How to steal corporate secrets in 20 minutes: Ask

Participants in a Defcon social engineering contest had no problem getting data from Fortune 500 companies.

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A few companies in the Fortune 500 need to upgrade their Web browsers. And while they're at it, a little in-house training on social engineering wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

Social engineering hackers - people who trick employees into doing and saying things that they shouldn't - took their best shot at the Fortune 500 during a contest at Defcon Friday and showed how easy it is to get people to talk, if only you tell the right lie.

Contestants got IT staffers at major corporations, including Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Apple and Shell, to give up all sorts of information that could be used in a computer attack, including what browser and version number they were using (the first two companies called Friday were using IE6), what software they use to open pdf documents, their operating system and service pack number, their mail client, the antivirus software they use, and even the name of their local wireless network.

The first two contestants made it look easy.

Wayne, a security consultant from Australia who wouldn't give his last name, was first up Friday morning. His mission: Get data from a major US company. (IDG News Service has chosen not to report which companies fell for which attacks because of possible security risks.)

Sitting behind a sound-proof booth before an audience, he connected with an IT call centre and got an employee named Ledoi talking. Pretending to be a KPMG consultant doing an audit under deadline pressure, Wayne got Ledoi to spill details, big time.

Wayne ignored Ledoi's request for an employee number and launched immediately into a story about how his boss was on his back, and how he really needed to get this audit finished. He worked his Aussie charm on Ledoi, who'd only been with his new employer for a month. Within minutes, it seemed Ledoi was willing to give Wayne pretty much any information he wanted - at one point Ledoi even visited a fake KMPG web page that Wayne had set up.

He ended the call promising to buy Ledoi a beer.

"What beer do you like?"

"Right now I'm on a Blue Moon kick."

In an interview after the call, Wayne couldn't believe his luck. "I was thinking they're a pretty big company and I know they did a lot of in-house security audits."

Later, contest organisers said his effort was the best of the day. But everyone who was targeted gave up information. Chris Hadnagy, one of the founders of the contest, believes the victims would have given away sensitive information such as passwords had they been asked. "They would have given pictures of their family if they'd asked for it," he said.

Contest rules prohibited asking for any sensitive information, or targeting certain types of organizations such as government or financial institutions. Even so, the contest rattled nerves even before it had started. Last month, Hadnagy received a call from the FBI asking about the contest.

Wayne, who has done this type of social engineering for 15 years in his day job as a security consultant, said he did about 20 hours of reconnaissance ahead of the contest. He knew how to reach the IT call center and what names to drop when he got through.

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