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A Stanford deception expert and cybersecurity CEO explain why people fall for online scams

We all know the feeling, that awful sinking in your stomach when you realize you’ve clicked a link that you shouldn’t have. Maybe it was late at night, or you were in a hurry. Maybe you received an alarming email about a problem with your paycheck or your taxes. Whatever the reason, you reacted quickly and clicked a suspicious link or gave away personal information before realizing you had made a dangerous mistake.

You’re not alone. In a recent survey conducted by my company Tessian, 43% of people admitted to making a mistake at work that had security repercussions, while nearly half (47%) of people working in the tech industry said they’ve clicked on a phishing email at work. In fact, most data breaches occur because of human error. Hackers are well aware of this and know exactly how to manipulate people into slipping up. That’s why email scams—also known as phishing—are so successful.

Phishing has been a persistent problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, Google alone saw more than 18 million daily email scams related to COVID-19 in a single week. Hackers are taking advantage of psychological factors such as stress, social relationships, and uncertainty that affect people’s decision-making. Here’s a look at some of the psychological factors that make people vulnerable and what to look out for in a scam.

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