Who gets phished and why?

First, just to ensure we are all on the same page here, the word “phishing” is where some scam artist sends you an email that claims to be from a trustworthy entity such as your bank or a well recognized entity such as Amazon or eBay and manages to trick you into giving them your password or even your credit card number. For example, it might be an email that perhaps claims your account has expired and you need to enter a new password, so you clink on a link that takes you to a site that looks exactly like you bank’s … but it not … and so you are tricked into entering your password, thus giving them full access.

Now, the question of the moment is, “Who is stupid enough to get tricked like this?”. Well, now we have an answer because a study has been done and published in the journal Decision Support Systems and Electronic Commerce. It uses an integrated information processing model to test individual differences in vulnerability to phishing.

The authors are Arun “Vish” Vishwanath, PhD, and H. Raghav Rao, PhD, University at Buffalo; Tejaswini Herath, PhD, Brock University (Ont., CA); Rui Chen, PhD, Ball State University, and Jingguo Wang, PhD., University of Texas, Arlington. Herath, Chen and Wang each hold a PhD in management science and systems from UB.

So what have they discovered? Apparently they have found that if you receive a lot of email, habitually respond to a good portion of it, maintain a lot of online relationships and conduct a large number of transactions online, you are more susceptible to email phishing expeditions than those who limit their online activity.

The lead author of the study, Vishwanath, also says,

“By way of prevention, we found that spam blockers are imperative to reduce the number of unnecessary emails individuals receive that could potentially clutter their information processing and judgment.”

“At the other end,” he says, “individuals need to be extra careful when utilizing a single email account to respond to all their emails. An effective strategy is to use different email accounts for different purposes. If one email address is used solely for banking and another is used solely for personal communication with family and friends, it will increase your attention to the details of the email and reduce the likelihood of chance-deception because of clutter.”

Vishwanath also advocates setting aside time to focus and respond to personal emails separately from work-related emails. For instance, setting aside a time each day for responding to personal banking emails gives you time to process them more clearly and consider their legitimacy before responding.

“Our results indicate that people process most phishing emails peripherally and make decisions based on simple cues embedded in the email. Interestingly, urgency cues, i.e., threats and warnings, in the email stimulated increased information processing, thereby short circuiting the resources available for attending to other cues that could potentially help detect the deception.”

“In addition, our findings suggest that habitual patterns of media use combined with high levels of email load have a strong and significant influence on individuals’ likelihood to be phished.”

The study also showed that a person’s competency with computing did not protect them from phishing scams, but their awareness about phishing in conjunction with healthy email habits, helped them avoid online deception.

You can find a link to the paper via this link.

Vishhwanath is an associate professor, Department of Communication at UB, where he directs graduate studies, and an adjunct associate professor in the department of Management Science and Systems, UB School of Management. He an expert in the field of consumer behavior, specifically the diffusion and acceptance of information technology.

Rao Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Management Science and Systems, UB School of Management, conducts research and publishes in the areas of areas of management information systems, decision support systems, e-business, emergency response management systems and information assurance.

Herath, who holds a PhD from UB, is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Business at Brock University. Chen, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science and a PhD in management science and systems from UB, is an assistant professor of information systems at Ball State. Wang, who holds a master’s degree in industrial engineering and a PhD in management science and systems from UB, is an assistant professor o information systems and operations management, University of Texas, Arlington.

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