AskDefine | Define pretext

Dictionary Definition



1 something serving to conceal plans; a fictitious reason that is concocted in order to conceal the real reason [syn: stalking-horse]
2 an artful or simulated semblance; "under the guise of friendship he betrayed them" [syn: guise, pretense, pretence]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A false, contrived or assumed purpose; a pretense.
    The reporter called the company on the pretext of trying to resolve a consumer complaint.


  1. To employ a pretext, which involves using a false or contrived purpose for soliciting the gain of something else.
    HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn obtained directors' home phone records using possibly-illegal pretexting methods.


See also

Extensive Definition

Social engineering is the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. While similar to a confidence trick or simple fraud, the term typically applies to trickery for information gathering or computer system access and in most cases the attacker never comes face-to-face with the victim.

Social engineering techniques and terms

All social engineering techniques are based on specific attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases. These biases, sometimes called "bugs in the human hardware," are exploited in various combinations to create attack techniques, some of which are listed here:


Pretexting is the act of creating and using an invented scenario (the pretext) to persuade a target to release information or perform an action and is typically done over the telephone. It's more than a simple lie as it most often involves some prior research or set up and the use of pieces of known information (e.g. for impersonation: date of birth, Social Security Number, last bill amount) to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target.
This technique is often used to trick a business into disclosing customer information, and is used by private investigators to obtain telephone records, utility records, banking records and other information directly from junior company service representatives. The information can then be used to establish even greater legitimacy under tougher questioning with a manager (e.g., to make account changes, get specific balances, etc).
As most U.S. companies still authenticate a client by asking only for a Social Security Number, date of birth, or mother's maiden name, the method is effective in many situations and will likely continue to be a security problem in the future.
Pretexting can also be used to impersonate co-workers, police, bank, tax authorities or insurance investigators — or any other individual who could have perceived authority or right-to-know in the mind of the target. The pretexter must simply prepare answers to questions that might be asked by the target. In some cases all that is needed is a voice of the right gender, an earnest tone and an ability to think on one's feet.
Voice over IP programs are starting to become a standard in pretexting, as it is harder to track an IP address than a phone number, making the pretexter less vulnerable to capture.


Phishing is a technique of fraudulently obtaining private information. Typically, the phisher sends an email that appears to come from a legitimate business — a bank, or credit card company — requesting "verification" of information and warning of some dire consequence if it is not done. The letter usually contains a link to a fraudulent web page that looks legitimate — with company logos and content — and has a form requesting everything from a home address to an ATM card's PIN.
For example, 2003 saw the proliferation of a phishing scam in which users received e-mails supposedly from eBay claiming that the user’s account was about to be suspended unless he clicked on the provided link and updated the credit card information that the genuine eBay already had. Because it is relatively simple to make a Web site look like a legitimate organizations site by mimicking the HTML code, the scam counted on people being tricked into thinking they were actually being contacted by eBay and were subsequently going to eBay’s site to update their account information. By spamming large groups of people, the “phisher” counted on the e-mail being read by a percentage of people who actually had listed credit card numbers with eBay legitimately.

IVR/phone phishing

This technique uses a rogue Interactive voice response (IVR) system to recreate a legitimate sounding copy of a bank or other institution's IVR system. The victim is prompted (typically via a phishing email) to call in to the "bank" via a provided (ideally toll free) number and verify information. A typical system will continually reject logins ensuring the victim enters PINs or passwords multiple times, often revealing several different passwords. More advanced systems will even transfer the victim to the attacker posing as a customer service agent for further questioning.
Someone could even record the typical commands ("Press one to change your password, press two to speak to customer services" ...) and play them back manually in real time, giving the appearance of being an IVR without the expense.

Trojan horse/gimmes

Gimmes take advantage of the victims' curiosity or greed to deliver malware. Also known as a Trojan Horse, an example of a gimme might be the "email virus" which arrives as an email attachment promising anything from a "cool" or "sexy" screen saver, an important anti-virus or system upgrade, or even the latest gossip about an employee. Victims succumb by opening the attachment which would then activate. Since naive users might unthinkingly click on an attachment without considering legitimacy, the technique can be quite effective and a number (for example the "I love you virus") even made international news as a result.
Similarly a program which grants the attacker access by hiding inside other software (spyware being an example) or by pretending to be something it is not (for example a download pretending to be a "free" copy of a new software title) behaves much like the famous horse of Troy and allows an "insider attack".

Road apple

A road apple is a real-world variation of a Trojan Horse that uses physical media and relies on the curiosity of the victim. The name is taken from a euphemism for horse manure.
In a road apple attack, the attacker leaves a malware infected floppy disc, CD ROM or USB flash drive in a location sure to be found (bathroom, elevator, sidewalk, parking lot), gives it a legitimate looking and curiosity-piquing label, and simply waits.
For example, an attacker might create a disk featuring a corporate logo, readily available off the target's web site, and write "Executive Salary Summary Q1 " on the front. The attacker would then leave the disk on the floor of an elevator or somewhere in the lobby of the target company. An unknowing employee might find it and subsequently insert the disk into a computer to satisfy their curiosity, or a good samaritan might find it and turn it in to the company.
In either case as a consequence of merely inserting the disk to see the contents, the user would unknowingly install malware on their computer, likely giving an attacker unfettered access to the victim's PC and perhaps the target company's internal computer network.
Unless other controls block the infection, PCs set to "autorun" inserted media may be compromised as soon as a rogue disk is inserted.

Quid pro quo

Something for something:
  • An attacker calls random numbers at a company claiming to be calling back from technical support. Eventually they will hit someone with a legitimate problem, grateful that someone is calling back to help them. The attacker will "help" solve the problem and in the process have the user type commands that give the attacker access and/or launch malware.

Other types

Even if they lack cracking skills, common confidence tricksters or fraudsters could also be considered social engineers in the wider sense in that they deliberately deceive and manipulate people, exploiting human weaknesses to obtain personal benefit. They may, for example, use social engineering techniques as part of an IT fraud. The latest type of Social Engineering techniques include spoofing or hacking ids of people having popular email ids like Yahoo, Gmail, hotmail etc. Here the reasons for the deception may be multitude, some of them are:
  1. Phishing the credit-card accounts numbers and their passwords.
  2. Hacking private emails, chat histories and manipulating them by using common editing techniques and using them to extort money and creating distrust among individuals.
  3. Hacking websites of companies/organizations and destroying their reputation.

Notable social engineers

Kevin Mitnick

Reformed computer criminal and security consultant Kevin Mitnick popularized the term social engineering, pointing out that it's much easier to trick someone into giving you his or her password for a system than to spend the effort to hack in.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA)

Signed into U.S. law in 1999 specifically addresses pretexting of banking records as an illegal act punishable under federal statutes. Under the common law, pretexting is an invasion of privacy tort of appropriation; see Restatement 2d of Torts § 652C.
When a business entity such as a private investigator, SIU insurance investigator or an adjuster conducts any type of deception, it falls under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This federal agency has the obligation and authority to ensure that consumers are not subject to any unfair or deceptive business practices.
US Federal Trade Commission Act, Section 5 of the FTCA states, in part: "Whenever the Commission shall have reason to believe that any such person, partnership, or corporation has been or is using any unfair method of competition or unfair or deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce, and if it shall appear to the Commission that a proceeding by it in respect thereof would be to the interest of the public, it shall issue and serve upon such person, partnership, or corporation a complaint stating its charges in that respect...."
The statute states that if you are securing any personal, non-public information from a financial institution or the consumer, the action is covered by the statute. It relates to the consumer's relationship with the financial institution. For example, the pretexter is using false pretenses to get from the consumer's bank the consumer's address, that would be covered. Or, if the pretexter is going to the consumer and getting the name of his or her bank through false pretenses, that would be covered. The determining principle is that it is only pretexting if the information is obtained through false pretenses.
While the sale of cell phone records has gained significant media attention, and telecommunications records are the focus of the two bills currently before the United States Senate, many other types of private records are being bought and sold in the public market. Alongside many advertisements for cell phone records, wireline records and the records associated with calling cards are advertised. As individuals shift to VoIP telephones, it is safe to assume that those records will be offered for sale as well.
It is currently legal to sell phone records, but illegal to obtain them.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo, Michigan), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed concern over the easy access to personal cell phone records on the Internet during Wednesday's E&C Committee hearing on “Phone Records For Sale: Why Aren't Phone Records Safe From Pretexting?”
Illinois became the first state to sue an online records broker when Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc., on 20 January, a spokeswoman for Madigan's office said. The Florida-based company operates several Web sites that sell cell phone records, according to a copy of the suit.
The attorneys general of Florida and Missouri quickly followed Madigan's lead, filing suit on 24 January and 30 January, respectively, against 1st Source Information Specialists and, in Missouri's case, one other records broker - First Data Solutions, Inc.
Several wireless providers, including T-Mobile, Verizon and Cingular, filed earlier lawsuits against records brokers, with Cingular winning an injunction against First Data Solutions and 1st Source Information Specialists on January 13.
US Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) introduced legislation in February of 2006 aimed at curbing the practice. The Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 would create felony criminal penalties for stealing and selling the records of mobile phone, landline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) subscribers.
Hewlett Packard's Former Chairman, Patricia Dunn, reported that the HP board hired a private investigation company to delve into who was responsible for leaks within the board. Dunn acknowledged that this company used the practice of pretexting to solicit the phone records of board members and journalists. Chairman Dunn later apologized for this act and offered to step down from the board if it was desired by board members. Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting, and this case is being investigated by the California Attorney General.

Social engineering in popular culture

  • In the film Hackers, the protagonist used a form of social engineering, where the main character accessed a TV network's control system by phoning the security guard for the telephone number to the station's modem, posing as an important executive. Although the film is not highly accurate, the particular method demonstrates the power of social engineering.
  • In Jeffrey Deaver's book The Blue Nowhere, social engineering is one of the methods used by the killer, Phate, to get close to his victims.
  • In the movie Live Free or Die Hard, Justin Long is seen pretexting that his father is dying from a heart attack to have an "OnStar" representative start a "to be" stolen car.
  • In the movie Sneakers, one of the characters poses as a low level security guard's superior in order to convince him that a security breach is actually a false alarm.



Further reading

  • Boyington, Gregory. Baa Baa Black Sheep (Bantam Books, 1990) ISBN 0-553-26350-1
  • Mitnick, Kevin. The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security (Wiley, 2003) ISBN 0-764-54280-X
pretext in Arabic: هندسة اجتماعية
pretext in Catalan: Enginyeria social (informàtica)
pretext in German: Social Engineering
pretext in Spanish: Ingeniería social (seguridad informática)
pretext in Basque: Ingeniaritza sozial (segurtasun informatikoa)
pretext in Persian: دفاع حملات مهندسی اجتماعی
pretext in French: Ingénierie sociale (sécurité de l'information)
pretext in Indonesian: Social engineering (keamanan)
pretext in Italian: Ingegneria sociale
pretext in Hebrew: הנדסה חברתית (אבטחת מידע)
pretext in Dutch: Social engineering (informatica)
pretext in Japanese: ソーシャル・エンジニアリング
pretext in Norwegian: Sosial manipulering
pretext in Polish: Inżynieria społeczna (informatyka)
pretext in Portuguese: Engenharia social (segurança da informação)
pretext in Russian: Социальная инженерия
pretext in Simple English: Social engineering
pretext in Serbian: Социјално планирање
pretext in Finnish: Sosiaalinen manipulointi
pretext in Ukrainian: Соціальна інженерія

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acting, affectation, alibi, allege, alternative, appearance, attitudinizing, avow, bluff, bluffing, camouflage, cheating, choice, claim, cloak, color, coloring, cover, cover story, deception, delusion, disguise, dissemblance, dissembling, dissimulation, escape clause, escape hatch, excuse, explanation, facade, face, fakery, faking, false air, false front, false show, falsity, feigning, feint, four-flushing, fraud, front, gilt, gloss, guise, humbug, humbuggery, imposture, loophole, masquerade, meretriciousness, ostentation, outward show, playacting, plea, pose, posing, posture, pretend, pretense, pretension, profess, protest too much, purport, rational ground, rationale, rationalization, reason, reason for, reason why, red herring, representation, right, ruse, saving clause, seeming, semblance, sham, show, simulacrum, simulation, speciousness, stated cause, the big idea, the idea, the whatfor, the wherefore, the why, underlying reason, varnish, veil, way of escape, way out, window dressing
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