Social Engineering Report Shows Corporate America At Risk

Final report from Defcon contest details information employees gave up over the phone

Among the unsettling results in the final report, released today, from the Social Engineering Capture The Flag contest held in August at Defcon: Security companies were just as susceptible to social engineering as nontechnology firms, Internet Explorer 6 was still in use at 65 percent of the Fortune 500 companies targeted in the contest, and nearly 90 percent of the targets willingly opened a URL that the contestants gave them.

The contest, in which the art of social engineering was demonstrated on a rare public stage using real-world targets, was aimed at gauging the vulnerability of major corporations to social engineering. And the 17 contestants, who had to compile a dossier of as much information as they could gather passively on their assigned target company beforehand (no phone calls, email, or direct contact), had little trouble scoring information in the 25 minutes they had to social-engineer someone on the other end of the telephone line during the contest. The event was open to Defcon attendees to watch as the contestants made their calls from a soundproof booth.

Google, BP, McAfee, Symantec, Shell, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Apple, and Walmart were on the list of targeted companies. The contest organizers aren't saying which company's employees gave up what information, but they admit the contestants were able to get plenty out of their targets.

"With every company called, if we had been hired to do an audit, they would have failed," says Chris Hadnagy, founder of, which organized the Social Engineering Capture The Flag contest.

Retailers were the savviest about not giving away too much information to a stranger over the phone, and women were more likely to stop the caller dead in his tracks, too. "We thought the AV companies would be the ones to shut us down, or the technology companies, like Cisco, Microsoft, or Apple, because they were all aware of this contest," Hadnagy says. "And they all have some semblance of a security awareness program."

But technology companies were just as easy to social-engineer, he says.

In the end, 14 of the 15 contestants were able to social-engineer information out of their targeted companies in the two-day contest (one target was unavailable by phone), some posing as journalists, IT survey-takers, and businessmen. They scored points for getting predesignated "flags" from their targets, such as the type of browser, antivirus program, trash-handler, food supplier, wireless, and VPN.

The contest even taught the seasoned social engineering experts who ran it a few new tricks. "These Fortune 500 firms are huge companies that I've not ever done audits for. A curiosity of mine was [whether] these massive companies have good security awareness programs. We learned that they [do] not," Hadnagy says. "Bigger companies are not any better at security awareness than [midsize] ones."

The final report, which Hadnagy blogged about today, shows that most contestants had success when contacting the targeted company's call center, followed by calling a specific employee they had researched. More than one-third posed as an employee of the company and another third or so as survey-takers. Seven of the 15 companies put up some resistance to the caller, but all it took in most cases was to call back and reach a different employee. And it was more likely for an employee to want to answer a question, but just not have the information, than to resist answering it.

More than half of the targets gave the name of their operating system version, browser version, email client, and antivirus package.

Social media also provided the social engineer contestants with valuable information on their marks, especially LinkedIn. Some of the targeted firms had LinkedIn pages for the entire company, Hadnagy says, including employee names, resumes, contact information, and information on employees' previous jobs. "They were taking those employees and LinkedIn and using Twitter and Facebook to also build a solid profile," he says.

Hadnagy and colleague James O'Gorman, team member at and a consultant with Continuum Worldwide, say this demonstrates how inexperienced social engineers can use standards search tools to map enough information to attack an organization.

One contestant used Google's Street View to get a shot of the company's corporate headquarters in his data-gathering phase before the live showdown in Vegas. "They did a shot by shot of the whole building and found every entrance, where the cameras were, the name of the dumpster, which was in the picture, and the name of the tape backup company because the vendor [truck] was sitting there," Hadnagy says.

O'Gorman says contestants without any social engineering experience approached the contest differently than those who did. "There was a real difference in their information-gathering and their pretext ... But even so, it showed we have to be worried not just about experienced social engineers, but inexperienced ones, too. It's that easy to do," he says.

Experienced social engineers typically took the riskier pretext, such as posing as an internal employee or a customer, which requires more firsthand knowledge of the company. And one experienced contestant was able to deflect the employee's question that he email his request instead. "An experienced one doesn't give up because their pretext is more than just a story. They become that person," Hadnagy says. "So they react and act to questions and rejections like that pretext would. The inexperienced contestant is putting on a lie or a story."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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