Stealing Secrets: Telling Lies Over the Phone

In a recent post (Hackers Play “Social Engineering Capture The Flag” At Defcon) I pointed to a game in which contestants used the telephone to convince company employees to voluntarily cough up information they probably shouldn’t have. At the recent Defcon event, social engineers proved that it doesn’t take much more than asking to get the necessary information that may lead to penetrating a person’s computer.

Social engineering is a fancier, more technical form of lying. An alternative to traditional hacking, it is the act of manipulating others into performing certain actions or divulging confidential information. Social engineering or “social penetration” techniques are used to bypass sophisticated and expensive hardware and software in a corporate network.

Social engineering is all based on telling a lie and getting others to tell the truth in response. Thousands of years of civilized conditioning and cultural teaching to help and trust one another has made people just a little too eager to help.

Participants in the contest successfully got employees from some Fortune 500 companies to provide full profiles of the inner workings on network PCs and software that could easily be used to launch an attack. Some revealed what operating system they had, the version of their service pack, antivirus software, browser, email, which model their laptops were, the virtual private network software the company used, and even what garbage collector hauled the company’s trash.

In some cases, the tricksters even got the Fortune 500 employees to visit certain websites while on the phone. Sometimes the simple act of visiting a website can install a malicious program on your PC if it’s not properly protected. Based on the answers provided by the employees, the social engineer can guide the person to whatever website that would infect their computer based on the answers provided.

Recognize that while you are generally not being swindled by those who call you, there is a chance that you may be. This means having systems in place regarding what can be said to whom, when, and why. Training on social engineering and how to prevent it is a must for any company and frankly for any individual who doesn’t want to fall victim to a conman.

Robert Siciliano, personal security expert contributor  to Just Ask Gemalto, discusses credit card fraud on NBC Boston. Disclosures
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