“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved”
~ George MacDonald, Scottish poet
We wouldn’t be able to go to a café, order a coffee, go around the corner, shop a little, go to work, and live our daily lives if we didn’t have at least some trust in the people around us. We trust that people will obey the rules laid out by the government and follow some basic human ethics.
We trust that the barista will not mix anything harmful in our coffee, the man standing in the office balcony will not suddenly push you, and the car driving past will stay in its lane.
Our communities, cultures, and civilizations depend on trust.
But does it apply to digital life as well?
Do Humans Trust Too Easily Online? Maybe We Do
With the way people have started using VPNs, protecting their digital content, and have become aware of mass online surveillance, it’s pretty obvious that people don’t trust others.
At least, that’s what we all assume.
However, if we check the updated data on a recent edition of CIGI’s annual survey, about 73% of respondents said that they trust what they see on the internet. This number was 56% last year.
This trust factor is highest in China (about 91%) and India (about 90%). These figures show that the overall trust in the internet is actually pretty high.
Of all the recent data misuse cases, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the most high-profile case that impacted the trust of internet. We all were shocked but how many of you actually left Facebook after this?
Zuckerberg Said You Believe Everything
Facebook is a multi-billion dollar company and it relies on the gullibility of people. It knows that people don’t care while handing over their data, even when they know what this really means.
If you’ve forgotten, let me refresh your memory. He called his users “dumbfucks” for trusting him. Yes, it’s been years but that says a lot about the creator of Facebook.
Zuckerberg wants you to believe that everything’s okay. After apologizing at the congressional testimony, he made several claims about his company. He made some changes in Facebook, giving us the illusion that we are in control of our data.
The fact remains that Zuckerberg knows that most of us are ignorant about online privacy and would eagerly click on “I agree” to see the next celebrity scandal.
After the congressional testimony, other Facebook data-sharing deals have been exposed as well. It shows us that Facebook will never change. It will continue stealing our data for its own revenues.
Users Believe Fake News at the Drop of a Hat
We live in a world of virtually endless information. But it’s important to know what’s real and what’s not. A number of us accept the information that’s given to us without checking its authenticity.
In 2016 US elections, a random Twitter guy made a joke that he’s a postal worker and tears up ballots. That joke was taken seriously and this caused such huge outrage that USPS and Secretary of State had to post their responses.
Why Are We so Mindless and Gullible?
The social media platforms that we open every day provide us such a continuous stream of information that it becomes very difficult to see what’s genuine and what’s not. We mostly respond instantaneously and are driven by our emotions.
While it’s easy to Google something and fact check it, most people believe in a news story if they want it to be true. They will fact check it only if it goes against their views.
Ever Increasing Phishing Attacks Prove We Are Gullible
Phishing attempts rely on human weaknesses, mainly trust. You believed that the email that’s supposed to be coming from the bank indeed came from the bank. That’s the basic faith that you put in that email. Maybe not everything deserves your trust.
Phishing attempts have gone up in 2018 as more people try their luck in cybercrime. Kaspersky Lab research team published a report that said that in 2018, their anti-phishing trigger went off 482.5 million times. This was significantly more than the figure of 246.2 million times in 2017.
According to the data breach investigation report by Verizon in 2018, about 30% of phishing messages are opened by targets. This is a huge number.
Social Media Is Rich with Scams
According to a Kaspersky Lab research, Facebook is the second company that’s targeted by scammers. But it’s not the only one. Instagram and Twitter also see a number of scams every day.
Young adults who have recently started using social media are more susceptible to these scams. According to a report by Get Safe Online, people younger than 25 are more likely to fall for phishing attacks.
This is surprising as we often assume that older adults are more vulnerable to such attacks. The report shows that 11% of people aged 18-25 fall for such attacks as compared to only 5% of people over 55 years of age.
So younger people are more trusting when it comes to online communications. A similar study was done almost a decade ago and it showed that people between 18 and 25 are more vulnerable to phishing attacks.
While the reports might be almost 10 years apart, they had similar findings.
Another report suggests that email phishing attacks have lost their streak and have a success rate of less than 1%. Instead, social media phishing attacks are more fruitful and get a 40% success rate. Since people are easily stimulated on social media, this might be the reason behind such a high success rate.
Besides, social media phishing attacks are often carried out in two stages. The first stage consists of the phisher sending a friend/follow request to connect to a person. This is the first step in gaining trust.
By accepting someone’s friend’s request, you open up your photos and other posts to that person.
Since social media has a networked nature, the phisher can get information about other people in your network as well. And then the second stage of the attack is carried out – contacting the victim using private messages.
Compared to an email phishing attack, this is more targeted as the hacker now has more information about their victim. They can tailor the conversation around the profession and interests of the victim.
For example, if the hacker knows that you’re an animal lover, they might ask you to make a small donation towards an animal charity where they help sick puppies or kittens.
They can send you an innocent looking URL for you to click on. And since they’re in your list and have talked about a subject you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to click on it.
Trust plays a major role here. You might not have clicked on that link if it came to you through email. But since your trust factor is higher for a person in your friends’ list, you might click on it now.
How do Scammers Play with Your Mind?
What you call trust, scammers call gullibility. And they thrive on it. They want their victim to believe in their lies so they can act in a way that the scammers want them to.
According to a research, it mostly begins by inviting the target to participate in a certain activity.
“Victims are encouraged, misled or induced to interact voluntarily with the perpetrator, and ultimately to willingly surrender money, information or other valuable resources. […] If the intended victim does not accept the oﬀer, the scam cannot occur,” the report says.
The success of any scam lies in the ability of the scammer to make the victim trust them. And as a result, when the scam is exposed, it is hard to understand how someone could fall for this. Scam exposure often makes a corporation or a person seem gullible.
And How do they Play with your Heart?
According to Symantec, 10% of newly created dating profiles are fake. About $1 billion have been lost by Americans and Canadians to romance scams since 2015. If you thought your ex played with your heart, just thank your luck they didn’t steal your money. And if they did, sorry mate.
Next time you go to Tinder or Match, keep in mind that beautiful faces might do more than just waste your time.
Why Exactly Are We so Gullible?
There are new scams being carried out every day. If you don’t read about a local scam on print media, come online and you’ll see fresh scams here.
Many of us just shake our heads to these stories because obviously, these people are very gullible and this cannot happen to us.
To make ourselves feel better, we assume we are smarter. The victim must have been old and not aware of the online world. Maybe the victim just fell for the scam because they were stupid.
But the truth is that nobody is really immune to fraud. People fall for scams not because they are fools but because of the psychological tricks played by scammers.
What are these psychological tricks? Why do we so often get fooled by scammers? Why do we still trust social media websites like Facebook?
Are We like Sheep, Trusting Scammers Blindly?
Studies show that if someone believes that a lot of people are doing something, they will do it too. This becomes especially true in cases when a person is in an ambiguous or pressured situation.
For example, when presented with a sales pitch, a person is more likely to go for it if the salesman tells them that 75% of people have signed up for this scheme.
The reciprocity principle
If someone does something good for you, you’ll feel obliged to reciprocate. This type of enforced indebtedness is what scammers use. A person might share with you “an exclusive opportunity” to make money. And in return, you might feel indebted to continue to listen to their sales pitch, which might actually be a bogus scheme.
We suffer from cognitive laziness
One simple explanation for gullibility is that we are too lazy to “think” and to save energy and time, we use intuition instead of analysis.
In a study, people were asked questions such as:
“How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”
“What country was Margaret Thatcher president of?”
A large part of the participants didn’t notice that the question said Moses instead of Noah and that Margaret Thatcher was never the president, she was the prime minister.
This type of absent mindedness is called Moses illusion. We generally miss the particulars of statements and don’t take notice of the fine details. This is probably why we often fall for pyramid schemes and phishing attempts, not caring about the scam behind such programs.
According to a research paper on cognitive psychology, our intuition revolves around these factors:
- Is this information from a reliable source?
- Is there some evidence to support the information?
- Does the information fit together logically?
- Does it match with what I believe?
- Do other people believe it?
While these factors should be able to take us to the right decision, the answers to these questions are often swayed by inessential details that are not relevant to the information.
People want to know if it comes from a credible source. The question is, what do they consider credible? We trust information if it comes from people close to us. We don’t consider if that person is an expert in that matter or not. Just the fact that a person is familiar to us can trick our mind into believing that it’s a credible source of information.
So if a scammer has befriended you on Facebook and has liked enough of your posts, you might start favoring him and consider him a credible source of information.
Also, we trust an idea more if a large number of people are subscribing to it. This is why when some of see that a particular party might win the elections, we want to vote for it.
We don’t take online trust seriously
Most of us don’t think trusting someone online can be a serious issue. Yes, there have been cases of cyberbullying that even led to suicide. And coming out online as a gay teen in a religiously conservative society might lead to physical danger.
But these are isolated cases, right? We think the consequences of our online behavior will not reflect in real life.
We mostly trust each other and talk about our emotional or financial issues without thinking it can be harmful.
You should blame your politeness as well
People often like to be polite with others. Scammers can take advantage of this nature as well. A scammer might ask you simple questions like how are you and start a conversation with you. Of course, these questions soon become personal.
Soon, they might strike a conversation about your job. And then about your personal life.
Online scammers might want to know about your bank because they’re having “difficulties” at a bank and need help. You might feel wary but still let them know since you are a polite individual.
Remember the Nigerian prince scam? It’s become old now and nobody falls for it anymore right? Wrong! These emails are still able to earn $700,000 in a year!
Of course, everyone who starts a conversation with you isn’t a scammer. But how do you know who has ill intentions and who doesn’t?
Some statements have cognitive fluency, which means that tell a good and coherent story. It is easy to process and fits completely in our belief system.
If something fits with our expectations, we just keep believing in it. This is why there are people who deny climate change, avoid vaccines, and argue that the earth is flat. Once something sticks to our belief system, it grows.
A presentation can make people believe more in a story. In a study, Newman gave an article to participants. It was a false article that said a popular rock star was dead.
The subject believed more in the article when it was shown with a picture of the rock star next to it. It simply brought the picture of the rock star to mind and boosted the statement’s cognitive fluency. Similarly, if you publish something in a simpler font and use images judicially, it’s easier to fool people.
We don’t want to miss out
Don’t you wish you could go back in time and invest in some shares from Google? Or buy a few Bitcoins when they had just started?
People don’t want to miss an opportunity. They want to go for the next big thing. If they think there’s a possibility for them to invest in the next Google or Bitcoin, they will be drawn to it. And this is one fodder many cybercriminals use.
Cryptocurrency scams have grown to three times in just one year. The reason is simple – people want to invest in the next big thing before it becomes too late.
Scammers also trick people by saying that a particular offer is limited and will run out quickly. People want to invest in it while it’s valid. Many people don’t want to miss out on a big opportunity and hence are scammed.
But, but, they seemed so nice
According to the principle of similarity, we generally like people who are similar to us, and we agree to a request coming from them. These similarities can be as broad as a similar taste in food or being in the same line of work.
Scammers use this and try to show that they have similar interests as yours. For example, they might ask you for your favorite restaurant and then say it’s their favorite too. This might help you loosen up and agree to their requests more often.
Trust is our biggest weakness online
Yes, trust sucks. And yes, it is important to have trust to stay sane and have a decent human experience. We trust our friends, family, colleagues, and many other people.
We trust that when we give our computer for repair, the IT guy will not replace new parts with old ones. Our society cannot function without some level of trust. And this becomes our weakness when it comes to cyber security.
Internet users fall for phishing attempts, assuming they are replying to their bank, downloading anti-virus, or sending money to Nigerians princes to help them out.
It would sound weird if we said we need to stop trusting, but if we want to be secure from cybercrime, we should at least question the authenticity of a message before believing it.
What Should We Do?
Include a level of cynicism.
Spiritually, not the best advice. But it makes a lot of sense in cyber awareness.
Everyone on the internet is free to post what they like. It’s up to us to believe it. It can be risky to believe just about anything you read online.
If we don’t adopt a cynical approach, we would be scammed easily. So yes, be a little cynical. You don’t have to stop chatting with your online friend all of a sudden. But you need to be wary when someone gets too friendly all of a sudden.
And don’t spread information unless you’re completely sure of it. If we are a part of the misinformation cycle, we are simply dragging each other in this puddle of mud.
Stop clicking instantly on everything you find interesting. Be wary and save those clicks. And verify before you spread the word about anything.