What Can We Learn About Social Engineering From Impersonation?

With organizations losing billions of dollars due to business email compromise scams and thousands of employees having their W-2 information sent to criminals each week, it can be easy to think, “How can people be so dumb and keep falling for these same tricks?”

When it comes to socially engineering an employee, most people think of email phishing
— and last week we discussed some ways to defend against those threats — but I think the best way to truly understand those cyber threats is to first remove those technology aspects and look at one of the oldest cons around: impersonation.

I love a good impersonation story. Don a disguise. Create a good backstory. Trick some people into doing something they shouldn’t.

It makes for great drama.

Unsurprisingly, when researching how businesses are being compromised by social engineers, nearly all of my favorite examples involved the tactic. Impersonation stories are important because they highlight how simple and effective techniques can be used to lead to a major compromise at an organization.

For example, Christopher Hadnagy, CEO of Social Engineer, Inc., recounted on our social engineering podcast how two ticket-less fans were able to watch the Super Bowl from $25,000 seats by sneaking into the event with a group of first aid workers and then simply acting “super confident.”

Likewise, Chris Blow, a senior advisor at Rook Security, likes to pretend to be an exterminator to test a company’s security. In one instance, he was thwarted by a well-trained receptionist who noticed the con; however, all he had to do was drive around back and find more “helpful” employees — who then let him into sensitive areas where he could access a variety of valuable information.

They Literally Handed Him Their Money

My favorite social engineering story occurred decades before email became popular and everyone learned of the term “phishing.” It was done by conman turned FBI consultant Frank Abagnale, who claims to have duped dozens of individuals into handing him their businesses’ money simply by posing as a security guard.

As the story goes, Abagnale noticed how car rental companies would deposit their money in an airport drop box each night, so he bought a security guard outfit and put a sign over the drop box saying “Out of service, place deposits with security guard on duty.”

According to his autobiography, he stood there amazed as people handed him a total of $62,800.

You may hear that story and wonder why all of those people would trust some random guy with a sign. But is that any different than the cybersecurity pros today who are dumbfounded when a person gives their password to an “IT guy” over the phone? Or when an employee hands over their credentials because an email told them to do so?

Simple, effective scams work, have always worked, and when done in person by a skilled social engineer, can be even more effective.

Defending Against Social Engineering

What can we learn from these impersonators?

For one, social engineering is very effective, which is why the FBI and others are warning of a dramatic increase in business email compromise (BEC) scams. From October 2013 through February 2016, from just this one type of social engineering, there were more than $2.3 billion in losses across 17,600 victims.

Scam artists understand precisely how easy it can be to dupe people, and the same techniques are used in social engineering via phishing and phone. The story above is one of my favorites because Abagnale combines three of those common tactics in one scam: a simple backstory, appearing as though he belongs, and projecting authority.

  1. A Simple Backstory — Whether in person, over the phone or via email, scammers will have all sorts of stories that prey on people’s desire to help. Those handling sensitive information such as W-2 information should always be skeptical about who and why they are sharing that information, but that is often not enough. Having clear policies for employees to fall back and procedures for sharing sensitive information on can help ensure an employee does not get duped due to their desire to be helpful.
  2. Appearing as Though They Belong — As the FBI noted in a BEC warning, it’s important to know the habits of customers, coworkers and vendors and to beware of any significant changes. A person may appear as though they belong by impersonating those who have legitimate access. In some BEC attacks, the malicious actors compromised email accounts and waited for weeks or months to learn the communication habits before attempting their scam. Employees should be encouraged to report any suspicious activity and be continuously trained so that the front line of defense is armed to look out for the latest and most relevant social engineering threats.
  3. Projecting Authority The impersonation of authority figures is a large reason for the billions of dollars being lost to these social engineering scams. Just because a call or email appears to come from the CEO or other figure, be wary of any attempts to disclose data or gain access. Authenticating important requests through several channels such as both email and phone can help to prevent many social engineering attempts.

People want to be helpful. They tend to trust others. Good social engineers exploit those tendencies. The influx of technology has only expanded the reach of scam artists; the techniques remain the same. If an organization and its employees understand why social engineering works, then it’s much easier to combat some of those common tactics and keep the business safe.

Author: Jeff Peters

SurfWatch Labs editor and host of SurfWatch Labs Cyber Chat podcast. Focused on using threat intelligence and data visualization in order to bring cybercrime to life and help make organizations safer.

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