You’ve seen them: the ads with sensational headlines about celebrity breakups, or before and after photos of the latest and greatest diet. Well, those are what the online advertising industry calls “clickbait,” provocative or sensational content used to motivate users to click on a link. At best, clickbaiting is a bait-and-switch advertising tactic. (Many lead to ads for “miracle cures” like questionable diet supplements.) But some clickbait can instead make you a victim of cyber crime or cyber scams.
Most cyber crimes begin with a click. To steal personal information or put malware on your computer, thieves need you to either download harmful software or visit a malicious website, or both. And cyber criminals are really good at figuring out what people will click on. It’s easy to spot obvious clickbait (“Blake Lively Goes on Paleo Diet, Loses 20 Pounds Eating Raw Meat”). But there are other, subtler forms of clickbaiting, including email. For example, security researchers have found that people aren’t so easily fooled by fake emails claiming to be from the IRS about tax returns, but most will open an attachment that appears to be about something they ordered online or will click on a link that appears to be from an acquaintance.
You also need to watch for evil clickbait on social media. Scammers count on you trusting stuff posted by your friends because, well, they’re friends. So they post something cute or sensational, ask people to share, and, bingo!—a dangerous link is all over social media in a matter of hours. Just in 2015, Facebook clickbait scams included sensational stories about pregnancy, nudity, monster zits, and a supposed roller coaster accident.
The reality is that you will be exposed to clickbait, so here are a few rules to help avoid getting hooked:
- Email: if you don’t know the sender or expect the message, don’t open attachments or click on links.
- Social media: never click on sensational ads or headlines. At best, they’re just trying to sell you something you probably don’t want; at worst, they’ll send you to a fake website and try to steal your personal info.
If you do get tricked into clicking on one, NEVER download any file or plug-in they recommend to help you view the content. And to protect your friends, don’t share anything on social media that you haven’t checked out and made sure it’s legit. Remember, friends don’t let friends fall for clickbait.