The Real Hustle and the psychology of scam victims

November 16th, 2009 at 08:48 UTC by Frank Stajano

This, which started as a contribution to Ross’s Security and Psychology initiative, is probably my most entertaining piece of research this year and it’s certainly getting its bit of attention.

I’ve been a great fan of The Real Hustle since 2006, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in security, and it has been good fun to work with the TV show’s coauthor Paul Wilson on this paper. We analyze the scams reproduced in the show, we extract general principles from them that describe typical behavioural patterns exploited by hustlers and then we show how an awareness of these principles can also strengthen systems security.

In a few months I have given versions of this talk around the world: Boston, London, Athens, London, Cambridge, Munich—to the security and psychology crowd, to computer researchers, to professional programmers—and it never failed to attract interest. This is what Yahoo’s Chris Heilmann wrote in his blog when I gave the talk at StackOverflow to an audience of 250 programmers:

The other talk I was able to attend was Frank Stajano, a resident lecturer and security expert (and mighty sword-bearer). His talk revolved around application security but instead of doing the classic “prevent yourself from XSS/SQL injection/CSRF” spiel, Frank took a different route. BBC TV in the UK has a program called The Real Hustle which shows how people are scammed by tricksters and gamblers and the psychology behind these successful scams. Despite the abysmal Guy Ritchie style presentation of the show, it is full of great information: Frank and a colleague conducted a detailed research and analysis of all the attacks and the reasons why they work. The paper on the research is available: Seven principles for systems security (PDF). A thoroughly entertaining and fascinating presentation and a great example of how security can be explained without sounding condescending or drowning the audience in jargon. I really hope that there is a recording of the talk.

I´m giving the talk again at the Computer Laboratory on Tuesday 17 November in the Security Seminars series. The full write-up is available for download as a tech report.

Entry filed under: Academic papers, Security engineering, Security psychology, Seminars

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