Last night I was interviewed by Jasmine Huda on St. Louis KMOV-TV Channel 4 news about a scam used to steal information from PCs. The attackers are calling random people and claiming to be from Microsoft Technical Support. They say they received an error report from their computer and have found a problem that they will help them fix over the phone. Many PC users see those send error report dialog boxes after a crash, and often click to send the report. Of course, the scammers did not see those reports – they go directly to Microsoft who treats their content confidentially. In addition, if you think about it, does your PC know your phone number?
This is an example of the other engineering – social engineering. Social engineering is a confidence game of tricking someone into sharing their computer password or installing malware on their computer or visiting malicious websites. Unfortunately, it is all too easy, especially if they have a small amount of information (or a lucky guess, such as that you recently clicked on a send error report message).
For a complete analysis of social engineering, I’d recommend Kevin Mitnick’s The Art of Deception. Or, to read his incredible real-life account of how he used social engineering to take over telephone networks, try Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker.
Everyone should be aware of social engineering and how to protect themselves from it. The most important thing is to never give out information or access to your computer to someone who calls you, even if they sound legitimate. If you think it really is Microsoft calling you, or your bank, or your credit card company, then ask for their case number, hangup, then lookup the phone number of the business or bank and call them back at that number. (Note that you can’t ask them for their phone number or call the number shown on Caller ID – you can’t trust that information either, and some attackers can even working have toll free numbers).
I do hope, however, that people don’t stop sending those error reports. I’ve heard from my friends who are software developers that these reports are a goldmine for them in terms of fixing bugs and improving their software.