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It Started with a Wooden Horse

February 10, 2020

Long, long ago in ancient times, there was a legendary conflict. It all began when Paris, the son of the king of Troy, ran off with Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta. Their elopement sparked a war between Greece and Troy that lasted for 10 years. The war finally ended when the Greeks pretended to withdraw, acting as if they were sailing away. Outside the gate to the city of Troy, they left a gift – a massive wooden horse. The Trojans took the bait. They brought the horse into their city. That night, 30 Greek warriors exited its belly and decimated the city.

No one knows if the story of the Trojan Horse is a myth or an actual historical event, but it might be the first recorded episode of social engineering. Even today, many employees can’t resist the modern-day equivalent of the Trojan Horse. They find a “discarded” USB in a parking lot, pop it into their computer, and voilà, a “Trojan” (malware) is now on the computer.

The term “social engineering” simply means a desire to influence an attitude or behavior in a target population. It’s an age-old tactic. Social engineering scams may not have been as sophisticated as today, but they had the same end result. The scammers got what they wanted– whether it was money or free trips around the world—before they got caught. Here are some of history’s most infamous social engineers:

  1. Charles (Carlo) Ponzi

The inventor of the famous “Ponzi” scheme, Charles Ponzi emigrated to the United States from Italy in 1918. Not long after, he told friends if they invested with him, they would double their money in 90 days. Ponzi lured new investors and paid profits to earlier investors with funds from the more recent investors. Victims believed that profits came from product sales or other means and were unaware that other investors were the source of funds. Ponzi’s scheme was exposed in 1920. He spent a decade in prison and was eventually deported.

  1. “Count” Victor Lustig

Victor Lustig is known as “The man who sold the Eiffel Tower.” Lustig was a highly skilled con artist from Austria-Hungary. Lustig spoke five languages and conducted scams across Europe and the United States in the 1900s. In 1925, he convinced investors (on two separate occasions) that the Eiffel Tower was being sold for scrap. One Secret Service agent wrote that Lustig was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream.” Lustig was finally captured in 1935 after masterminding a counterfeit banknote operation. Lustig spent 20 years imprisoned at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

  1. George C. Parker

“And if you believe that . . . I have a bridge to sell you.” George Parker is the inspiration for this popular phrase. Parker conned naïve tourists in New York City into buying famous landmarks. He sold the Brooklyn Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and Grant’s Tomb several times. Parker told his victims they could control access to the landmarks and make money by charging admission. In 1936, he was convicted of fraud and died at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

  1. Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Before he was even 18 years old, Frank Abagnale worked as a co-pilot for Pan Am airlines, a doctor, and a lawyer. But he was none of those things. Abagnale was a master of deception and a forger. As a “pilot,” he racked up thousands of miles in free trips around the world. He escaped from police custody twice (once from a taxiing airplane) and once from a federal prison. Abagnale served less than five years in prison before starting to work for the federal government. He is currently a lecturer for the FBI and runs Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy company. Abagnale is the inspiration behind the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can.

  1. Stanley Mark Rifkin

Stanley Mark Rifkin was a mild-mannered computer repair consultant in the 1970s. In 1978, Rifkin talked his way into Security Pacific Bank’s wire transfer room, saw the transfer security code, and memorized it. Later in the day, Rifkin called the bank transfer department, posing as an international employee. He used the code and had $10.2 million transferred to a private bank account in Switzerland. At the time, it was the largest bank theft in U.S. history. Rifkin then tried to convert the stolen monies into diamonds, placing a multi-million dollar order of diamonds through a Soviet government trading firm called Russalmaz, and then attempting to sell the diamonds. The FBI eventually caught up to Rifkin and he spent eight years in federal prison.

And perhaps you’ve also heard of a man named Bernie Madoff. . .

Whether they’re selling bridges, posing as IT workers, or sending scam emails, fraudsters are often one step ahead of their victims. Brushing up on the Trojan War by reading Homer’s Odyssey might not help you to prevent a computer email scam, but, it’s wise to keep informed about what the newest social engineering scams are out there. Awareness is the first step to prevention.

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