I once saved my life with social engineering

Normally when someone says something dramatic like the above statement they go on and you realize that they were just speaking metaphorically like “Read this book, it will change your life” and then you read about the book and find out it is written by a smiling man who either wears a tie with no jacket or a jacket without a tie and his words are used in the same manner as his fashion.  He will not change your life at all.  It is just a scam written by the heartless for consumption by the gormless.

When you are in the business of computer security a side project is always tackling scam artists because the twains often meet and sadly you also learn that no matter how poor and desperate someone is, they always have $20 to spend on a book and they always have $200 to spend on a “turn-key” business.

Unlike hucksters, when I say something like this it is really true.  If I had not been a social engineer I would be dead right now.  I suspect my remains would be somewhere in the Port Au Prince bay or perhaps laying in Cite Soliel but I would not be typing this and I don’t want sad and needy people to give me money.

It all started almost ten years ago.  I was at the Gare Du Nord train station in Bucharest Romania.  Gare Du Nord is probably the most notorious train station in Europe and for good reason.  Lots of petty hustlers, large areas of the station are unoccupied and you can quickly find yourself being shaken down by someone with a badge.  In Bucharest, they give everyone at the train station a badge it seems.

Anyway, I got a train ticket to Istanbul and I had to wait a few hours for my train to leave.  I sat with my back to the wall so no one could sneak up behind me and just watched people.  Nature called and I lost my place because I had to pack up all my things and take it to the toilet with me and when I returned I had to stake out a new seat.  I was approached by a man pretending to be a policeman.  He told me that he had to check my money for counterfeit bills.  This meant that the bill he found would indeed be counterfeit and he would give me a receipt for it and then he had 100,000 lie for just the cost of a fake badge.  For some reason I decided to pretend he spoke very poor English.  No matter what he said and how clearly he said it I pretended he had said something else.  He asked for my passport and I offered him a potato chip.  He asked to see my train ticket and I showed him a photograph of my parents.  Finally he stopped speaking and resorted to hand gestures and he made a certain motion with his hand, mouth and head that I took to mean “do you want a prostitute?” but it also looked similar to how one would quickly eat an ice cream cone so I got up and bought one.  He threw up his arms in frustration and left me alone.

That did not save my life really, but it taught me that I always had to the power to cause doubt in people.  He lost his pretend air as an authoritative policeman and quickly degenerated into a stammering, confused man prone to making obscene gestures.  The next time I encountered that was when I went to the Haitian slum of Cite Soliel the next year.

Cite Soliel is a flat outcropping that juts out into Port Au Prince bay and it is the poorest slum in the western hemisphere.  It is not even made out of “land” as we know it, it is made out of shells and detritus.  The shacks there are made of metal and string and when the wind blows you cannot hear anything because the whole place rattles with loose corrugated metal and flattened 55 gallon oil drums.  There are children everywhere.  It is like a “where is Waldo” game but with real people…you stare at any given area long enough and suddenly your eyes adjust and you start seeing children.  Lots of children.  You never see any old people because they are dead.

There are also street gangs.  I hired a gang of pro-Aristide thugs who were followers of a gangster named “Tupac”.  I found it ironic that a real Haitian gangster had himself named after a fake American gangster.  It would be like a real General naming himself after Donald Rumsfeld.  These guys were about 14 to 18 and kept guns in their underwear.  One fellow had the gun go off in his shorts and blew part of his foot off.  My body guards main rival was another Gangster named Billy.  Billy and Tupac were supposed to be brothers in films that are made about them but that is not true, they were foster brothers.  Orphans are numerous in Cite Soliel and their foster mother (I met her, her name is “Mom”) raised them to be gangsters simply because that was her best hope for prosperity.  In Cite Soliel a woman does not take care of others children to be charitable.

At the end of my tour this fellow in a red bandana and riding a BMX bike showed up.  My bodyguard on crutches said “Billy’s soldier!” to me before he started hobbling away.  This was a gang of people whom everyone in Cite Soliel was terrified of, but here they were, clucking like hens about to be eaten by a fox just because a kid on a bicycle showed up.  While my bodyguards were cowering I approached the guy on the bicycle.  I walked up to him and looked him in the eye and said “Hello, my name is Erik.  It is nice to meet you.” and he stared at me, looking at me like I was a pinata and all he had to do is figure out where to hit me to cause candy to come spilling out and said “Gimme da money” and I said “sure” and I reached in my pocket and pulled out a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum.  As he and I both chewed he had a confused look in his eyes and he said “da money.  gimme da money.” and I gave him another stick of gum and walked away.

I went over to my cowering bodyguards and said “thank you, this money is for all of you to share.” and I gave them about $100 in Gourdes in bills so large that they had to fight over it.  I then jumped into a an old Honda Civic and sped off.  I looked in the mirror and saw that Billy’s Soldier was following me on his bicycle and trying to shoot me.  He missed the car completely thanks to pot holed roads screwing up his aim.

It is very likely I would have been killed had I not distracted him by causing his own doubts about his English ability to surface.

Later that day I was caught in the middle of a gunfight and then briefly kidnapped by a voodoo priest in Petionville.

But that is a story for another day.

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