Most people are a familiar with the term “hacking“. In general, it refers to gaining unauthorized access to a computer. One definition from m-w.com is “to gain access to a computer illegally”. To me, hacking refers to gaining unauthorized access to information. I’m not going to explain how to hack a computer. Instead, I’m going to talk about how to hack a person, or, how to gain information from a person that they would not otherwise provide. This is also widely known as “social engineering“.
Get to know your mark
A mark is simply the victim of your information theft. While you may have valid, legal, motives for sneaking around normal channels, I’ll refer to the target as your “mark” because I’m lazy.
Social engineering often involves pretending to be someone you are not. Many times, you may need to pretend to be a client, for example, in order to get their password from their domain registrar or internet service provider. You may have other, more sinister, motives for gathering sensitive data, too. Either way, you will need to be prepared with answers to key questions, appropriate reactions, etc. Research all the information you can about whatever you are trying to get access to as well as the person you are claiming to be (where applicable). For example, if you were to call a large ISP, attempting to get the password to your mark’s email account, you would want to know his or her full name, email address, and birth date at a minimum. Other helpful things to know are names of the girl/boyfriend, spouse, child, pet, etc., hobbies, bands or stars the person likes, and anything else very personal. More often than not, one of these things is the answer to your mark’s “hint” question, that question they ask you before divulging your password when you’ve forgotten it. Sometimes, that one word is all you need.
Some alarming facts
Around 2-4% of all people have a password of “password” or a pin/security code of “1234”. Many of the rest have passwords that can be found in a dictionary file (a file full of dictionary words used for guessing a password randomly). If your mark is 16 and her boyfriend is named Mark (but she calls him “markypoo” all over her MySpace page), you might be able to skip all the dirty work by just trying “mark”, “markypoo”, “ilovemark”, or “ilovemarkypoo” as her password. Just about every demographic seems to fall under the rule that you can usually guess a password within about 20 tries if you get to know the owner of the account. Some more clues that can help are birth dates, nicknames, sports teams, and movie/tv charaters. Know your mark (above) and the rest is pretty easy.
Get to know your source
When I say “source”, I mean the source of your information. This could be anything from an automated web form to a phone support representative, to a front desk employee at a hotel. The type of information you are looking for should dictate what your source is and is should be fairly obvious to you. Pretend, for a second, that you’re looking for that email password from above. Logic dictates that your source is going to the your mark’s ISP. Become a customer, client, or user. Sign up for an email account of your own and make note of the security questions. Test the password entry form and see if it has a minimum/maximum amount of characters or has any other requirements. Does the site suggest a username for you like Yahoo! does (eg: JohnDoe2008)? Any information you can glean through creative and thoughtful experimentation can be instrumental in your success.
Confidence is key
You’ve probably heard that before, but in another context. It’s a popular phrase when talking about sales or success in business. Confidence can drive your job interview home, it can get you sales, and it can even get you a date, but it can also be the key ingredient when trying to con a source out of information. If you act nervous in your efforts, it will likely get noticed and make your source suspicious. Speak clearly, act casual, and act like you’re supposed to get the information you’re asking for. Many times, you can even act as if you were waiting for a third party (whose name you now forget) to call you back with that information. Begin a support call by saying “I somehow got disconnected. I called in because I forgot my password and I forget who I spoke to, but he asked me the security questions and then the call dropped.” If you gently suggest to your source that another person in the company trusted your authority to access a password and was about to give it to you, this will sometimes lower their guard just enough to squeak by.
Confident does not mean sloppy
Sometimes you are acting in the best interest of someone who knows what you’re doing, but what if you’re just trying to snoop through someone’s email or you want to throw a surprise party for someone and just need to grab their contact list from their gmail account? If you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing, you had better not leave a trail behind you. Getting caught can be embarrassing and get you into trouble with your mark. Worse, if you’re doing what I think you shouldn’t be, you could get jail time. That said, here’s some things to think about before you begin:
- – Don’t use your real name… anywhere
- – If using the phone, block your number
- – If using the web, go through a proxy (from a library)
- – If using email, get a throwaway email account and check via web mail (from the library)
- – Know the legality of what you’re planning
- – Try not to break the law if possible
The more careful you are, the less you have to worry about, and the more confident you can be when faced with the human interaction.
Get more than information
People-hacking works for more than just snooping on your ex-girlfriend’s email (stop obsessing and get over her). You can also work out discounts and deals by knowing how to deal with a particular source. Here’s an easy experiment you can do: Call a fast food joint on a weekday afternoon (right during the busy lunch time) and explain that your order was messed up. Your complaint should be believable, but bad enough that your meal was practically not edible to you. Say they put ketchup on your burger after you asked for no ketchup. Know ahead of time what you ordered (a popular combo meal will probably have been ordered in the last hour by someone at the drive-thru, making it more plausible). Almost every time, they will write down your first name (which can be any name you want to give them). The next day, show up and explain that you were told you would get a complimentary meal for the one they messed up. Give them the name you gave over the phone, order the same meal, and enjoy eating for free. I can’t publicly condone doing this, so if you happen to try it for the purpose of experimentation, even the score by donating $6 to charity or something.
There are many morally valid and many morally corrupt reasons for needing to obtain information, goods, or services via unconventional means like social engineering. Whatever your reason, identify what you want, plan it out, and go get it.