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Abstract

A leading cause of security breaches is a basic human vulnerability: our susceptibility to deception. Hackers exploit this vulnerability by sending phishing emails that induce users to click on malicious links that then download malware or trick the victim into revealing personal confidential information to the hacker. Past research has focused on human susceptibility to generic phishing emails or individually targeted spear-phishing emails. This study addresses how contextualization of phishing emails for targeted groups impacts their susceptibility to phishing. We manipulated the framing and content of email messages and tested the effects on users’ susceptibility to phishing. We constructed phishing emails to elicit either the fear of losing something valuable (e.g., course registrations, tuition assistance) or the anticipation of gaining something desirable (e.g., iPad, gift card, social networks). We designed the emails’ context to manipulate human psychological weaknesses such as greed, social needs, and so on. We sent fictitious (benign) emails to 7,225 undergraduate students and recorded their responses. Results revealed that contextualizing messages to appeal to recipients’ psychological weaknesses increased their susceptibility to phishing. The fear of losing or anticipation of gaining something valuable increased susceptibility to deception and vulnerability to phishing. The results of our study provide important contributions to information security research, including a theoretical framework based on the heuristic-systematic processing model to study the susceptibility of users to deception. We demonstrate through our experiment that several situational factors do, in fact, alter the effectiveness of phishing attempts.

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