Beggars Can’t Be Choosers, But They Can Be Social Engineers

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Two weeks ago, a beggar approached me while I was washing my hands in the bathroom of a train station. He went on to tell me a story about his troubles and how he needed some money. I of course gave him a few dollars and we both went on with our days. The whole situation was eerie. Going to school in the city, I end up dealing with a broad range of people in any given day. This was different.

If you’re like me, then you spend a considerable portion of your day dissecting. Whether it be conversations you had last month with someone, physically dismantling a piece of hardware, or deconstructing an abstract idea- the method is the same. So as I walked up to my train platform, I couldn’t help but pick apart the scenario bit by bit.

Here’s a little run-through of what happened. I go to wash my hands. As I soap them up, a man comes over and says, “hey man, how you doing?” I return the pleasantry and go about washing my hands. He then starts up a story, just believable enough to hook you in. I get told that he’s here with his daughter and he’s been here a few days trying to get back home but the tickets cost $57. Last night, he was hit in the face with a gun (he shows me the bloody gash on his nose) and he wants to get out of this city. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a stick of deodorant to show me that he’s trying to stay presentable and, in his words, not lying to me. I tell him I’ll give him a few bucks as I walk over to the hand dryer and hand over a little cash. He asks if I can spare ten dollars, I tell him no can do, and he rushes out of the place before I can even put my wallet back.

All of this happened in about 30 seconds. He made three dollars.

Let’s break it down now. The first thing that seemed a little off was that he showed up when I was the only one in the place. The way the bathroom is set up, he must have came from the stall area. Could he have been waiting until I was the only one left? Why he picked me is a mystery. I wasn’t dressed nicely in any sense of the word, and considering the place fills with business men in suits every few minutes I’m an odd choice. I don’t look like I have much walking around money. Moving on, he initiated the conversation in a friendly matter and did so as I was soaping up my hands. I couldn’t leave right then and there, I had to get the soap off my hands so I was essentially trapped for him to tell his story. The train ticket price is accurate, and we’re in the male restroom  so his daughter doesn’t need to be around. That checks out. He’s dressed in reasonably worn clothes, nothing tattered but nothing too new. He looked a little scruffy, so that would be able to work with his story of being here a few days. The gun story raises a few questions. We’re in a relatively safe part of the city with police everywhere, for about 12 blocks in each direction. So if he was trying to get home, where did he get assaulted? Did he get robbed? If he got robbed, why would he spend money on deodorant? Either way, when a man approaches you out of nowhere in a confined bathroom, says the word “gun,” and then reaches into his jacket you tend to go along with what he says and not call him out on the spot. Next, he said that he wasn’t lying to me. If you ask me, that’s a pretty good sign that he is. His asking for more money is something I deal with on a daily basis from beggars and the homeless, so no surprise there. Lastly, his getaway was swift just as more people came into restroom.

At this point, you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up.

Under normal circumstances, I would just dismiss this as a normal random incident. However, as I reflected on his story I remembered one from two years earlier right outside the same building. Different guy, similar story. This guy, I passed once and he was talking to someone. When I came back around that way an hour or so later, he picked me to talk to next. He told me a story about how his daughter is in the hospital and he’s been stuck in the city for days. He’s just trying to get home so he can get cleaned up. As he started to get emotional, he asked me if I could spare, in his words, four to five dollars. I gave him a few bucks and he thanked me profusely before walking away. He’s in the city, so I will guess his daughter is at the nearby Children’s Hospital. However, why is he outside of this train station? The hospital has a train station two blocks away, while this one is about 10 blocks away. I saw him earlier, so I couldn’t have been the only one to stop for him in the last hour, and local train tickets are only between $4 and $8.

This started to get me thinking about social engineering more than I had in any recent time. Less am I seeing the traditional beggar simply asking for change and more am I getting a well rehearsed story. If we look back, the confidence trick has been used for decades to coax the unsuspecting into giving anything from money to information. Most people have cons aimed at them everyday, but shrug them off as they’ve now become part of everyday life.

But, is there anything we can learn from the creative ways beggars ask for money?

The things these stories had in common are the points to pay attention to. Starting with the approach, the wanting party makes the first move and starts the story out in a friendly way. This will hook in the target because they are wondering why they are being approached, and a guy with a smile can’t be bad right? The story then has an emotional element that makes the target want to help the wanting party. The story itself is well rehearsed, which makes it sound more natural. Speed is also crucial here as the wanting party will say everything he needs to before losing interest from the target. The wanting party will then identify exactly what they want and ask for it from the target specifically. Then after getting something, they make the clean getaway before anyone has a chance to think about what just happened.

We can draw parallels here with traditional stories of social engineering. If you think about any instance of phone phreaks calling up the phone company, you’ll see the same flow. They initiate a conversation politely and bring up a scenario that makes the telco worker want to help them out. They explain the issue swiftly and focus on the information they want. Whether they get what they want or not, they close the conversation quickly and move on.

It’s essentially the same set of fundamentals.

If anything, this whole scenario just got me thinking a little more on psychological manipulation. Hopefully, the next time you’re approached and asked for money, you’ll be thinking a bit too.