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Beware of Being Played With

Discover social engineers' weapons of influence

By Jason Chavarría | September 20, 2021 | Category: Social Engineering

Are you comfortable posting pictures of the town where you were born? How about sharing a story about your first pet? Yeah? You have no problem having the name of your elementary school on your profile or talking in your blog about your most favorite food? No? By the way, can you please tell us, what was your mom’s name before she was married?

The previous topics are related to some of the most common password reset questions. When the particular answers to these questions are readily available on the Internet, they can be easily found by a social engineer targeting you. What happens next is that they will try to use phishing against you to deploy ransomware on your computer, among other possibilities. But you wouldn’t notice until it’s too late.

In this post, we will expand on a previous entry about how social engineering works. We’ll see why it is effective and how to prevent being scammed.

What is social engineering?

Social engineering can be defined as "a technique that uses psychological manipulation […​] to force people to disclose private personal or corporate information, or take a particular action." As explained in our latest post, an attack, ethical or not, has to be planned first with an exploration mindset. As investigator and author Joe Gray says, "Rarely will an effective social engineering attack happen without an informed understanding of the target." Gray is an expert in gathering Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), which is information taken from publicly available sources and used in the intelligence context. Gray explains that intelligence means that each piece of information is gathered on the basis of how it furthers the investigation.

In one talk, Gray said that most OSINT operations start with a single piece of information: "A business, a name, an email address, physical address, phone number, meta data." This is further matched with social media accounts, blogs, websites, even leaked information in password dumps. (Talking about dumps: They may even search your garbage! That is a thing called Dumpster Diving.) While gathering OSINT of a company, Gray likes to check the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) files. These files allow him to "find out how the business is doing, find out some of the things the business has been struggling with, or what the business is looking out for in the future."

After extensive research, social engineers get a good idea of an employee’s likes and dislikes and the organization’s operating environment, organizational structure and lingo. Eventually, they come up with a reason to talk to their target. For example, Gray tells an anecdote about how he learned that the CEO of the company for which he was doing ethical social engineering was retiring and that the Chief Operating Officer (COO) would be taking over. So he set off to buy a web domain and design a legit-looking survey website. Then, he impersonated the COO in an email, using direct quotes from him, which he found in sources like press releases. In this email, he asked employees to fill in the survey, which prompted them to share sensitive information. Out of 150 targets, he got 17 usernames, 18 passwords and 17 sets of password-reset questions.

Weapons of influence

Social engineers' techniques are often analyzed using the principles of influence proposed by psychologist Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Here are some brief descriptions of social engineers' actions appealing to Cialdini’s principles and the reasons why they make people talk:

  • Claiming to have the same interests as the target in order to increase their likability, for we tend to cooperate more with persons who share our affinities.

  • Claiming that they are acting under the authority of the CEO, an expert or a specific law, which works because we tend to obey these people or rules.

  • Asking for sensitive information after having granted the target a great offer in a (bogus) product, appealing to our tendency for reciprocity.

  • Claiming that a target’s peer has already shared some information, so the target should cooperate too, because having social proof that something our peer did is appropriate, we tend to follow their lead.

  • Claiming that there is limited time to take action, like paying a ransom before impending doom, forcing the target to act fast, which works because the scarcity of time makes us act more recklessly.

  • Convincing the target that doing what they’re told is consistent with their values, which works because we are pressured daily to maintain consistency in our acts.

After earning the confidence of their target, social engineers commonly get the info they want and may even ask victims to click on dangerous links. Shortly after, they leave abruptly on some made-up excuse.

Some phishes are easier to catch

You may think: "Certainly some people are more sensible than others? Not everyone is as easily influenced?" Well, there may be some people who are more vulnerable to some of the weapons mentioned above. A recent review article, published in the journal Cybersecurity, lists some traits that make some people easier to manipulate.

According to the review, people who are more agreeable, meaning they tend to cooperate more, are more vulnerable to the scammer’s likability, use of authority and social proof, and demand for reciprocity. The authors argue that these people would be more susceptible to fall for phishing and to share passwords. Those who are more conscientious, meaning they are organized and hardworking, may also fall for the use of authority and reciprocity, and yield to the pressure to maintain consistency. Finally, those who are more extraverted would react more promptly to the scarcity of time.

But it is argued that some traits may protect against the influence of social engineers. The authors suggest that neuroticism, that is, higher proneness to experience situations as distressing, indicates lesser vulnerability to the weapons of influence. Furthermore, they suggest that people who are more open to new experiences, being also probably more tech-savvy, are not open to being manipulated by social engineers.

That sounds phishy!

We already listed some tips on how to prevent social engineers' most favorite scams here and here. In short, look out for generic email subjects, awful spelling and grammar, and emails or calls prompting life or death decisions. They are all fishy.

Let’s add to the list some of the tips provided by the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT):

  • Check the sender’s email address. Are there misspelled words trying to pass for a legit company’s address?

  • Do not open a link before inspecting it. Has the URL been shortened? Also, hover your cursor over the link. Is it awfully long? Is it a hot mess?

  • If you are being asked to download an attachment, ask yourself if the request makes total sense. Remember that attackers use time scarcity to manipulate you.

Finally, have in mind that conducting ethical OSINT and social engineering can help you identify what sensitive corporate data is being, or could be, shared publicly. Then, data removal and educating employees on how to detect scams and limit the sensitive information they share may be the best options.