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10.4: Social Engineering in Hollywood

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    The following video clips are from movies. I’ve done my best to curate a small, digestible, binge-worthy list of clips from movies you may not have seen. Two thoughts:

    1. You should watch all of these movies, especially Sneakers

    2. I’ve provided commentary to contextualize the clips.

    Matchstick Men

    Matchstick Men is a 2003 movie about con men. Starring Nicolas Cage (Roy), Sam Rockwell (Frank), and Alison Lohman (Angela), the movie chronicles the scamming tricks of the trio. Things start to heat up as the movie unfurls in unsuspecting ways.

    There are two clips worth looking at. In this one, Frank sets his mark up by guaranteeing that they have won a high-end prize (a new car, a trip, etc.). Once he establishes rapport--note that he gets to know how many grandchildren the mark has), he pulls his AUTHORITY card; he tells them that they are on the hook for the sales tax. The AUTHORITY is fortified by Roy posing as a Frank’s boss:

    In this second clip, Angela is learning how to scam. In the previous scene, she accompanies Roy's character into a convenience store. They buy a lotto ticket for today, but select four of the five numbers from yesterday’s winning numbers. Then they distress the ticket by rubbing it on surfaces so it looks like it’s been through the wash. They take special care to rub off the date of the ticket. Angela comes into a laundromat and subtly suggests to a patron that a found lottery ticket might be a winner. Note that this scam relies on a few things - AUTHORITY of a (fake) winning lotto ticket, RAPPORT of a young, polite, innocent girl, a HUNGRY MARK (the con men bank on patrons of a laundromat to have lotto dreams), and INCEPTION of the idea (the mark is the one who advances the plan -- of her own volition).


    Sneakers is a 1992 movie about penetration testers that totally stands the test of time. In this scene, the team is attempting to break into a rather secure building. One of the plants, River Phoenix (Carl) has arrived before the infiltration occurs. His AUTHORITY is asserted because of his costume and his delivery of Drano. Carl is arguing with the front desk guard who is not expecting the delivery. Quickly we see Robert Redford (Martin) establish IDENTITY and PRETEXT in his first contact. He has a LEGITIMATE REASON for being in the building; there is a party on the fourth floor and he is expecting the cake to be delivered. Luckly, Martin sees the delivery and vanishes from the front desk. He arrives a few seconds later with a cake so big he can’t reach his ID card (which clearly he doesn’t have anyhow). Tension is rising as the security guard’s argument with Carl escalates. There is CONFUSION and URGENCY (remember, the cake is late!) as Martin tries to get the guard to buzz him in. Only the first 40 seconds are relevant to the conversation of social engineering:

    Wolf of Wall Street

    The 2013 movie Wolf of Wall Street is a true story of Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a huckster who made a fortune selling “penny stocks” or “pink sheet stock”. His rise to crime and corruption is a fascinating story.

    In this scene, Belfort, coming off a job at a big brokerage firm, brings his guile to a small outfit that specializes in cheap stocks. Belfort brings URGENCY into his conversations with his marks, AUTHORITY because of his knowledge, and leverages EXPLOIT (the “pink sheets” are not really regulated like blue chip stocks are). 

    This clip has some vulgar language and may not be appropriate for some audiences; watching this clip is optional!

    In this second clip, we see Belfort training his new employees how to scam marks. There are a number of tactics here that work out well for the crew. They establish URGENCY by saying that these stocks are going to go up immediately, and waiting until then will be too late. They established PEDIGREE with a firm name that is completely made up -- Stratton Oakmont. Even their logo inspires pride, tradition, knowledge, and trust. The crew establishes AUTHORITY by reciting stocks of big, well-known companies in an effort to sell “penny stocks”. 

    This clip has some vulgar language and may not be appropriate for some audiences; watching this clip is optional!



    In the 1995 movie Hackers, Johnny Lee Miller plays Dade, a talented hacker. In this scene, Dade calls a local TV station and using CONFUSION and KNOWLEDGE successfully convinces an unsuspecting employee to reveal the phone number for the modem to the station. This lets him change the TV programming schedule so the station broadcasts an episode of The Outer Limits.

    Catch Me if You Can

    The true story of Frank Abagnale is captured in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. Frank Abagnale was a true con artist -- most notable for faking (convincingly) as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer. The following clip shows how Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) realized how effective AUTHORITY is. He shows up to his first day at a public high school after spending his childhood in a public school. He’s wearing a suit jacket and is mistaken for the substitute teacher. Note the DUAL REALITY that he employs (the students believe he is assigned to the class for the first time, meanwhile the actual substitute teacher is convinced that he is always the substitute for Roberta):

    Though not portrayed in the film, there was another stunt Frank orchestrated that relied on the AUTHORITY of a uniform. He brought a chair to a bank one night and sat outside the nighttime deposit box. He also rented a security guard outfit. He fashioned a sign that read, “Deposit broken. Please leave money with the Guard.” Between the outfit and the SOCIAL CONTRACT of the patrons (they certainly did not want to be embarrassed by not trusting the guard!), it was enough to convince patrons that their money was safe.

    In another scene of Catch Me If You Can, Frank is caught by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who has been pursuing Frank for a while now. Frank emerges from the bathroom of the apartment he is renting only to find Agent Hanratty with his gun drawn. Frank quickly realizes that Agent Hanratty does not know what he looks like, so he convinces Hanratty that he is a Secret Service agent who is also hot on the trail of Abagnale, too. By using AUTHORITY, INSIDER KNOWLEDGE (about how the Secret Service works) and DUAL REALITY (he convinces Hanratty that his neighbor, Murphy, has already caught Abagnale while Murphy has no idea what is going on - Frank even covers any confused response Murphy may have had with a cough):

    10.4: Social Engineering in Hollywood is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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