Marketing Manipulation Case Study -
Training the Social Engineer in all of us
As we started planning our newsletter
out for December we felt it was only right to do an article on marketing
and how it affects us. As soon as I started working on this
however, the first thing that came into my mind is a wonderful article I
read one or two years ago that just consumed me at the time.
The article covered the topic of social proof as it applies to marketing.
If you don't know what social proof is, don't worry, we have you covered.
Within the Social Engineering framework we define social proof as looking at what those around you
consider normal, cool or acceptable to assist in making decisions on what
to do. You can see an amazing example of this in a video that is linked
in the framework that shows an older 1950's clip of Candid Camera.
Where they had actors stand in an elevator all facing a different way or
acting a certain way and when one person got on the elevator it only took
a matter of seconds for that person to conform.
That is a small, humorous experiment...
can the same be true on a large scale?
Our Case Study
What we need is a case study, something
we can dissect to see how this can work or if it can work on a large scale.
We go back to that article I read a couple years ago. It was about
a movie by the name of The Secret . Basically the synopsis about the
movie is "Interviews with leading authors, philosophers, scientists,
with an in-depth discussion of the Law of Attraction. The audience is
shown how they can learn and use 'The Secret' in their everyday
lives." Why it fascinated me at first was that it is portrayed
as a movie about The Law of Attraction and a secret that involves that
law that will change all of our lives. Yet that is just the tip of
The learning lesson in The Secret is
not so much in the contents of the film but in how they marketed
it. Why? Look at these results? A mere 6 months or less
after the movie was released with an accompanying book it sold almost 4
million copies of the book and 2 million copies of the DVD. It was
the #1 best selling movie on Amazon.com and still holds that
title as #1 Best Seller in self-help.
It beat out movies like The Prestige,
The Departed and other Academy Award nominated films. Now to add the
icing to the cake, it's author, Rhonda Byrne was named as one of the top most
influential people in the world in 2007 by Time Magazine. How did a
documentary about a self-help topic top some of the years best
flicks? How did a small film made by scientists and philosophers
reach #1 hits, beating academy award winning films and thousands of
influential people earth wide?
Multi-Level Marketing or Pure
Looking through what The Secret did
will give us great insight into social proof, as a form of
manipulation. First, each person involved in the film reached out
to his/her social network. Online, blogs, tweets, facebook - all of
it was used. Viral videos were produced and played promises that
this film's creator was like you and me... life was bad, she was down,
she was a normal struggling person like you and me... but then one day
out of the desperate despair that was her life rose this secret. It
was so profound, so perfect that she had no choice but to follow
it. It was a secret shared by some of the worlds brightest and most
influential people for thousands of years. When she followed it, it
changed her life forever. She then tapped into the best
philosophical and scientific minds in the world to confirm this secret
and now she will share it with you.
Videos and posts like this would make
one wonder... "What is this secret?" "What can it do
for ME?" "Do I want to know?"... This in itself is
genius. She was able to create an atmosphere where we as a people
are performing perfect elicitation on ourselves. We opened our
minds to be willing to ask these questions... when we did there were blog
posts, tweets, viral videos pointing to the fact that this book, this DVD
held the answers.
Did it stop there? No, this same
group reached out to all their contacts and landed interviews on Oprah,
Larry King and other such talk shows. Famous celebrities, the likes
of Oprah and others wrote reviews on the film. They used People, Participation
and Persuasion to draw our minds open, then draw us in to the
movie. Once our minds where opened (mentioned above) not only did
all the media give us the “answers” but we then had social proof that
everyone we love… everyone we watch… everyone we look to for guidance,
the great talk show hosts, the great teachers, the great philosophers all
agreed… it was life altering. It doesn’t matter if it was or not,
they told us it was and our minds HAD to accept it.
Really where we learn the most is in
the way they promoted this movie. Many people had much
participation and it persuaded us to believe the secret really did lie
inside this film. Not just one or two of us... but that movie was
at a point of selling 7,500 copies per day. Yepper, 7,500 people
per-day sought enlightenment, sought the answer to bring them out of
darkness from this film.
Why all the hype?
So why is this so amazing? In the end
the secret of The Secret was we all have the potential to alter our lives
by controlling our thoughts. The boiled down the Law of Attraction
by saying that whatever happens to you in your life is what you deserve
because you attract it through your thoughts. Basically there was no
amazing secret, there was no life altering truth. Actually just the
opposite, one of the people involved in the movie was quoted as saying
that the genocides in Rwanda are due to the fact that the people there
are attracting those negative things to themselves. Women who are
raped… children abused… or the guy who made a million dollars are all
because of how you thought of it. Even with all of this, the movie hit
#1, sold over 300 per hour per day for over a year. How?
They used some pretty basic social
engineering tactics to convince mass amounts of people there was something
there they MUST have. Overall, marketing has been doing this for
years, but we used The Secret as a case study. The part that makes
this case study so amazing is that even after people watched it and saw
there was no real secret… even after people heard the interviews with
directors and those involved saying that atrocities are a result of those
peoples thinking habits, even after all that – there are still those that
feel The Secret contains life altering truths that can be followed like
they are gospel. That is the power of social proof.
Learning to harness that power can make
one a great social engineer. But How?
Using in Social Engineering
When we use elicitation we can use
words or phrases that will create a feeling or impression that others have
accepted and acted on this. A very simplistic example of this is
the insurance salesmen that comes to the door and say, "Hi ma'am, my
name is Paul. I work for ABC Insurance and I was just next door
talking to Mrs. Smith and after she bought our premium policy she
mentioned you might be interested in hearing about our policy too."
What happened in this simple
sentence? While he introduces himself and introduces his product he
puts your mind at ease telling you
1) your neighbor let him in
2) your neighbor bought the policy
3) your neighbor was so happy that she
referred him over here to save you through this policy.
If the argument is convincing enough,
if it fills a hole (even a hole created by the same person) then the mind
is more open to accept this truth. For example, (sorry for bashing
insurance salesmen) the old insurance sales pitch that goes something
like, "Imagine the loss for your family if you were to suddenly die
or become disabled..." shortly after he offers you insurance for
life and disability. That hole was created by his elicitation and
if it is serious enough to you, what he offers next will automatically be
That “if” is not good for us social
engineers. We need to create a hole that must be filled.
Recently I was doing some work with
Mati and we saw a commercial on a TV in a hotel that was selling
"miracle water". Basically you call this number, buy some
water that when you drink it, or pour it on yourself you will have
wealth, happiness, whatever it is you want, why? Cause God blessed
this water and he says if you pay this guy some cash he will pour this
blessings on you. Then there are dozens of interviews of people who
drank the water, got the water… just BOUGHT the water and the got $5,000,
$10,000 checks… healed from ailments, no more cancer, no more
arthritis. All gone from this water. Sounds silly no?
Yet there were dozens if not hundreds of people lining up to buy it... no
joke, that same person was on the Internet that in 1987 he had a similar
scam and made over $4.3 million dollars PER MONTH. Millions of
people lined up! They wanted to believe, no they NEEDED to believe
wha! t he had can cure them. So it was worth the risk.
Ok I digress... we are not trying to
tell people how to fraud or scam, our goal here is to show how we can use
the principles here in social engineering. So let's outline the
1. Making people
believe their friends or even the majority of the “crowd” are doing,
accepting, buying, giving the same information that you are asking for or
selling will open them up to suggestion
2. Creating suspense,
wanting or desire for something will also open up the person to
3. Persuasion is more
effective without the use of force
The Law of Attraction does exist - social proof does exist - learning how
to utilize these will boost your social engineering experience.
Practice Makes Perfect
Again we go back to elicitation.
Practice wording and phrasing techniques that help create the emotions
you want in the target. Take an example from the insurance salesmen
or from major marketing. They tell us that this night on TV is
"Must See TV"... they tell us that this new gadget is a
"Must have" and like sheep the majority of people watch or go
to the store.
Being able to elicit emotions with out
speech will greatly enhance our ability to use social proof. People
buy with emotion and reason with logic. In a social engineering gig
it is often better to get them to react to that emotion as by the time
the logic center kicks in we can be gone. What is one of the best
ways to elicit emotion in our speech? Stories or describing things
in great detail.
Here is an example:
Story 1: I was driving to town and I almost hit a deer.
Story 2: I was running late
for a dinner meeting. It was important because we were meeting with
a potential larger client. As I got into my car I notice the gas
light came on. I was irritated that I forgot to get gas earlier
that day when I knew I would be pushing for time. As I drove towards
town I knew one area that had some good flat, straight aways. I
sped up as fast I felt safe. Every little bump I felt my stomach
drop a bit. I knew I was going fast but I was practicing my pitch I
was going to discuss over dinner.
I rounded one corner and in the middle of the road was a huge buck.
I had no time to think and I decided to swerve and try to miss it.
As I slammed on my brakes and my tires locked up I began to slide
sideways. My heart was pounding 100 mphs per hour, like a drum in
my chest. The back tires spun around and before you know it I was
sliding backwards into a ditch…..
Which story did you get more involved
in? Both happened.. both are real, both are the same story.
But the later one gets your emotions involved. It makes you feel
what I felt and in turn will open you up to suggestion for how best to
handle what comes next.
Second, learn to control your facial
expressions. I swear we will write about mircoexpressions soon, but
learning to control our facial gestures can go a long way in eliciting
emotion in our speech and controlling the outcome. Think of this to
illustrate the power. Have you ever walked by a restaurant with
windows in front of people eating. If you see a group of people
laughing and joking you will find yourself smiling as you pass by.
This illustrates the power of the facial expression. If we look
nervous, unsure or not confident we might as well not even try. We
have to have natural facial expressions that can also be converted to the
emotions we want to portray.
A good actor can make us feel what they
want simply with a good facial expression. Babies do this every
day. They read our emotions through our vocal tone and our facial
expressions. We don’t loose that, we just let communication and
what is being said cloud that as we get older. You can walk up to a
baby and put on a huge smile, and in a very cute voice say, “I really
hate your guts.. oh yes I do, you filthy worm, I hate you…..gooochie
gooo” (please do not try this) That baby will probably laugh and
smile. Because it is not WHAT you said but HOW you said it, and how
your LOOKED saying it.
Thirdly, get familiar with the idea of
social proof. The same way a bartender may "salt" the tip
jar by putting in 10 or 20 one-dollar bills in the tip jar. As you
order your drink you see money in the tip jar and it automatically tells
you MANY others before you have tipped him, you don't want to be the one
guy that doesn't. So you put a tip in the jar, and so does the next
100 people. Learn to lead people down the path you want them to
take believing in your heart they agreed to do this and it is 100%
completely normal. Just like that Candid Camera video. The
people in the elevator believed that was the right way to stand and
because they did the people that came in complied without even
asking. That is power.
Learning to elicit people to an action of our desire is a powerful
tool. When I was younger I worked for a guy that had this amazing
ability to make you feel special with anything and make you feel like you
WANTED to do what ever he asked of you. Here is a “rendition” of a
real conversation where he is trying to get me to do something I just
don’t want to do.
Him – “Hey I have a big problem and I
wanted to get some advice on how to deal with it. I noticed you
have a good head on your shoulders can I see you after lunch.” (this
genius gets my head all puffed up, gets me thinking I am going to advise
the boss and gives me time to gloat on this glory)
Me – “Sure. I will come back
early if you need me to.”
Him-“Whenever you get back just let me know.”
After a short break I come back all eager and ready for my special
Him – “Look I got a big problem and I
don’t know how to handle it. As you know Ben just left. He
did a great job here, but there was some special duties I wanted to
assign to the right person. I thought about Joe but he doesn’t have
that quality I was looking for.” (again perfect, special duties… he
knows Joe and I compete so by putting it this way I was painting the picture
of this glory position I was about to get)
Him – “I am not sure if I can burden
you with this extra duty since you already have a full plate. But I have
a feeling you are perfect for this. Do you have any ideas about
what I can do or who I can assign this to?”
(will I actually convince myself I am right for this job?)
Me – “Well I know that Steve has some
extra time since he lost that one account, but I think if I rearrange my
time a bit I can take on some special tasks. If anything you can give me
the work then if I have the time you can take it back and give it to
Steve. We can do this as a trial run.”
Him – “Wow that is a great
thought. I never even thought of asking you to do that.
Forward thinking, perfect”
I find out later on I am the official
report filer… a terrible, meaningless job. I hated it, but after
all it was “my” idea….
Getting people to buy in, get involved
then convince themselves is a powerful tool. I once saw this same
guy convince the secretary it was her idea (and a great one) to clean the
men’s room herself instead of having a cleaning service. This guy
Practice getting your facial gestures
and your voice tone and your phrases/words perfected so this becomes
second nature to you to. One key to this is to be genuine.
When he was telling me I was the best for this job etc, he was
real. He honestly believed I was the best for that job… he let my
mind convince me that it was something it wasn’t, but in the end he was
Finally, learn to observe and
listen. If you work out all the above but you are so busy planning
out your next sentence on the spot you may miss a facial queue or a
verbal answer that is important to your end game. Practice so it is
second nature and then when you with the target you are observant and listening
so you can hear or see the answer when it is given.
The end of the matter is, social proof
is a powerful tool. It can be used for bad, so we have to watch out
that we don’t get suckered into a scam or fraud. On the other hand,
as professional auditors of security, we can use this to uncover a
weakness in most people then train then to watch for these queues.
Teach them what to look out for and this very well may save them for a
serious security breach.
By Chris loganWHD Hadnagy
Trust, Social Networks, Television, and Morons.
A few weeks back a local TV station
came by and asked for some help. Sweeps week was coming up, and they
wanted to have a story that would really grab people. We threw a number
of ideas into the air to them, and the one they picked to run with had to
do with Facebook and some of the dangers that are posed with how people
Incidentally, the reason they went with the Facebook story had to do with
their demographic. Turns out, it is mostly middle-aged mothers that watch
the news, and when they watch they are often doing something else at the
time. So, when they run stories they need something that will reach out
and grab their attention so they want to turn and watch the TV. With that
in mind, pay attention to your local news when you get a chance and see
if that changes the way you watch the news.
Matt and I were responsible for this, so we set up a fake Facebook
account with the intent to get as many friends as possible. The basic approach
for that is to set up an account with an early 20s female, attractive but
not too much so, non-threatening job, intelligent but not too much so. We
went about collecting various friends from the area in an effort to make
the account look legit.
After it was built up, we had two goals. First, to try to see what we
could find out through Facebook about the people that worked at the news
station doing the story. Second, the station gave us the names of a
family in the local area that had agreed to be the subject of a story, we
were to see if we could become their friends and what information we
could gather on them.
As you can guess, those were not hard goals to accomplish. The news
people want to be as welcoming as possible so they accepted all friend
requests that come in. The approach with them was to look for sensitive
data they were leaking.
The family on the other hand was more interesting. We did not know how
much or little they were told by the news crew, so we had to operate as
if they would be on guard. We first sent a friend request to the mother,
who accepted it with no problem. At that point we targeted the kids, as
then the requests would come in with the mother listed as a mutual
friend. In a sense, the mother was vouching for our fake account. Of
course, the kids accepted the request. Mission accomplished.
As for the information leakage, across the board we had information
concerning when people were going to go out of town and where they were
going, full dates of births, various other personal bits of information,
and so on. Not a great surprise for anyone that has done this work in the
past, but remember most people don't think of this sort of stuff. If you
care to see the whole thing, the news story is online at http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/67332677.html.
That is all public, but what was really interesting to me is many of the
things that are not in the news story.
First off, making fake accounts.
Every time I have to do this sort of thing, I can't help but shake my
head at how predictable guys are. Have a reasonably attractive female be
nice to guys and you can get anything you want. We never use guys as fake
accounts because it seems that no one ever trusts them.
I will admit, I was not always an angel. I remember before the Internet
took off, my friends and I used to use BBS' all the time. For fun, my
friends and I would create fake accounts on the multiline boards. We
always made them females with really strange and unrealistic fethshes and
the handles to reflect them. For instance, a favorite was one named
"CheezeWig" who had a thing for wigs made out of cheese.
We would then use these accounts to have people show up in public places
thinking they were going to meet some kinky female, so that we could make
fun of them. No matter how extreme we got ("Make sure you bring a
block of cheddar baby and you will get the time of your life"), they
would still show up on the slim hopes that these women were real. (And,
they would bring bags of cheese with them.)
Well, guys are no better now. We skipped the simple "can I become a
friend" with some people here locally. We had popular, well known,
local media figures that we know are married with kids asking us out for
coffee to get to know us.
We never told the news people about that, as that is a story we did not
want to be involved with. But, I really wish I could of known what their
reaction was when they found out the account was fake and part of a news
Really, you are known in the region, you see some girl on Facebook and
think "This is someone I would like to have an affair with."?
Then send private messages to the accounts, sleazing on them? At the end
of it, I had to block one of them as he would not leave me alone.
Another amazing thing to me is what happened after the story ran.
After filming the segment, a week before it ran, we deleted all the
friends. We did not want anyone to feel targeted or picked on, as we knew
people would look up the accounts afterward and did not want to draw
attention to these random people.
We were shocked with the amount of “friend requests” that came in
after the story ran. I mean, people watch this show talking about how you
have to be careful about the information you share and who you share it
with. Their first reaction is to bring what they know is a fake account
by people up to no good inside their social network? They think that was
a good idea?
So yeah. I accepted the friend requests.
And, back to the topic of men are dogs again. Here is a message I got the
you are a Very attractive and ...give off a nice sensuality that most
women have to try real hard to get..!! get some more photo's & send
some to me...you don't have to be shy..live a little..i am not a stalker
..you can see that from my friends list and i even post my cell on my
site... It would be cool to find-out more about you..your prof. is really
lacking in any real info about you... thats why i am asking... anyway..take
a risk...get some more pics and let me no a little more ...age...likes
/dislikes...what is fun to you...etc kids? divorced? etc...
........HAVE A GREAT DAY...REMEMBER" WE ONLY HAVE RIGHT NOW! :)
What a lovely message from a random creeper. So, I reply with a link to
the news story, expecting the dork to go away. In reply, he sends me:
you made a great point ..I tend not to "care" about my privacy
and such...I should be more cautious that article made some real
intresting reading and points.... anyway... thanks for the heads-up!! I
still would like to "know" more...as the saying goes...more
will be revealed.....have a great night sweetie!! :)
So, I guess he is still interested in me. I could not just let this go,
so I replied to him:
You still want to know more about me huh? Well, as seen in the video I
sent you, I am a 31 year old male that works in the information security
You did notice from the article that this account is fake, right?
And of course Mr. Observation replies back:
no ...you got me... I was skimming and NOT Paying close ATTENTION...WELL
YOU got -it NOW...! THANKS...Somtimes I am a little slow or much to
trusting...I coulda swore I kinda new that face... Don't ass-u-me
Thing is, I bet he did know the face. I stole it from a fake twitter
account that started following me. They were advertising a cam-girls porn
site and I took their profile pic to use as this Facebook accounts
So, what SE lessons can we draw from all this?
Like I mentioned, I have been doing fake accounts for years for various
reasons. I would like to think I have matured and do them for better
reasons now, but the basic methods are the same today as they were over a
decade ago. Only now, the potential target base is larger so I can trick
more people with the same amount of effort.
Social networks are not evil at all, they are just tools that a lot of
people don't know how to make use of correctly. As social engineers, if
we know the fish gather at a known location in the ocean we would be
fools not to cast our nets there. Its too easy for the type of return we
There have been multiple penetration tests that I have done where
information gathered from social networks was the key that let me into
the network and it was far easier then doing a custom exploit.
The problem I encounter a lot after using these techniques in a pentest
is the customer then asks me "How do I correct this problem?".
That is a fair and expected question. The problem is that there is no
good answer for it. Most companies are in no position to dictate whether
or not their employees are allowed to use social networks, or what sort
of data they can put out there. Plus there is the question of how do they
enforce any policies dealing with this? Where would control and audit fit
in to this? Its just not there.
The only effective solution really is user education. Employees have to
be taught how and why this is a matter they should care about. They have
to see the outcomes of negative behavior as well as see positive behavior
to model off of. This has to be reinforced on a regular basis far more
often then a once per year compliance class no one pays attention to.
This is difficult as it is far more then buying a new appliance and
dropping it into the network. However, what is the alternative? Its fun
for me to laugh at the media personality that was hitting on my fake
account much in the same way that it used to be entraining to trick users
on BBS', but the stakes are much higher.
What could have been done to the media personalities job? His marriage?
How would of his kids felt of his behavior had it been made public?
Beyond personal affects to him, what about the damage to the employer?
How much would the issue cost them in ratings and associated advertising
losses? We are talking real life issues and real money.
It goes far beyond a prank.
Reasons like this is why we created www.social-engineer.org.
To help the person, the company and the auditor have a place to gather
information for education. Education is the key to preventing this
type of attack. Education can help someone to use common sense and
education can make the difference in being secure or not.
(Just as a note, I deleted all the messages from anyone that could in
anyway be embarrassing to anyone in regards to this fake account. Don’t
bother asking for it.)
Written by Jim "Elwood" O'Gorman