Susceptibility to Spear-Phishing Emails: Effects of Internet User Demographics and Email Content

ACM Trans Comput Hum Interact. 2019 Sep;26(5):32. doi: 10.1145/3336141.


Phishing is fundamental to cyber attacks. This research determined the effect of Internet user age and email content such as weapons of influence (persuasive techniques that attackers can use to lure individuals to fall for an attack) and life domains (a specific topic or aspect of an individual's life that attackers can focus an emails on) on spear-phishing (targeted phishing) susceptibility. One-hundred young and 58 older users received, without their knowledge, daily simulated phishing emails over 21 days. A browser plugin recorded their clicking on links in the emails as an indicator of their susceptibility. Forty-three percent of users fell for the simulated phishing emails, with older women showing the highest susceptibility. While susceptibility in young users declined across the study, susceptibility in older users remained stable. The relative effectiveness of the attacks differed by weapons of influence and life domains with age-group variability. In addition, older compared to young users reported lower susceptibility awareness. These findings support effects of Internet user demographics and email content on susceptibility to phishing and emphasize the need for personalization of the next generation of security solutions.

Keywords: Aging; Emails; Life Domains; Phishing; Susceptibility; Weapons of Influence.