How to spot -- and stop -- a spy

Con artists make it their job to extract sensitive corporate intelligence from unsuspecting employees. Here's how to stop them.

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Keystroke Loggers

Spies that get inside buildings can do other damage, such as implementing keystroke loggers. Some of these devices e-mail the keystrokes of anyone using the computer to a predefined e-mail address, while others store keystrokes in flash memory. Many are nearly impossible to detect, such as those that attach directly to the keyboard connector. Wood knows one case where spies pretending to be office cleaners nearly stole $300 million pounds from a U.K. bank using this technique.

How to stop them: Physical inspection of the computer is the only way to detect a keystroke logger, Wood says. Because of the impracticality of doing that, one company that Wood knows of now glues all its keyboards into the system unit.


As defined by Wikipedia, phishing is a form of social engineering in which spies use a collection of techniques to manipulate people into releasing information (such as passwords) or performing actions that compromise confidential data, such as clicking on a link that enables someone else to remotely control a machine. In fact, the SANS Institute identifies phishing as one of the biggest Internet security risks.

For example, a spy might call the help desk from a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, claim to be working at home and request that a new username and password be sent as a text message to his phone. And some spies employ what the SANS Institute calls "spear phishing," in which they send individual employees highly targeted e-mail messages that include specific information designed to make the messages look genuine. For instance, a request for usernames and passwords might appear to be from the head of human resources.

How to stop them: Wood suggests training staffers to be cautious and giving them tips on how to detect social engineering. For instance, he says, they should withhold information when callers act rushed, drop names, use intimidation, ask odd questions or request forbidden information. There should also be clear policies as to how to report an incident and to whom.

The SANS Institute says it's important to continually raise employee awareness of these techniques, perhaps through drills that involve mock phishing attempts. Companies should also avoid exposing too much information on public Web sites, including logos and employee e-mail addresses.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at

Former fraudster Frank Abagnale offers IT security advice in this Q&A.

Next: Opinion: What librarians can teach you about privacy

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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