (for example,
the President’s executive assistant who is calling to say that the
President okayed her requesting certain information), or a fellow
employee. In a huge company, this is not that hard to do. There is no
way to know everyone - IDs can be faked. Most of these roles fall under
the category of someone with authority, which leads us to ingratiation.
Most employees want to impress the boss, so they will bend over
backwards to provide required information to anyone in power.

Conformity is a group-based behavior, but can be used occasionally in
the individual setting by convincing the user that everyone else has
been giving the hacker the same information now requested, such as if
the hacker is impersonating an IT manager. When hackers attack in such a
way as to diffuse the responsibility of the employee giving the password
away, that alleviates the stress on the employee.

When in doubt, the best way to obtain information in a social
engineering attack is just to be friendly. The idea here is that the
average user wants to believe the colleague on the phone and wants to
help, so the hacker really only needs to be basically believable. Beyond
that, most employees respond in kind, especially to women. Slight
flattery or flirtation might even help soften up the target employee to
co-operate further, but the smart hacker knows when to stop pulling out
information, just before the employee suspects anything odd. A smile, if
in person, or a simple “thank you” clenches the deal. And if that’s not
enough, the new user routine often works too: “I’m confused, (batting
eyelashes) can you help me?”

Reverse Social Engineering

A final, more advanced method of gaining illicit information is known as
“reverse social engineering”. This is when the hacker creates a persona
that appears to be in a position of authority so that employees will ask
him for information, rather than the other way around. If researched,
planned and executed well, reverse social engineering attacks may offer
the hacker an even better chance of obtaining valuable data from the
employees; however, this requires a great deal of preparation, research,
and pre-hacking to pull off.

According to Methods of Hacking: Social Engineering, a paper by Rick
Nelson, the three parts of reverse social engineering attacks are
sabotage, advertising, and assisting. The hacker sabotages a network,
causing a problem arise. That hacker then advertises that he is the
appropriate contact to fix the problem, and then, when he comes to fix
the network problem, he requests certain bits of information from the
employees and gets what he really came for. They never know it was a
hacker, because their network problem goes away and everyone is happy.


Of course, no social engineering article is complete without mention of
Kevin Mitnick, so I’ll conclude with a quote from him from an article in
Security Focus: “You could spend a fortune purchasing technology and
services...and your network infrastructure could still remain vulnerable
to old-fashioned manipulation.” Stay tuned for Part II: Combat
Strategies, which will look at ways of combatting attacks by identifying
attacks, and by using preventative technology, training, and policies.

To read Social Engineering, Part Two: Combat Strategies, click here.


Ameritech Consumer Information “Social Engineering Fraud,”,3086,92,00.html

Anonymous “Social engineering: examples and countermeasures from the
real-world,” Computer Security Institute

Arthurs, Wendy: “A Proactive Defence to Social Engineering,” SANS
Institute, August 2, 2001.

Berg, Al: “Al Berg Cracking a Social Engineer,” by, LAN Times Nov. 6,

Bernz 1: “Bernz’s Social Engineering Intro Page”

Bernz 2: “The complete Social Engineering FAQ!”

Harl “People Hacking: The Psychology of Social Engineering” Text of
Harl’s Talk at Access All Areas III, March 7, 1997.

Mitnick, Kevin: “My first RSA Conference,” SecurityFocus, April 30, 2001

Nelson, Rick: “Methods of Hacking: Social Engineering,” the Institute
for Systems Research, University of Maryland

Orr, Chris “Social Engineering: A Backdoor to the Vault,”, SANS
Institute, September 5, 2000

Palumbo, John “Social Engineering: What is it, why is so little said
about it and what can be done?”, SANS Institute, July 26, 2000

Stevens, George: “Enhancing Defenses Against Social Engineering” SANS
Institute, March 26, 2001

Tims, Rick “Social Engineering: Policies and Education a Must” SANS
Institute, February 16, 2001

Verizon “PBX Social Engineering Scam” 2000

VIGILANTe “Social Engineering” 2001

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