What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is the art of manipulating people so they give up confidential information. The types of information these criminals are seeking can vary, but when individuals are targeted the criminals are usually trying to trick you into giving them your passwords or bank information, or access your computer to secretly install malicious software–that will give them access to your passwords and bank information as well as giving them control over your computer.

Criminals use social engineering tactics because it is usually easier to exploit your natural inclination to trust than it is to discover ways to hack your software.  For example, it is much easier to fool someone into giving you their password than it is for you to try hacking their password (unless the password is really weak).

Security is all about knowing who and what to trust. Knowing when, and when not to, to take a person at their word; when to trust that the person you are communicating with is indeed the person you think you are communicating with; when to trust that a website is or isn’t legitimate; when to trust that the person on the phone is or isn’t legitimate; when providing your information is or isn’t a good idea.

Ask any security professional and they will tell you that the weakest link in the security chain is the human who accepts a person or scenario at face value. It doesn’t matter how many locks and deadbolts are on your doors and windows, or if have guard dogs, alarm systems, floodlights, fences with barbed wire, and armed security personnel; if you trust the person at the gate who says he is the pizza delivery guy and you let him in without first checking to see if he is legitimate you are completely exposed to whatever risk he represents.

Common social engineering attacks

Email from a friend. If a criminal manages to hack or socially engineer one person’s email password they have access to that person’s contact list–and because most people use one password everywhere, they probably have access to that person’s social networking contacts as well.

Once the criminal has that email account under their control, they send emails to all the person’s contacts or leave messages on all their friend’s social pages, and possibly on the pages of the person’s friend’s friends.

These messages may use your trust and curiosity:
These messages may create a compelling story or pretext:

Phishing attempts. Typically, a phisher sends an e-mail, IM, comment, or text message that appears to come from a legitimate, popular company, bank, school, or institution.

These messages usually have a scenario or story:

Baiting scenarios. These socially engineering schemes know that if you dangle something people want, many people will take the bait. These schemes are often found on Peer-to-Peer sites offering a download of something like a hot new movie, or music. But the schemes are also found on social networking sites, malicious websites you find through search results, and so on.

Or, the scheme may show up as an amazingly great deal on classified sites, auction sites, etc.. To allay your suspicion, you can see the seller has a good rating (all planned and crafted ahead of time).

People who take the bait may be infected with malicious software that can generate any number of new exploits against themselves and their contacts, may lose their money without receiving their purchased item, and, if they were foolish enough to pay with a check, may find their bank account empty.

Response to a question you never had. Criminals may pretend to be responding to your ’request for help’ from a company while also offering more help. They pick companies that millions of people use like a software company or bank.  If you don’t use the product or service, you will ignore the email, phone call, or message, but if you do happen to use the service, there is a good chance you will respond because you probably do want help with a problem.

For example, even though you know you didn’t originally ask a question you probably a problem with your computer’s operating system and you seize on this opportunity to get it fixed. For free! The moment you respond you have bought the crook’s story, given them your trust and opened yourself up for exploitation.

The representative, who is actually a criminal, will need to ’authenticate you’, have you log into ’their system’ or, have you log into your computer and either give them remote access to your computer so they can ’fix’ it for you, or tell you the commands so you can fix it yourself with their help–where some of the commands they tell you to enter will open a way for the criminal to get back into your computer later.

Creating distrust. Some social engineering, is all about creating distrust, or starting conflicts; these are often carried out by people you know and who are angry with you, but it is also done by nasty people just trying to wreak havoc, people who want to first create distrust in your mind about others so they can then step in as a hero and gain your trust, or by extortionists who want to manipulate information and then threaten you with disclosure.

This form of social engineering often begins by gaining access to an email account or other communication account on an IM client, social network, chat, forum, etc. They accomplish this either by hacking, social engineering, or simply guessing really weak passwords.

There are literally thousands of variations to social engineering attacks. The only limit to the number of ways they can socially engineer users through this kind of exploit is the criminal’s imagination.  And you may experience multiple forms of exploits in a single attack.  Then the criminal is likely to sell your information to others so they too can run their exploits against you, your friends, your friends’ friends, and so on as criminals leverage people’s misplaced trust.

Don’t become a victim

Curiosity leads to careless clicking–if you don’t know what the email is about, clicking links is a poor choice. Similarly, never use phone numbers from the email; it is easy for a scammer to pretend you’re talking to a bank teller.

Provided by Linda Criddle, Founder of iLookBothWays.com