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The art of social engineering

This article was first published by, and is reprinted here with kind permission of, Infosecurity Magazine.

‘Social engineering’ means the application of psychological manipulation to change the behaviour of the target; that is, you. It is what the con artist does online to help him steal from you. Here we’re going to look at the development of online social engineering from simple overt attacks through more complex covert attacks to the modern threat of targeted social engineering; and then see if there’s anything we can do about it.

David Harley

Overt social engineering
“The depersonalized nature of Internet communications in general is at the moment most exploited by crooks aiming for a short con: small pay-offs, but lots of them, using and re-using tried-and-tested techniques based on social engineering,” says David Harley, ESET research fellow & director of malware Intelligence. The initial approach will involve a plausible story to gain your trust, but will often include an element of panic to persuade you to act quickly or lose the opportunity. The story itself will appeal to one of the basic human instincts. It will offer you money for nothing (greed); it will solicit humanitarian aid either for a friend in trouble or for a population suffering after a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane (sympathy); or it will be outright threatening to persuade you to pay up or face the consequences (fear).

Current simple overt attacks include

  • Advance fee fraud. You pay a little now to get a lot more later, which never materialises. Examples include Nigerian frauds and foreign lottery wins.
  • Auction fraud. You bid for a bargain, pay the money but never get the goods.
  • Counterfeit goods. Most commonly expensive watches and Viagra.
  • Disaster appeals. Fake requests follow all natural disasters.
  • Extortion. Pay up or suffer the consequences.
  • Financial fraud. Typical scams include Ponzi and pump and dump schemes.
  • Londoning. I’ve been mugged in London/Lagos/Belgrade: please send me the air fare home.
  • Money laundering. You are offered a job as a shipping or finance agent for a foreign company. You end up shipping stolen goods (cybermule) or stolen money (money mule) abroad.

Complex covert social engineering
Covert social engineering attacks do not openly ask you for money; their purpose is to steal your financial details without your knowledge. The principles remain the same: a plausible story to gain trust, followed by an appeal to basic emotions – and once again there are some tried and tested methods that are repeatedly used by the attackers. The most common of these are phishing, drive-by malware, false codecs and rogue software.

Phishing persuades you to visit a false website and simply hand over your bank details. “Indiscriminate phishing,” explains Harley, “where deceptive emails are spammed/mass-mailed in the hope of tricking a percentage of users of the phished service into divulging sensitive data, usually exemplifies the re-use of malicious resources to attack high volumes of potential victims, though use of such techniques as dynamic DNS and botherding is intended to make it harder to track and close down malicious or compromised machines hosting those resources.”

Drive-by downloading
The social engineering aspect here is to persuade you to visit a particular site. But attackers have already ‘poisoned’ that site. They have compromised it with their own malware that infects the computer, via the browser, of any visitor to the infected page. This malware will then open a covert channel to the attacker who can subsequently install more sophisticated malware, likely to be spyware, a keylogger, a rootkit capable of turning you into a zombie within a botnet, or a combination of all three.

A more subtle variation uses the technique known as ‘search engine poisoning’. This will likely involve a specially crafted website that contains the malware. As soon as an incident of international interest occurs, the attackers use search engine optimisation techniques to make this website appear high on the search engine returns. So, if there’s an earthquake or plane crash or ash cloud that gets your interest, don’t just click on the first few links that turn up in Google or Bing or Yahoo: they may be false links to a bad website. (Having said this, the search engines are very good at recognising this attack and removing the links – but some get through for long enough to be a threat.)

Nigel Hawthorn

The false codec
Another attack can be the false codec. Pornography is the most common lure – but it could be anything that has video content. Nigel Hawthorn, VP EMEA marketing at Blue Coat, takes up the story: “One of the ‘old standby’ malware vectors has recently added a bit of extra bling to increase its believability,” he says. “I’m referring to what I call “fake codec” malware — a web page that presents you with what looks like a video player window, but then tells you that your computer needs a new video codec (or a Flash upgrade, or a new version of Windows Media Player, or whatever) in order to view the video. Since the typical victim is in hot pursuit of a supposed pornographic video clip, the bad guys are counting on them not taking too long to think about the setup. But a little extra bling never hurts, so the latest version actually has some random ‘scrambled video’ bits flashing through the window for a second or two before it announces that you need a software upgrade to see the porn.”

Whether you get to see the video becomes irrelevant: what you do get is infected.

Rogue software
Rogue software is almost always false anti-virus software. You are offered a free scan. This scan will locate fictitious malware on your computer. From here there are many variations. You may be offered the full anti-virus package for just a few pounds, and you may even get a disguised version of one of the genuine free AV packages. All it cost you was a few pounds – and of course your credit card details. Or you could be offered a free ‘repair’ tool, which may or may not fix the supposed infection but will also include hidden malware.

Carl Leonard

Targeted social engineering
Carl Leonard, Websense security research manager, EMEA has published details of a social engineering attack that is current as this is written. It’s a mass spamming email specifically aimed at human resource staff with an attached resumé and the request, “Please review my CV”. The CV is disguised as a zip file and contains the Oficia bot. This in turn downloads and installs the rogue AV package known as Security Essentials 2010. “HR departments are used to receiving CVs over email and this kind of malicious activity is indicative of the modern-day hacker. The broad-brush approach to seeding malware is now out of favour; fraudsters know they can infect more computers, and steal more data, if they use techniques that fit the target.”

This attack shows the beginning of the move away from broad-brush mass malicious spam to a more targeted and direct form of social engineering. The key that unlocks targeted attacks is web 2.0 in general, and social networking in particular. “Social networks are just magic for the bad guys,” says David Marcus, director of security research and communications at McAfee. “You’re out there giving the con man everything he needs to be able to con you.”

Graham Cluley

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant, Sophos, takes it up. “Take LinkedIn – one of the things you can do is get a company profile. This is effectively a corporate directory of that company – a list of everybody on LinkedIn that works for that company, with job title, and even those who have just joined the company. It is easy for a hacker to forge an email that appears to come from the head of HR to all new employees saying, “Welcome, congrats on joining our company. Click on this link to our company intranet and find out about all the wonderful advantages and opportunities.” It would, of course, be a false website containing drive-by malware. “The guys in HR are a prime target,” adds Cluley. “They have access to some of the most sensitive information in the company, often with the ability to log into payroll, personal info and so on.”

Marcus highlights the opportunities for the con artist on Twitter. “People tag words in their tweets to say this is a subject I’m talking about,” and Twitter itself tells you the most popular subjects at any point (it’s ‘Monaco Grand Prix’ at the moment). “There are 75 million people tweeting, and if one of the main subjects is (Monaco Grand Prix), that’s a magnificent piece of information for me as a social engineer. I can then send out into the twittersphere a tweet tagged with the phrase (Monaco Grand Prix) or whatever and a shortened link – and I can guarantee that I will get an almost one-to-one chance that most people who are following that word will click that link.” Gotcha.

Ed Rowley

FaceBook has been a scammers’ fishing pool for some time. Ed Rowley, product Manager at M86 Security, gives an example: “A Facebook scam originating from the Pushdo botnet in October 2009 showed two aims – to steal users’ Facebook account credentials and to distribute the Zbot (Zeus Bot) Trojan.  This particular phishing scam diverts the user to the fake Facebook login page, allowing cybercriminals to phish the person’s Facebook account (first hit). Then, to add insult to injury, the user is taken to a page that informs them that they need to download the “Facebook update tool”, which is the Zbot trojan (second hit).”

But this is just the beginning. The full details of the attack against Google earlier this year are still unknown; but it is believed that the attackers researched the targets on social networks before sending them forged emails. That can be done by just about anyone: you find the right target within the right company on LinkedIn, and then you learn about their personal interests on Facebook. “The weak link in this is always the user,” says Luis Corrons, technical director at PandaLabs, “and in general the user is easy to fool – and that’s why so many people get infected. Even if you know about security, and you know you have to be careful on the internet, no-one is safe when something is really targeted at you.”

Dave Marcus

Defending against social engineering
“The best definition of social engineering is hacking the human brain,” says Marcus. “In a thousand years’ time,” adds Cluley, “we will still have social engineering attacks – they might be delivered by 3D holograms, but they will still be social engineering because we cannot upgrade and patch human brains.” The problem is that social engineering is not a technology problem, so it has no absolute technology solution. “Education, education, education,” says Marcus. He doesn’t want people to be paranoid but believes that ‘suspicion’ should be the keyword to everything we do on the internet. “You cannot effectively get off the grid anymore,” he says. “Your information is out there, and if you’re telling people about your interests on social networks, you’re inviting the bad guys to lure you with more than everything they need to be successful.” Harley advocates using your own social engineering techniques: you should change users’ bad habits into good habits by “countering malicious social engineering with constructive social engineering through education.” But in the final analysis we need to remember Corrons concern: “I’m not really optimistic – there is no way to be 100% safe – you can be pretty safe, but you cannot guarantee security. OK, you’ve got your anti-virus and it’s up to date, but they will know which anti-virus you’re using and they will test their trojan against your anti-virus to see if it is detected before they attack you with it. They will have studied your movements and know your weak points.”

Categories: All, Security Issues
  1. May 2, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    The most effective form of social engineering is applied theology.


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