Rogues gallery: 9 infamous social engineers

Social engineers, or "human hackers," have been duping victims from the very beginning of human existence. Here are nine infamous con artists who made history with their scams and schemes.

The Devil

Establishing a theme for all uncountable social engineering efforts through time, the Devil in the book of Genesis played to Eve’s greed by convincing her God was keeping his best powers to himself by forbidding her and Adam from eating from the Tree of Life. 

 

A social engineer often positions himself or herself as an ally of the intended "mark" or victim.

Ulysses

Ulysses, leader of the Greek army, engineered the legendary Trojan Horse scheme that lead to the fall of Troy.

 

Ulysses fooled the Trojans into believing he and his army had abandoned their siege by leaving a large wooden horse - a "gift" - outside the gates of the city.

 

To this day, corporate employees will still pick up USB sticks from the parking lot and stick them in their PCs. Does no one study ancient history?

Victor Lustig

Known as "The man who sold the Eiffel Tower," Victor Lustig was a European con artist who managed to convince investors in 1925 that the famous monument was being sold off for scrap.

 

Lustig allegedly created a simple set of commandments for con men, including: Wait for your mark to reveal any political opinions, and then agree with them.

George Parker

"And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you," is an expression in popular culture today thanks to George Parker, who conned naive New York tourists into buying famous landmarks.

 

He often "sold" the Brooklyn Bridge, Madison Square Garden and Grant's Tomb by telling victims they could make money by controlling access and charging admission. (See Mind games: How social engineers win your trust.)

 

Parker was convicted of fraud and died in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, up the Hudson River from New York City, in 1936.

Charles Ponzi

An Italian immigrant to the US in 1918, Charles Ponzi (real first name Carlo) told friends if they invested with him, he would double their investment within 90 days.

 

His scheme involved using new money to pay off older investors, and the entire business was being run at a loss. Ponzi's scheme was exposed in 1920, and he spent roughly a decade in prison on federal and state charges before ultimately being deported.

 

Ponzi Schemes are of course alive and well today. (See Bernie Madoff slide.)

Credit: Wikipedia
Frank Abagnale

The man who inspired the movie “Catch Me if You Can,” Frank Abagnale was a social engineer who was able to convince Pan Am employees, and many others, that he was an airline pilot in the 1960’s. By dressing in a Pan Am pilot's uniform, he flew thousands of miles for free when he was just a teenager.

 

Look official, act official, people will believe you are official.

 

(Read a CSO Q&A with Abagnale from 2003.)

Mark Rifkin

A computer-repair consultant in the 1970's, Mark Rifkin visited Security Pacific bank's wire transfer room in 1978 and memorized the daily transfer security code.

 

Later in the day he called the bank's transfer department posing as an employee in an international division; using the transfer code he had $10.2 million wired to a private account in Switzerland.

 

In a sufficiently large company, posing as a fellow employee in need of some assistance is a common social engineering ploy.

Kevin Mitnick

Known as the person who popularized the term “social engineering,” Kevin Mitnick was convicted of several computer-related crimes, including hacking into Pacific Bell's voice mail computers and copying proprietary software from some of the country's largest cell phone and computer companies.

Credit: U.S. Department of Justice photo
Bernie Madoff

A modern-day Ponzi, Bernard Madoff now resides in Butner, NC's federal prison serving a 150-year sentence. 

 

Madoff's wealth-management business (Ascot Partners, for you trivia buffs) was revealed in 2008 for fraudulently receiving funds from one set of investors and using the money to pay off earlier investors.

 

Fraudsters and social engineers can often get by with more charisma than cleverness - most schemes seen today have been around for ages. Madoff's just happened to be worth $65B or so.