How to disarm a scammer

Buried unfortunately deep in August’s Social Engineer podcast was some outstanding advice from British TV star R. Paul Wilson, who turned scamming into prime-time BBC TV for several seasons.

Wilson, who literally has sold someone a bridge that he of course didn’t own, has lots of experience on both sides of scamming, so his experience is invaluable. I was just disappointed that we had to listen to 45 minutes of Christopher Hadnagy and David Kennedy arguing before we could hear it, so I’ll cut through the garbage.

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Work-life integration vs. work-life balance

I wanted to bring up another subtopic from Dr. Ellen Langer’s interview on the Social Engineer podcast: work-life integration. It’s important to consider work-life integration vs. work-life balance.

Dr. Langer stated that work-life balance is inherently unhealthy, because the idea creates a notion that you have to be one person at home and a completely different person at work. She didn’t put it this bluntly, but essentially it means living a lie at least part of the time. She did say nobody should want to live life like that.

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Nostalgia can make you younger

This month’s Social Engineer podcast featured psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer, whose specialty is mindfulness. Dr. Langer brought up a lot of important things, including the idea of work-life integration rather than the more difficult work-life balance, but another thing she briefly touched on really resonated with me. She brought up a study, originally done in the late 1970s, where a group of 80-somethings were immersed in 1959 for a week. At the end of the week, they didn’t act like 80-somethings anymore. It seems nostalgia can make you younger.

That got me thinking about the power of nostalgia.

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Identify bad guys through writing style

This month’s Social Engineer podcast discussed a tactic to identify bad guys through writing style, something the hosts expressed surprise was possible.

This won’t be news to anyone who minored in English or Communications or Journalism. A lot of factors go into style—where we grew up, where our parents are from, what we read growing up, our life experience, and it really is like a fingerprint. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby called everyone “Old Sport,” and we all have something like that, it’s just usually more subtle. I’ll say, “taste this,” when my wife or mother in law will say “taste of this.” That’s a regional thing. I pick up on that because I’m interested in language. A really good linguist can pick up on a lot more than that, and machine learning can potentially pick up on still more.

If you recall, it was the Unabomber’s long manifesto that brought down Ted Kaczynski.  Other forensics proved it, but the investigation began with his brother’s observation that the manifesto “sounded like Ted.”

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You’re telling me someone gave a stranger his password?

I was talking breaches last week when a very high-up joined the conversation in mid-stream.

“Start over, Dave.”

“OK. I’m talking about breaches.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” he said, knowingly and very clearly interested.

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Somebody just tried to hack me

Caller: “I calling from technical support. We found issue with your PC.”
Me: “What company are you with?”
Caller: “CSA is the name of my company.”
Me: “What’s our business relationship?”
Caller: “We found issue with your PC. Our technicians found your PC is running slow.”
Me: “Do you realize I wrote the book about PC performance? No, really, I wrote a book about it. I guarantee my computer is faster than yours. I also possess multiple security certifications.”
Caller: “Go on.”
Me: “You need to find someone else to social engineer.”

The caller stammered a little bit, tried to assure me it wasn’t a scam and wasn’t going to cost me money, then hung up.
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We can’t give hackers anything else to work with

Thanks to David Huff for pointing this link out to me (the good Dr. Keyboard also passed it along). Steve Gibson was hacked last month, and he wasn’t very happy about it. So he set out to learn everything he could about l337 h4x0rs (elite hacker wannabes–script kiddies). What he found out bothers me a lot.
Kids these days. Let me tell you…

In my day, 13-year-old truants (those who had computers and modems) used their modems to dial 800 numbers over and over again long into the night, looking for internal-use-only numbers. Armed with a list, they then dialed every possible keycode combination looking for PINs. Then they’d use that information to call long-distance on the telco’s dime. They’d call BBSs, where they’d swap the previous night’s findings for more codez, cardz (credit card numbers), warez (pirated software), or porn.

I never did those things but I knew a lot of people who did. They’d drop off the face of the earth on a moment’s notice, and rumors would go around about FBI busts, computer equipment being confiscated, kids being hauled off to juvenile detention center… And some of them never came back. Some of them cleaned up. Others, who knows? I heard a rumor about one of them running away to Las Vegas after he got out. And some just got hold of their old contacts and went right back to business. One of my friends cleaned up–the huge phone bill he got was enough of a reality check that he stopped. Whether it was a moral reason or just fear of getting caught again, I don’t know. I knew another who got busted repeatedly, and he’d call me up and brag about how his line was tapped, throwing in the occasional snide remark to whoever else might have been listening. I remember our last conversation. He sent me some code (all of the guys I knew were at least semi-competent 6502 assembly language programmers) and we talked music. I’d been fascinated by that subculture, though I never did anything myself–I just talked to these guys (partly out of fear of getting caught, partly because I did want to have some semblence of a life, partly because I didn’t want to kiss up to a bunch of losers until I’d managed to prove I was elite enough), but at that point I was 16, I’d published once, and I realized as the conversation ended that my fascination with it was ending also. It was 1991. The scene was dying. No, it was dead and pathetic. These “elites” had become the butt of jokes–they were risking arrest so they could call Finland for free and pirate Grover’s Magic Numbers, for Pete’s sake! I guess I was growing up. And I never talked to him again. (I don’t even remember this guy’s real first name anymore–only his handle.)

I guess if I’m going to be totally honest, the only thing that’s really changed are the stakes. I want to say my generation wasn’t that bad… But I don’t know.

Essentially, some guy going by “Wicked” had zombies running on 474 Windows PCs. Some of “Wicked’s” buddies took issue with Gibson talking about script kiddies–they thought he was talking about them–so they told “Wicked” to take him down. And he did. And he bragged about it.


"we will just keep comin at you, u cant stop us 'script kiddies' because we are
better than you, plain and simple."

Now, when someone annoys me, I find out what I can about the guy. At 26, I do it to try to get some understanding. At 13 I didn’t necessarily have that motivation, but I did at least have some basic respect. And anyone claiming to be better than Steve Gibson… Gimme a break! That’s like walking up to Michael Jordan and saying you’re better on the basketball court, or walking up to Mark McGwire and saying you can hit a baseball further, or walking up to Colin Powell and telling him you can beat him in a war. And anyone who’s ever written a line of assembly language code and read any of Steve Gibson’s stuff knows it. And it’s not like the guy’s exactly living in obscurity.

Well, Gibson was diplomatic with this punk. And his reasoning and his respect softened him. He called the attacks off. Then they suddenly started again, and Gibson got this message:


is there another way i can reach you that is secure, (i just ddosed you, i aint stupid, im betting first chance ud tracert me and call fbi) you seem like an interesting person to talk to

Say what? You want to talk to someone, so you blow away every other line of communication and ask if you can talk? Now I can just picture this punk once he gets up the nerve to go talk to a girl. He knocks on the door, and the first words out of his mouth are, “I just tesla coiled your phone line so you couldn’t call the cops, but…” Then he’d toss some Kmart pickup line every girl’s heard a million times her way, and hopefully she’d smack him and run to the neighbors’ and call the cops.

For some reason people get hacked off when you do something malicious to them.

Well, Gibson reverse-engineered some Windows zombies and followed them into a l33t IRC channel where he had another interesting conversation. I won’t spoil the rest of it.

Now, I admit when I was 13, I was a mess. I was insecure, and I had trouble adjusting. My voice was cracking, my skin was oily, and I was clumsy and gawky. And I didn’t like anyone I knew when I was 13, because I was the class punching bag. Part of it was probably because I was an outsider. This was a small town, and I wasn’t born there, which was a strike against me. If you got all your schooling there you were still OK. I came in the third grade, so strike two. And I didn’t want to be a hick, so strike three. I liked computers, and in 1987 that was anything but cool, especially in a small town. And everyone thought I was gay, because I didn’t hit on girls and I didn’t have a huge porn collection–and there aren’t many worse things to be in southern Missouri, because it’s still a really bigoted place (and since girls made me stammer, it’s not like I could have proven I was straight anyway). And I had goals in life besides getting the two or three prettiest girls in the class in bed. (Yes, this was 7th grade.) So I guess I was oh-for-two with two big strikeouts. And since I was five feet tall and about 90 pounds, if that (I’m 5’9″, 140 now, and I was scrawnier then than I am now) I couldn’t exactly defend myself either. So I was an easy target with nothing to like about me.

I guess “Wicked” sees Steve Gibson as a five-foot, 90-pound outsider with a really big mouth, so he’s gonna go pick on him. Then he’s gonna go hit on the 13-year-old girl who looks 18, and he thinks taking down grc.com is going to make her swoon and tell him to take her to bed and lose her forever. But since she has a life, she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether grc.com is up or down, so hopefully she’ll smack him but I doubt it.

Yeah, I want to say the solution is to make things like they were in 1987 but bullies are bullies, whether it’s 2001 or 1987 or 1967. AD or BC, for that matter.

I want to say that accountability to a higher being will solve everything and make kids behave, but I know it won’t. That grade-school experience I just described to you, with 13-year-olds making South Park look tame and trying to get in girls’ pants? You know where that happened? A Lutheran grade school. Introducing the kids to God won’t fix it. Establishing a theocracy won’t fix it. In college I wrote a half-serious editorial, after a pair of 6-year-olds in Chicago murdered a four-year-old by dropping him out of a 20th-story window after he refused to steal candy for them, where I advocated the death penalty for all ages–maybe then parents would keep an eye on their kids, I reasoned. But I know that won’t fix anything either.

Steve Gibson doesn’t offer any answers. He’s not a social engineer. He’s a programmer–probably the best and most socially responsible programmer alive right now. And what Gibson wants is for Microsoft to cripple the TCP/IP code in Windows XP, so the zombies these script kiddies use don’t gain the ability to spoof come October.

Frankly, I wish such a castrated TCP/IP stack, with raw sockets capability removed, were available for Linux. My Linux boxes are a minimal threat, being behind a firewall and only having a single port exposed, but I’d cripple them just to limit their usefulness to a script kiddie just in case.

Why? Screw standards compliance. The standard for mail servers used to be to allow them to be wide open so anyone could use one, just in case their mail server was down. It was all about being a good neighbor. Then spammers trampled that good faith, so open relays are now the exception, not the rule.

Maybe there’s some legitimate use for raw sockets. I don’t know. But I know nothing I use needs them. So why can’t I run a stripped-down TCP/IP on all my boxes, so that in the event that I do get compromised, my PCs’ usefulness is limited?

If software companies want to provide a full, standards-compliant, exploitable TCP/IP stack for esotetic purposes that need them, fine. Do it. But don’t install it by default. Make it a conscious decision on the part of the systems administrator.

Let’s just get one myth out of the way. The Internet isn’t going to change the world. So when the world does stupid things, the Internet’s just going to have to change instead.