Five things you need to know about social engineering

The more victims who click links and install the bad guy's software, the more money the criminals make


Social engineering, the act of tricking people into giving up sensitive information, is nothing new. Convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick made a name for himself by cold-calling staffers at major U.S. companies and talking them into giving him information. But today's criminals are having a heyday using e-mail and social networks.

A well-written phishing message or virus-laden spam campaign is a cheap, effective way for criminals to get the data they need.


Northrop Grumman recently reported that China was "likely" stealing data from the United States in a "long- term, sophisticated network exploitation campaign."

Security experts have noticed criminals were "spear phishing"--getting Trojan horse programs to run on a victim's computer by using carefully crafted e-mail messages. Used to steal intellectual property and state secrets, spear phishing is now everywhere.


Less discriminating criminals cast a wider net with their attacks. They pick e-mail subjects everybody's interested in: a message from the IRS, or even "a photo of you."

The more victims who click links and install the bad guy's software, the more money the criminals make. Right now, "they're doing it with messaging that is extremely broad," says Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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Attackers love to tempt people with freebies, security experts say. "The bait that works best is a popular device," says Sherri Davidoff, a penetration tester hired to see if she can break into corporate networks. One of Davidoff's most successful techniques: a fake employee survey.

Victims fill it out thinking they'll qualify to win an iPod if they hand over sensitive information. "Thirty to 35 percent will enter their usernames and passwords to get the iPhone," she says.


That trust allowed the Koobface worm to spread throughout Facebook and led to a rash of direct-message attacks on Twitter too. It's all part of the next round of socially-engineered attacks, says Steve Santorelli, formerly a Scotland Yard detective and now director of global outreach at Team Cymru.

A few years ago hackers were more focused on the quality of their code. Now, he says, "they are putting an equal effort into social engineering."

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