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“Phishing” may have been a relatively obscure term, but pretty much everyone has heard of it by now. In fact, recent statistics indicate a high likelihood that you—or someone you know—have been the victim of a phishing attack at least once. 

Now, if you remember the classic Nigerian Prince scams from back in the day, you might be asking yourself how the stats could be so high. After all, it seems pretty unlikely that an otherwise cautious person would fall for something like that, right? And in today’s cyber-climate, where the news is filled with headlines about major hacks and malware infections that spread like wildfire, why would anyone click on links from unknown senders or hand over their sensitive, personal information (think SSNs, etc.) without verifying the authenticity of the request? It turns out, there are a lot of subconscious influences at play, and the thing that makes phishing attacks so successful is the way they take advantage of our trust, curiosity, fear, greed, and even desire to do a good job at work.

Understanding the factors that drive a successful phishing attack is fundamental to preventing them in the future. That’s why Webroot partnered with Dr. Cleotilde Gonzalez, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, to take a deep dive into the psychology of phishing. 

Read our full report, Hook, Line, and Sinker: Why Phishing Attacks Work, for more information on the psychology behind phishing attacks.

Tip #1: Maintain strong, unique passwords. Using individual passwords for each of your accounts will help prevent fraud, identity theft, and other malicious activity. Consider using a secure password manager, and enable two-factor authentication wherever possible.

What kind of person clicks a phishing link, anyway?

The truth? We all do it. While 86% of Americans believe they can distinguish a phishing message from a genuine one, 62% have had their personal information compromised as part of a breach. So what’s the deal here?

“People are generally overconfident about their ability to spot the fakes. Overconfidence is a big problem in many human actions. In this case, this probably happens because the ratio of phishing emails to regular emails feels low, so our mind underestimates the probability of receiving a phishing email, and in turn, overestimates our ability to identify one if we do.” – Cleotilde Gonzalez, Ph. D.

Tip #2: Stay on your toes. The more overconfident and complacent you are about your security, the easier it is for you to be phished. Don’t play into a cybercriminal’s hands. Maintaining a healthy level of suspicion about all links and attachments in messages may make all the difference during an attempted breach.

How are phishers using psychology against us?

By tapping into our own personal sense of urgency, cybercriminals are able to manipulate us in subtle ways that we may not realize until it is too late. Hackers often use cleverly disguised email handles and targeted messaging, known as “spear phishing,” to create a sense of trust and familiarity. This makes links appear more legitimate, and makes us perceive the click as less risky.

“Ultimately, urgency, familiarity, and context have a strong impact on decision making. If you already expect to receive emails from your boss at your office (context and familiarity), and you are accustomed to messages that request quick action (urgency), then you are likely to assume the message is real. It might never occur to you to suspect that it could be phishing.” – Cleotilde Gonzalez, Ph. D.

What are the most convincing ways for a phisher to tap into your sense of urgency to get you to open their email? 

  • 65% of Americans prioritize emails from their boss 
  • 54% prioritize emails from family or friends 
  • 33% prioritize emails to confirm bank transactions 

That means you shouldn’t feel weird or guilty for verifying odd requests from bosses, family, or friends. If your boss sends you an email asking for out-of-the-ordinary action, don’t hesitate to call them up and ask them for details. (Do this instead of replying to the email.) Same with links, downloads, and requests for information from family and friends. It never hurts to double-check.

Practicing phishing mindfulness, even when clicking links from seemingly trustworthy sources, cuts down significantly of the efficacy of spear phishing attacks. Pay close attention to sender addresses and handles, as well as signatures. If you get an email from your bank, financial institution, or even a regular website for which you have a login, navigate to their official website independently instead of clicking through on that potentially risky email.

Tip #3: Back everything up and do it regularly. All of your important data and files should be regularly backed up to a secure hard drive or cloud storage. When using a physical hard drive, only connect it while backing up. This will help prevent the drive from being affected by an infection.

Why are we still clicking?

Here’s the thing: 76% of Americans know they have received a phishing email, and yet still 56% of people would feel comfortable clicking on a link or attachment from an unknown source on their personal devices. So why are so many of us still willing to jeopardize our safety for an unknown link?

“Risk and under-weighed probability are linked. Risks sometimes come with rewards, right? So if the risk seems low and the reward seems high, you’ll make riskier decisions. It’s like gambling; our minds explore different gain/loss experiences, then respond with risk-taking or risk-averse actions.” – Cleotilde Gonzalez, Ph. D.

Tip #4: Always keep your software up-to-date. Hackers are known to regularly exploit security holes in outdated software and operating systems. By installing software updates when prompted, you can stop many cybercriminals in their tracks. 

What if you’ve been phished? Now what?

With 62% of those surveyed reporting some type of data breach, it’s important to know what to do in the event of a breach that can help keep the damage to a minimum. George Anderson, Product Marketing Director at Webroot, recommends the following steps:

  1. Change your account passwords immediately! That includes accounts you don’t believe were breached, but are using the same or a similar password.
  2. Set up alerts with your credit agency. 
  3. Void existing credit cards and order new ones. 
  4. Engage a credit security service. 
  5. Notify law enforcement or the appropriate government agency

While some of these steps may seem obvious to you, they clearly need to be repeated; of people whose information was stolen or exposed, a baffling 32% didn’t bother to change their account passwords afterward. 

Dr. Gonzales shared her thoughts on what can be done to combat this type of complacency.

“These findings illuminate the fact that what we really need here is a mindset makeover,” she says. “The longer-term reward of security needs to be highlighted, front and center, not placed on the backburner. To do that, we’re going to have to shift the way that people think about security and prioritize their responsibilities. We have to allow the time and brain space for security-related considerations.”

What can we all do going forward?

You can nurture the type of security mindset shift Dr. Gonzalez references by taking small steps. First, you know those software and security updates you (like many people) are probably putting off? Just do them. Enable two-factor authentication wherever possible, especially on important online accounts like your banking and credit institution websites. 

You may even find that your heightened security practices influence those around you to make stronger choices. After all, seeing a person you know being on top of their game can be very motivating to start making personal changes! 

Remember, the most important thing you can do is avoid overconfidence. Don’t underestimate the risk of a phishing attack. Doing that is exactly what will make you a prime target for criminals.

“It’s a classic case of underweighting probabilities, but explicit numbers speak for themselves. Providing this information might help people calibrate the risk and confidence more accurately.” – Cleotilde Gonzalez, Ph. D.

Justine Kurtz

About the Author

Justine Kurtz

Senior Copywriter

Justine Kurtz has crafted the voice of Webroot for nearly a decade. As senior copywriter, she partners with clients across the organization (and the globe) to communicate the value Webroot solutions bring to businesses, consumers, and technology partners alike.

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