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Social engineering, in the context of information security, refers to psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. A type of confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional "con" in that it is often one of many steps in a more complex fraud scheme.
The term "social engineering" as an act of psychological manipulation is also associated with the social sciences, but its usage has caught on among computer and information security professionals.
All social engineering techniques are based on specific attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases. These biases, sometimes called "bugs in the human hardware", are exploited in various combinations to create attack techniques, some of which are listed. The attacks used in social engineering can be used to steal employees confidential information. The most common type of social engineering happens over the phone. Other examples of social engineering attacks are criminals posing as exterminators, fire marshals and technicians to go unnoticed as they steal company secrets.
One example of social engineering is an individual who walks into a building and posts an official looking announcement to the company bulletin that says the number for the help desk has changed. So, when employees call for help the individual asks them for their passwords and ID's thereby gaining the ability to access the company's private information.
Pretexting (adj. pretextual), also known in the UK as blagging or bohoing, is the act of creating and using an invented scenario (the pretext) to engage a targeted victim in a manner that increases the chance the victim will divulge information or perform actions that would be unlikely in ordinary circumstances. An elaborate lie, it most often involves some prior research or setup and the use of this information for impersonation (e.g., date of birth, Social Security number, last bill amount) to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target.
This technique can be used to fool a business into disclosing customer information as well as by private investigators to obtain telephone records, utility records, banking records and other information directly from company service representatives. The information can then be used to establish even greater legitimacy under tougher questioning with a manager, e.g., to make account changes, get specific balances, etc.
Pretexting can also be used to impersonate co-workers, police, bank, tax authorities, clergy, insurance investigators — or any other individual who could have perceived authority or right-to-know in the mind of the targeted victim. The pretexter must simply prepare answers to questions that might be asked by the victim. In some cases, all that is needed is a voice that sounds authoritative, an earnest tone, and an ability to think on one's feet to create a pretextual scenario.
Diversion theft, also known as the "Corner Game" or "Round the Corner Game", originated in the East End of London.
In summary, diversion theft is a "con" exercised by professional thieves, normally against a transport or courier company. The objective is to persuade the persons responsible for a legitimate delivery that the consignment is requested elsewhere — hence, "round the corner".
Phishing is a technique of fraudulently obtaining private information. Typically, the phisher sends an e-mail that appears to come from a legitimate business—a bank, or credit card company—requesting "verification" of information and warning of some dire consequence if it is not provided. The e-mail usually contains a link to a fraudulent web page that seems legitimate—with company logos and content—and has a form requesting everything from a home address to an ATM card's PIN.
For example, 2003 saw the proliferation of a phishing scam in which users received e-mails supposedly from eBay claiming that the user's account was about to be suspended unless a link provided was clicked to update a credit card (information that the genuine eBay already had). Because it is relatively simple to make a Web site resemble a legitimate organization's site by mimicking the HTML code, the scam counted on people being tricked into thinking they were being contacted by eBay and subsequently, were going to eBay's site to update their account information. By spamming large groups of people, the "phisher" counted on the e-mail being read by a percentage of people who already had listed credit card numbers with eBay legitimately, who might respond.
Phone phishing (or "vishing") uses a rogue interactive voice response (IVR) system to recreate a legitimate-sounding copy of a bank or other institution's IVR system. The victim is prompted (typically via a phishing e-mail) to call in to the "bank" via a (ideally toll free) number provided in order to "verify" information. A typical system will reject log-ins continually, ensuring the victim enters PINs or passwords multiple times, often disclosing several different passwords. More advanced systems transfer the victim to the attacker posing as a customer service agent for further questioning.
Baiting is like the real-world Trojan Horse that uses physical media and relies on the curiosity or greed of the victim.
In this attack, the attacker leaves a malware infected floppy disk, CD-ROM, or USB flash drive in a location sure to be found (bathroom, elevator, sidewalk, parking lot), gives it a legitimate looking and curiosity-piquing label, and simply waits for the victim to use the device.
For example, an attacker might create a disk featuring a corporate logo, readily available from the target's web site, and write "Executive Salary Summary Q2 2012" on the front. The attacker would then leave the disk on the floor of an elevator or somewhere in the lobby of the targeted company. An unknowing employee might find it and subsequently insert the disk into a computer to satisfy their curiosity, or a good samaritan might find it and turn it in to the company.
In either case, as a consequence of merely inserting the disk into a computer to see the contents, the user would unknowingly install malware on it, likely giving an attacker unfettered access to the victim's PC and, perhaps, the targeted company's internal computer network.
Unless computer controls block the infection, PCs set to "auto-run" inserted media may be compromised as soon as a rogue disk is inserted.
Quid pro quo means something for something:
An attacker, seeking entry to a restricted area secured by unattended, electronic access control, e.g. by RFID card, simply walks in behind a person who has legitimate access. Following common courtesy, the legitimate person will usually hold the door open for the attacker or the attackers themselves may ask the employee to hold it open for them. The legitimate person may fail to ask for identification for any of several reasons, or may accept an assertion that the attacker has forgotten or lost the appropriate identity token. The attacker may also fake the action of presenting an identity token.
Shoulder surfing involves observing an employee's private information over their shoulder. This type of attack is common in public places such as airports, airplanes or coffee shops.
Common confidence tricksters or fraudsters also could be considered "social engineers" in the wider sense, in that they deliberately deceive and manipulate people, exploiting human weaknesses to obtain personal benefit. They may, for example, use social engineering techniques as part of an IT fraud.
A very recent type of social engineering technique includes spoofing or cracking IDs of people having popular e-mail IDs such as Yahoo!, Gmail, Hotmail, etc. Among the many motivations for deception are:
Organizations reduce their security risks by:
Reformed computer criminal and later security consultant Kevin Mitnick points out that it is much easier to trick someone into giving a password for a system than to spend the effort to crack into the system.
Christopher Hadnagy is the security professional who wrote the first framework defining the physical and psychological principles of social engineering. He is also the author of the book "Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking,"  "Unmasking the Social Engineer: The Human Element of Security" and numerous podcasts and newsletters at Security through Education (a free online SE resource). He is the creator of the DEFCON Social Engineer Capture the Flag and the Social Engineer CTF for Kids.
Brothers Ramy, Muzher, and Shadde Badir—all of whom were blind from birth—managed to set up an extensive phone and computer fraud scheme in Israel in the 1990s using social engineering, voice impersonation, and Braille-display computers.
Principal Consultant for Bancsec, Inc., and one of the world's top experts in banking cybersecurity, developed and proved in over 50 U.S. bank locations "the most efficient social engineering attack in history." This attack vector, primarily utilizing email, allows a social engineer to make unauthenticated, unauthorized, large cash withdrawals from bank branches with an extraordinarily high success rate (over 90%) while enjoying low probabilities of immediate detection or subsequent incarceration. Among his other successful bank social engineering test accomplishments is wire transfer through a combination of emails and telephone pretexting.
Security consultant for IOActive, published author, and speaker. Emphasizes techniques and tactics for social engineering cold calling. Became notable after his talks where he would play recorded calls and explain his thought process on what he was doing to get passwords through the phone.
Pete Herzog is a neuro-hacker and Notable Social Engineering Researcher for the non-profit security research organization, ISECOM. He created the first social engineering methodology for quantifiable testing of human security for OSSTMM 2.1 in 2002  (referred to as "Process Security" in the manual). By 2003 he created Trust Metrics for measuring the amount of trust one can put in anything in a quantifiable manner for OSSTMM 3 in 2010. In 2009 Herzog began working with brainwave scanners and tDCS to directly manipulate the brain and understand how people learn and focus attention. By combining trust, neuro-hacking, and social engineering research he extended the research field to understanding why people fall for manipulation techniques and cataloging how people are neurologically vulnerable. He has presented "How We Are Broken" at SecTor in 2010 and later in 2014 towards improving security awareness with "5 Secrets to Building an Amazing Security Culture in Your Organization" at RVAs3c. Also he applied the research to combatting fraud, manipulation, and social engineering with the Security Awareness Learning Tactics (SALT) project to specifically design security awareness based on the neuro research. He has also shown how social engineering can be used to improve job hunting for the unemployed in the article, "Hacking Human Resources Is a Thing". Herzog also applies these manipulation techniques to Hacker Highschool, an open and free security awareness project written and designed specifically for how teens think and learn. and again in the article "Why We Teach Kids to Hack in Schools" where he writes,"We are nearly done with version 2 of the Hacker Highschool lessons, a complete re-write based on feedback and neurological studies of how teens think and learn."
Notable Social Engineering Consultant, runs talks and contests and is a known speaker for conferences like RSA and Besides on social engineering tactics. He also runs Squirrelsinabarrel.com which is a platform for learning about social engineering and teaches several classes on social engineering to companies and the general public.
In December 2006, United States Congress approved a Senate sponsored bill making the pretexting of telephone records a federal felony with fines of up to $250,000 and ten years in prison for individuals (or fines of up to $500,000 for companies). It was signed by President George W. Bush on 12 January 2007.
The 1999 "GLBA" is a U.S. Federal law that specifically addresses pretexting of banking records as an illegal act punishable under federal statutes. When a business entity such as a private investigator, SIU insurance investigator, or an adjuster conducts any type of deception, it falls under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This federal agency has the obligation and authority to ensure that consumers are not subjected to any unfair or deceptive business practices. US Federal Trade Commission Act, Section 5 of the FTCA states, in part: "Whenever the Commission shall have reason to believe that any such person, partnership, or corporation has been or is using any unfair method of competition or unfair or deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce, and if it shall appear to the Commission that a proceeding by it in respect thereof would be to the interest of the public, it shall issue and serve upon such person, partnership, or corporation a complaint stating its charges in that respect."
The statute states that when someone obtains any personal, non-public information from a financial institution or the consumer, their action is subject to the statute. It relates to the consumer's relationship with the financial institution. For example, a pretexter using false pretenses either to get a consumer's address from the consumer's bank, or to get a consumer to disclose the name of his or her bank, would be covered. The determining principle is that pretexting only occurs when information is obtained through false pretenses.
While the sale of cell telephone records has gained significant media attention, and telecommunications records are the focus of the two bills currently before the United States Senate, many other types of private records are being bought and sold in the public market. Alongside many advertisements for cell phone records, wireline records and the records associated with calling cards are advertised. As individuals shift to VoIP telephones, it is safe to assume that those records will be offered for sale as well. Currently, it is legal to sell telephone records, but illegal to obtain them.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo, Michigan), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed concern over the easy access to personal mobile phone records on the Internet during Wednesday's E&C Committee hearing on "Phone Records For Sale: Why Aren't Phone Records Safe From Pretexting?" Illinois became the first state to sue an online records broker when Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc., on 20 January, a spokeswoman for Madigan's office said. The Florida-based company operates several Web sites that sell mobile telephone records, according to a copy of the suit. The attorneys general of Florida and Missouri quickly followed Madigan's lead, filing suit on 24 and 30 January, respectively, against 1st Source Information Specialists and, in Missouri's case, one other records broker – First Data Solutions, Inc.
Several wireless providers, including T-Mobile, Verizon, and Cingular filed earlier lawsuits against records brokers, with Cingular winning an injunction against First Data Solutions and 1st Source Information Specialists on 13 January. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) introduced legislation in February 2006 aimed at curbing the practice. The Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 would create felony criminal penalties for stealing and selling the records of mobile phone, landline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) subscribers.
Patricia Dunn, former chairwoman of Hewlett Packard, reported that the HP board hired a private investigation company to delve into who was responsible for leaks within the board. Dunn acknowledged that the company used the practice of pretexting to solicit the telephone records of board members and journalists. Chairman Dunn later apologized for this act and offered to step down from the board if it was desired by board members. Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting. The four felony charges brought on Dunn were dismissed.