Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 1
Which Phish Get Caught? An Exploratory Study of
Individual Susceptibility to Phishing
Completed Research Paper
Individuals and organizations are continuing to increase their reliance on networks and the Internet
(Anandarajan 2002; Cheung et al. 2000; Lim and Teo 2005). While this connectivity offers numerous
benefits (e.g., Banker and Kauffman, 2004), it also introduces a number of threats to networked users’
financial and information security (Dellarocas 2005; Liang and Xue, 2009; Woon et al. 2005). Among the
more serious of these threats is phishing; an attempt to acquire private information from victims through
deceptive electronic communication (Jagatic et al. 2007).
According to a Gartner Group study, e-mail phishing attacks cost individuals and businesses $3.2 billion
in the United States alone in 2007; the same study found that 3.3 percent of all individuals who received a
phishing email lost money as a result (Gartner 2007). (Leung and Bose 2008) showed that firms bear a
significant portion of this cost, an idea corroborated by a 2009 industry study that found that 56 percent
of phishing losses were absorbed by firms (Gartner 2009). Given that phishing is a relatively new
phenomenon, it seems likely to remain an issue and potentially grow in magnitude unless measures are
taken to ameliorate the threat (Sheng et al. 2010).
A significant body of research has focused on training individuals to avoid phishing schemes (e.g.,
(Dhamija et al. 2006; Jagatic et al. 2007; Kumaraguru et al. 2009a; 2009b; Technologies 2009), however
relatively little research has focused on identifying those individuals who may be more susceptible to such
scams or the situational factors that increase susceptibility. This paper seeks to fill that gap by exploring
personality and situational constructs that may increase the likelihood of an individual falling prey to a
To do so, we have followed the procedure used by Wang and Benbasat (2008) in their exploratory study
on trust in the e-commerce context. In that study, the researchers identified several potential antecedents
of trust from the literature and then evaluated them using data collected through experimentation. For
our research, potential antecedent constructs were identified via literature review and a Delphi-method
study. Data were then collected from subjects via survey and an “ethical phishing” experiment; these were
then analyzed to determine the significance of any relationships between candidate antecedents and
The results of our study provide several important contributions to IS research. Specifically, we
demonstrate that several situational factors do, in fact, alter the effectiveness of phishing attempts.
Further, we find that certain personality traits can impact an individual’s susceptibility to such attacks.
This paper discusses these findings in more detail and suggests potential avenues for further research in
The threats posed by malicious online attacks have been researched in a number of studies covering
several contexts (e.g., (Chan et al. 2005; D'Arcy and Hovav 2007; D'Arcy et al. 2009; Galletta and Polak
2003; Grazioli and Jarvenpaa 2000; Herath and Rao 2009a; 2009b; Johnston and Warkentin 2010;
Kankanhalli et al. 2003; Liang and Xue 2009; Liang and Xue 2010; Siponen 2000; Siponen et al. 2006;
Siponen and Vance 2010; Straub 1990; Straub and Goodhue 1991; Sun et al. 2006; Theoharidou et al.
2005). However, relatively few papers have focused on phishing specifically. In the paper most similar to
our research, Sheng et al. (2010) focused on demographic characteristics (gender, age, education level) as
predictors of phishing susceptibility. They found that women were more susceptible to phishing than men
and that the 18- to 25-year-olds formed the most susceptible age group. Further, they found that training
individuals regarding common phishing practices enabled potential victims to reduce their likelihood of
being phished. The efficacy of training materials and tools in affecting phishing susceptibility has also
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2 Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011
been found in other studies (Kumaraguru et al. 2009a; 2009b) and has been the primary focus of most
other phishing-related studies.
In a related study study, (Jagatic et al. 2007) used an ethical phishing technique, in which a simulated,
non-harmful phishing email is sent to experiment subjects to explore whether the gender and familiarity
of the apparent email sender altered the recipient’s susceptibility to phishing attacks. To do this, the
researchers scraped friend information from student subjects via a social network site, then sent
notifications using these known friends’ identities to inform subjects that the university required subjects
to click on a link in order to maintain certain services. Jagatic et al. found that, in addition to the majority
of subjects being willing to provide login credentials through a “fraudulent” Web site; subjects were more
likely to respond when the email appeared to have been sent from a known friend and were also more
likely to respond to a message from the opposite gender. They also found that women in their study were
more likely to click on provided links than men. This and the other existing phishing studies are
summarized in Table 1.
Table 1. Summary of Phishing Studies in Information Systems
Study Objective Findings
Dhamija et al.
Examine user ability to identify authentic
Web sites from fraudulent ones.
Subjects performed at a 40% error rate;
no statistically significant factor or
method was found for identifying
fraudulent Web sites.
Jagatic et al.
Determine whether identity and gender of
email sender alters phishing
susceptibility; used ethical phishing.
Found that both the identity and gender
of the sender matter; significant effect for
females over males in terms of phishing
Determine whether announced phishing
attacks by a company had a financial
impact on firm value.
All firms, regardless of size, showed a
significant statistical drop in firm value
when phishing attacks were announced.
Determine whether individuals can be
trained to detect phishing attacks through
a developed tool, PhishGuru.
PhishGuru, and its underlying
methodology, were shown to be effective
in educating about phishing attacks.
Re-test of PhishGuru. 18-25-year-olds were most susceptible to
phishing; PhishGuru was found to still be
effective 28 days after training.
Sheng et al.
Examine whether gender, age and
educational levels impact phishing
18-25-year-olds were most susceptible to
phishing and women were more
susceptible than men; training reduced
phishing susceptibility by up to 40%.
The exploratory nature of this study dictated that we identify candidate constructs to consider as potential
drivers of susceptibility to phishing. Initial candidates were identified through careful review of relevant
literature in the IS field as well as the fields of psychology and communication. We reviewed articles in
this IS security research stream that focused on online deception or fraud, and phishing in particular.
When relevant, cited articles for constructs of interests were also reviewed to identify potentially useful
constructs. This yielded a set of thirteen candidates, which merited further consideration.
We then proceeded to conduct a Delphi study1. The Delphi technique enables subjects to identify and
produce a rank-ordered list of answers to given questions posed to the group. For this study, 75 full-time
1 In conducting this study we followed the same methodological approach set forth in (Brancheau et al. 1996).
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Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 3
graduate students taking an “Electronic Commerce Strategies” course from a major university in the
eastern US were recruited.
In the first round of information solicitation, subjects were asked to identify reasons people (themselves
or others) might either (1) click and (2) not click on links in emails that were received from both known
and unknown apparent sources. Participants were instructed to supply their own answers to these
questions (i.e., they were not privy to candidate constructs identified through the literature review) and to
rank their own responses in order of importance. Following this initial round, suggested reasons were
rank ordered based on the aggregated rankings supplied by subjects. This new, ordered list was submitted
to the group for reordering and augmentation in two additional rounds2, ultimately resulting in a list of
sixteen rank-ordered candidate reasons3.
The resulting lists from both the literature review and the Delphi study were then compared. We found
twelve constructs4 that were common between the previously identified constructs from the literature and
the sixteen reasons for phishing described through the Delphi methodology, which we use as the basis for
our exploratory study. As a result of this process, while not exhaustive, the set of constructs considered in
this exploratory paper constitute an independently supported and reasonable starting point for research
into phishing susceptibility antecedents.
The twelve constructs identified can be broken into three discrete categories: message characteristics,
personality traits, and Internet experience. Each of these categories and the constructs themselves are
described below, along with the hypothesized effect of each construct.
Through our search, we found three characteristics of e-mail messages that might be expected to have an
impact on phishing success rates: message source (i.e., the apparent sender), link type (words or
numerals), and message content. However, we opted to control for message content as any argument or
content in a message could be interpreted through a variety of ways in this study, that it would undermine
the control of the study. To avoid any potentially confounding effects, we used the same message for all
By message source, we refer to the apparent identity of the sender of the email; this variable has been
shown to have a significant effect on the likelihood of an individual clicking on a link inside an email
message (Jagatic et al. 2007). Accordingly, we propose that the sender of a message is an important
predictor of phishing susceptibility due to the perceived credibility of a known source. Source credibility
theory (Sternthal et al. 1978) proposes that individuals are more prone to believe and rely upon
information from individuals who are perceived as credible by the recipient. Further, lacking contextual
information regarding the expertise of a given source, the information recipient will consider a known
source to be more credible than an unknown source (Holden and Vanhuele 1999; Sternthal et al. 1978).
Research has long proposed and found that familiarity leads to preference, which also increases the
likelihood of a source being able to exert influence on a recipient (Burgoon and Burgoon 2001; Petty and
We propose that known sources are able to use their familiar status and thereby influence others. This
serves as the basis for an individual trusting the content of a message apparently sent from a known party
and thereby suspending adequate evaluation of a fraudulent phishing attack. While this finding has
2 In the final (third) round of the study, no additional constructs were suggested, indicating that the list had reached its stable state
within the group of subjects.
3 Although more reasons for phishing were identified through the Delphi method, several reasons (Specifically ones dealing with
trust) only dealt with one construct.
4 The Delphi study failed to show a reason for phishing that included one’s stake or involvement with the phishing subject.
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4 Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011
already been reported in a related study (Jagatic et al. 2007), we seek to examine this construct along with
the set of other variables we introduce in this study. Such an examination would enable an evaluation of
relative strength of various antecedents.
H1: Messages from known sources will produce higher rates of individuals clicking on
links in phishing emails as compared to messages from unknown sources.
The other message-specific variable we consider in our study is link type. By link type, we refer to the
form of the uniform resource locator (URL) that appears in the email message. Here there are two
options: numeric, in which an IP address is given (e.g., 220.127.116.11), and textual, in which the user sees
the Web site’s domain name (e.g., www.google.com).
Given that the textual form is the one most commonly seen by users, we speculate that a numeric address
will raise a “red flag” that may alert users of a phishing email’s impropriety. Further, the textual URL
conveys more information regarding the page to which the link points, which, we propose, engenders
trust. Of course, the apparent URL need not be the one to which a link leads, such that in the case of a
phishing email, such trust would be unfounded. In our study, we expect to find that a textual URL
provides more attractive “bait” for the would-be victim.
H2: Messages with textual links will produce higher rates of individuals clicking on
links in phishing emails as compared to those with numeric links.
Our review of psychology and IS research yielded a number of personality traits that may impact an
individual’s susceptibility to phishing attacks. Through this research as well as our Delphi study, we
identified seven candidate personality factors to consider: trust, distrust, curiosity, entertainment drive,
boredom proneness, lack of focus, and risk propensity.
Trust and Distrust
Given the prominent role that influence plays in the success of phishing attacks, trust and distrust are
crucial constructs to be considered. Trust constitutes the willingness to be vulnerable to another and rely
upon him or her to perform an expected behavior (Mayer et al. 1995; McKnight et al. 2002; McKnight et
al. 1998). Distrust, on the other hand, has been defined as the unwillingness to become vulnerable to
another given the expectation that he or she means to harm the truster (McKnight and Choudhury, 2006;
McKnight et al. 2004). If the recipient of a phishing attack trusts the received email, he or she will rely on
it, thus leading to vulnerability to it, thus increasing his or her likelihood of falling prey to it (Hovland and
Weiss, 1951-1952; Petty et al. 1983; Petty and Wegener 1998; Shah and Jehn 1993; Sternthal et al. 1978).
Trust research has proposed and found that individuals have static dispositions to both trust and distrust
others in general (McKnight and Choudhury 2006; McKnight et al. 1998; 2002; 2004). Given the lack of
context and actual interaction with potentially unknown attackers, a person’s innate general trusting and
distrusting dispositions toward others in general are expected to have an effect on how the individual
Recent research into trust and distrust and their reflection in brain activity has identified trust and
distrust as discrete constructs (Dimoka 2010). Along those same lines, other research has found evidence
that it is possible for individuals to feel trust and distrust simultaneously (Komiak and Benbasat 2008).
While knowledge in this area is still developing, given the exploratory nature of this paper we felt it
important to allow for this idea of trust and distrust as related, but separate, concepts. As such, trust and
distrust are measured and analyzed as separate candidate antecedents.
H3: Individuals with higher dispositions to trust will be more likely to click on links in
phishing emails than those with lower dispositions to trust.
H4: Individuals with higher dispositions to distrust will be less likely to click on links in
phishing emails than those with lower dispositions to distrust.
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Psychological research has defined curiosity as the desire to find and attain new knowledge and be
exposed to novel experiences that motivate exploratory behaviors (Berlyne 1949; 1950; 1954; 1957; 1958).
This drive is considered extensively within the Big Five factors psychological literature, which includes
culture (Tupes & Christal, 1961), intellect (Digman, 1990), or openness (McRae & John, 1992); as used in
this study, curiosity coincides particularly well with action (the inclination to try new activities) and ideas
(the inclination to be intellectually curious) facets of the openness construct (Costa & McRae, 1992).
Links in email messages, especially unsolicited email messages, may appear to be an invitation to a new
Web site that could offer new opportunities or experiences. Therefore, and given that more curious
individuals have a heightened drive to seek novel experiences (Litman and Spielberger 2003; Lowenstein
1994; Speilberger and Starr 1994), individuals with higher levels of curiosity may be more likely to desire
to click on unknown links in hopes of satisfying this drive.
H5: Individuals with higher levels of curiosity will be more likely to click on links in
phishing emails than those with lower levels of curiosity.
Psychological research has defined entertainment drive, or the need for entertainment, as the desire for
novel sources of recreation or pleasure (Brock and Livingston 2004), which coincides nicely with the
action factor from the Big Five (Costa & McRae, 1992). This motivation has been closely linked to curiosity
in the literature (Litman and Spielberger 2003). Similar to curiosity, individuals with high entertainment
drives more frequently seek novel experiences that can provide amusement or recreation. As was
hypothesized with curiosity, this entertainment-seeking behavior may result in subjects’ desire to click on
unknown links in hopes of attaining a new source of pleasure.
H6: Individuals with higher levels of entertainment drive will be more likely to click on
links in phishing emails than those with lower levels of entertainment drive.
Boredom proneness refers to an individual’s disposition to feel that a current situation is uninteresting
(Farmer and Sundberg 1986). As such, it acts as a counterpoint to entertainment drive; the latter seeks
novel interactions and the former becomes uninterested in such interactions. Thus, building on the logic
for entertainment drive, those with high levels of boredom proneness will tend to disengage from what
they are currently experiencing. When presented by a new opportunity in the form of an unknown link,
the individual will not be inherently interested in exploring it.
H7: Individuals with higher levels of boredom proneness will be less likely to click on
links in phishing emails than those with lower levels of boredom proneness.
Lack of Focus
In this study, lack of focus refers to a person’s inability to continue with a current task (Adler et al. 2006).
Like boredom proneness, individuals with high inabilities to focus quickly move from experience to
experience (Adler et al. 2006). This construct aligns with the self discipline facet of the conscientiousness
construct found within the Big Five factors literature; an individual with low self-discipline is easily
distracted (Costa & McRae, 1992). As such, when an unknown link is presented to such a person, this lack
of focus or lack of self-discipline results in the individual breaking away from the task he or she is
currently pursuing (e.g,, reading email) and electing to click on the link. Thus, we expect that those with
lower abilities to focus on current tasks, such as reading one’s email, will be more likely to click on links
that would allow them to escape the current task.
H8: Individuals with higher lack of focus will be more likely to click on links in phishing
emails than those with less lack of focus.
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Risk propensity refers to the individual’s disposition to accept uncertainty in various aspects of their lives
and to engage in potentially risky behaviors (Nicholson et al. 2005). Research has shown that risk
propensity is effectively opposed to trust (Mayer et al. 1995; McKnight et al. 1998; 2002). Given the
inclusion of trust in this study, it makes sense to also include risk propensity. In operationalizing this
construct, we have elected to also look at various types of risk, including measures of propensity for taking
risk in regards to recreation, health, career, finances, safety, and social decision-making settings.
Individuals who are inherently more willing to take risks are expected to be more willing to engage in
risky behaviors online such as clicking on unknown links in emails.
H9: Individuals with higher risk propensity will be more likely to click on links in
phishing emails than those with lower risk propensity.
Besides personality factors, experience with the Internet is likely to serve as a potentially viable proxy for
the expertise and experience that an individual may have accrued through Internet usage, with the
assumption that such experience would inculcate the individual against falling prey to phishing attacks.
The literature review and Delphi study led to the identification of three experience-related constructs:
general Internet usage, Internet community identification, and Internet anxiety.
General Internet Usage
General Internet usage refers to the cumulative amount of time that an individual spends online across a
wide array of available activities (Joiner et al. 2007; McKnight et al. 2002). Past research suggests that
those who are more experienced in online activities are more likely to avoid shopping online due to
perceived security concerns (Hoffman et al. 1999). Our expectation, then, is that a similar phenomenon
will reveal itself within the email context and that an individual with greater online experience will have
an increased understanding of potential online risks, and therefore, will be less likely to click on unknown
links. This understanding is likely to stem from a higher likelihood of previous experiences or browsing
that uncovered warnings or discussions about these schemes. We thus expect that one’s experience on the
Internet leads them to adopt some level of expertise that would allow them to identify potential phishing
attempts, and thereby avoid such attacks.
H10: Individuals with a higher level of general Internet usage will be less likely to click
on links in phishing emails than those with lower levels of general Internet usage.
Internet Community Identification
In this study, Internet community identification expresses the level of attachment between the individual
and the Internet (Joiner et al. 2007). An individual with a higher level of Internet community attachment
considers himself to be a part of an online community (Joiner et al. 2005) and, as such, is likely to rely
more heavily on the Internet (Joiner et al. 2007). Given this higher level of online association, it’s
expected that an individual with higher Internet community identification would be more likely to click on
an unknown link, since he may perceive that doing so may assist in deepening his online social
H11: Individuals with a higher level of Internet community identification will be more
likely to click on links in phishing emails than those with lower levels of Internet
The construct of Internet anxiety reflects the user’s general feeling of unease or apprehension toward the
online environment. Unlike the previous two constructs, Internet anxiety creates a strong desire to avoid
using the Internet or to mitigate one’s exposure to it (Joiner et al. 2007). It has been found that such
anxiety toward IT results in a significant decrease in a user’s willingness to trust a system (Hwang & Kim,
2007) as well as users’ perception of a system’s usability (Hackbarth et al., 2003; Cowan et al., 2008).
Which Phish Get Caught?
Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 7
Similarly, then, we expect that higher levels of such anxiety will result in a lower probability of a user
clicking on an unknown link, due to the decreased level of trust felt towards the Internet and a perception
that the Internet is difficult to use. Both of these perceptions will decrease the likelihood of individuals
extending their usage of the Internet by exploring an unexpected and unknown link.
H12: Individuals with a higher level of Internet anxiety will be less likely to click on links
in phishing emails than those with lower levels of Internet anxiety.
Summary of Hypotheses
The twelve hypotheses considered in this paper are summarized in Table 2.
Table 2. Summary of Hypotheses
# Construct Expectation
1 Known source of email Higher susceptibility
2 Text-based link Higher susceptibility
3 Disposition to trust Higher susceptibility
4 Disposition to distrust Lower susceptibility
5 Curiosity Higher susceptibility
6 Entertainment drive Higher susceptibility
7 Boredom proneness Lower susceptibility
8 Lack of focus Higher susceptibility
9 Risk propensity Higher susceptibility
10 General Internet usage Lower susceptibility
11 Internet community identification Higher susceptibility
12 Internet anxiety Lower susceptibility
To more strongly infer causality between constructs and individuals’ susceptibility to phishing scams, an
experiment was conducted. For this experiment, 632 undergraduate psychology and information systems
students were recruited from a large public university in the eastern US. Subjects were offered extra credit
in their courses in return for their participation. Of these subjects, 53 percent were male and 44 percent
were female (the other 3 percent declined to state gender). Mean age of subjects was 20.5 years (st. dev.
2.4 years) with subjects having completed a mean of 4.5 semesters of college (st. dev. 2.3 semesters).
Thirty-seven subjects were removed from the pool due to missing data, resulting in a final dataset sample
size of 595.
Design and Procedures
The IRB-approved study consisted of a randomized 2 x 2 online experiment (known vs. unknown
apparent email source x text link vs. numeric link). Subjects were directed to an online survey engine,
then completed various instruments to collect the required stable personality traits used in the study as
well as their email addresses. Subjects were then thanked for their participation then were led to believe
that the experiment had ended (it had not).
Two weeks later, all subjects received a plain-text email that exhibited one of four treatments
corresponding to the four cells of the 2x2 design (subjects were randomly assigned to each treatment).
Emails appeared to have been sent by either a known source, an individual with whom subjects had
interacted in signing up for the experiment, or an unknown source (a co-author of this study, from
another school, who was unknown to the subjects). To avoid confounding effects that could be introduced
by the message, we used a very simple email message. The subject line for all treatments was “Check this
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out” in the same fashion as Jagatic et al. (2007). The body of the email message consisted of the same text
“Check this out:”, the remainder of the message then contained a link for the subject to click on. Subjects
were presented with a link to an external Web site that was either shown as a 1) text-based URL or as 2) a
numeric IP address.
We tested the messages to make sure the University’s spam filter did not prevent the messages from being
delivered. After several trials, we found how to set up the messages and what approach and software to
use to mail them, to ensure delivery.
As with any other email, subjects receiving the experimental treatment email had the option to click on
the link or not click on it. All links were encoded with a personalized id in order to identify subjects
uniquely. Thus, when a subject clicked on a link, the server captured the identification and stored it in a
log, from which it could later be matched to the data given by the subject in the survey portion of the
Susceptibility to phishing was measured on a binary scale. Subjects were scored 1 if they clicked on the
link in the email or 0 if they did not click on the link.
Email source was encoded as a binary variable with the apparent known source coded as 1 and the
apparent unknown source coded 0.
Source link was also encoded as a binary variable. The text link was coded 1 and the numeric IP address
link was coded 0.
Disposition to trust was measured using a version of the trusting beliefs instrument developed by
McKnight et al. (2002). Due to the exploratory nature of this research, each sub-construct (i.e.,
benevolence, competence, integrity, and trusting stance) was instantiated, but the general second-order
construct of disposition to trust was not formed as we thought it useful to explore the effect of each sub-
construct on susceptibility to phishing separately.
Disposition to distrust was, similar to the disposition to trust construct, measured using an instrument
developed by McKnight et al. (2003). As with disposition to trust, the second-order construct was left out
of the model in favor of the individual sub-constructs (i.e., malevolence, incompetence, deceit and
Curiosity was measured along two aspects: diversive and specific. Previous instruments developed to
measure epistemic curiosity have used this same approach and thus we follow established precedent
(Litman and Spielberger 2003) by using both measures.
Entertainment drive was measured using a previously developed instrument (Brock and Livingston
2004). Several questions from the original instrument were not utilized in this study due to poor loadings
found in the instrument’s original explication.
Boredom proneness was measured using a previously validated instrument (Farmer and Sundberg 1986).
Lack of focus was measured using a previously validated instrument (Adler et al. 2006), available in both
an extensive and short-version for determining the ability of an individual to focus. We opted to use the
shorter version of the scale, rather than the very long instrument, given the need to measure so many
Risk propensity was measured by using the risk propensity scale developed by Nicholson et al. (2005).
This scale delineates risk propensity as different propensities within various facets of life: recreational,
health, career, financial, safety and social risks. In addition, a measure of risk beliefs was taken based on
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Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 9
the scale developed by Malhotra et al. (2004), which specifically measures the perceived risk inherent
within the Internet.
General Internet usage was measured using a previously validated instrument, specific for this type of
study (McKnight et al. 2002).
Internet community identification was measured based on the conceptualization of Joiner et al. (2007),
which considered two types of Internet identification: with the Internet community at large and with
other Internet users. We followed this conceptualization and measured both types of identification
through previously established instruments (Joiner et al. 2007).
Internet anxiety was likewise measured using a previously established instrument (Joiner et al. 2007).
In addition, subjects’ age, level of education, and gender were gathered for consideration as control
All reflective items were entered into a confirmatory factor analysis. From this, only factors with an
eigenvalue equal to or greater than 1.0 were retained. Results were then rotated to ascertain the loadings
of each indicator on its respective construct5. Only highly loading items were used in construct calculation
(i.e., >.70, representing that over 50% of the variance was captured for the indicator in the rotation).
Based on these factor groupings, the Cronbach’s alpha score for each construct was obtained to
demonstrate construct validity. Results are shown in Table 3.
Table 3. Construct Validity
Grouping Construct Subconstruct (# of items) Cronbach’s Alpha
Disposition to trust Benevolence (2) .738
Competence (3) .852
Integrity (2) .763
Trusting stance (3) .853
Disposition to distrust Malevolence (3) .786
Incompetence (3) .861
Deceit (2) .692
Distrusting stance (4) .813
Curiosity Epistemic curiosity (diversive)
Epistemic curiosity (state) (3) .748
Perpetual curiosity (7) .830
Boredom proneness (4) n/a .520
Entertainment drive (5) n/a .834
Focus (2) n/a .705
Risk propensity Recreational (2) .824
5 These results are available from the authors upon request
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Health (2) .831
Career (2) .800
Financial (2) .838
Safety (2) .876
Social (2) .872
Risk beliefs (5) n/a .881
General Internet usage
Internet anxiety (2) n/a .681
All constructs were formed based on the loadings from the rotated factor analysis (Aiken and West, 1991;
Rossi and Anderson, 1982; Weinberg and Abramowitz, 2008)6.
Analysis and Results
An overall descriptive view of the results among the four treatment conditions is shown in Table 4. We
found that 41.3% of subjects clicked on the enclosed links in the unsolicited emails.
Table 4. Summary of Phishing Results by Treatment Conditions
Known sender Unknown sender
Behavior Text link Numeric link Text link Numeric link Total
click 68 (11.4%)
Clicked 85 (14.3%)
Total 153 (25.7%)
Given the binary nature of the dependent variable, data were analyzed using multiple logistic regression
models using STATA (v. 10.1). The first model reports the effects of the control variables on phishing
susceptibility. The second model includes the treatment conditions in order to analyze the partial effect
they have on the dependent variable. The last model includes all variables (See Table 5).
We then performed the same model analyses by treatment conditions in order to ascertain the effect that
each variable had on phishing, while controlling for the type of treatment being experienced by the subject
(See Table 6).
Table 5. Summary of Phishing Results for Partial and Full Models
Baseline model Treatment model Full model
Construct Coef. p Coef. p Coef. p
Age 0.065 0.146 0.066 0.154 0.075 0.122
Educ -0.203 0.000 -0.216 0.000 -0.203 0 .000
Gender -0.213 0.218 -0.190 0.281 -0.181 0.391
Known source 0.689 0.000 0.712 0.000
6 For example, the value for the sub-construct “competence” would be equal to c1 * .775 + c2 * .920 + c3 * .883.
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Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 11
Text link 0.312 0.074 0.381 0.042
Benevolence 0.057 0.643
Competence -0.141 0.282
Integrity 0.120 0.362
Trusting stance 0.077 0.465
Malevolence -0.085 0.433
Incompetence 0.013 0.912
Deceit 0.161 0.131
Distrusting stance -0.138 0.236
Boredom proneness 1.023 0.068
Entertainment drive 0.051 0.588
Epistemic curiosity-diversive 0.056 0.787
Perpetual curiosity 0.005 0.983
Epistemic curiosity-state 0.028 0.867
Focus -0.139 0.390
RP-recreational 0.100 0.376
RP-health 0.076 0.438
RP-career 0.050 0.751
RP-financial -0.365 0.011
RP-safety 0.188 0.093
RP-social 0.051 0.652
Risk beliefs 0.164 0.010
General Internet usage 0.423 0.002
Internet anxiety -0.120 0.455
Internet identification -0.131 0.010
Constant -0.452 0.592 -0.937 0.286 -2.992 0.033
LR Chi2 22.790 42.490 93.150
Prob > Chi2 0.000 0.000 0.000
Pseudo R2 0.028 0.053 0.115
Table 6. Summary of Phishing Results by Treatment Conditions
Unknown source Known source Numeric link Text link
Construct Coef. p Coef. p Coef. p Coef. p
Age 0.110 0.186 0.098 0.120 0.101 0.120 0.072 0.357
Gender 0.036 0.904 -0.405 0.247 -0.236 0.490 -0.207 0.477
Known source na na na na 0.527 0.085 0.925
Text link 0.098 0.707 0.729
na na na na
Benevolence 0.246 0.145 -0.219 0.292 -0.043 0.830 0.154 0.363
Competence 0.000 1.000 -0.363 0.097 -0.174 0.425 -0.093 0.607
Integrity -0.129 0.493 0.536
0.115 0.604 0.037 0.838
Trusting stance 0.106 0.466 -0.019 0.911 -0.214 0.222 0.175 0.243
Malevolence 0.067 0.661 -0.282 0.113 0.218 0.224 -0.275 0.077
Incompetence -0.028 0.865 0.181 0.375 -0.134 0.476 0.120 0.492
Deceit 0.006 0.966 0.408
0.050 0.781 0.311
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Distrusting stance -0.212 0.175 -0.088 0.658 0.162 0.407 -0.358
Boredom proneness 0.662 0.412 1.435 0.114 1.203 0.239 1.026 0.154
Entertainment drive 0.167 0.229 -0.120 0.421 0.054 0.730 0.057 0.658
Epistemic curiosity-diversive -0.076 0.790 0.233 0.491 0.391 0.293 -0.230 0.391
Perpetual curiosity -0.165 0.583 0.109 0.773 0.127 0.742 -0.003 0.991
Epistemic curiosity-state 0.189 0.431 -0.112 0.676 0.021 0.936 0.046 0.848
Focus 0.205 0.364 -0.654
-0.137 0.618 -0.126 0.573
RP-recreational 0.016 0.918 0.228 0.219 0.300 0.111 0.048 0.758
RP-health -0.024 0.869 0.167 0.266 0.228 0.141 -0.025 0.864
RP-career 0.031 0.883 0.090 0.736 0.194 0.470 0.052 0.815
RP-financial -0.279 0.179 -0.576
RP-safety 0.121 0.453 0.288 0.105 0.240 0.192 0.117 0.449
RP-social 0.081 0.605 -0.024 0.895 0.100 0.609 0.094 0.536
Risk beliefs 0.072 0.426 0.275
0.177 0.086 0.153 0.083
General Internet usage 0.249 0.203 0.857
0.218 0.391 0.551
Internet anxiety -0.016 0.934 -0.269 0.374 0.234 0.323 -0.560
Internet identification -0.203
-0.086 0.304 -0.289
Constant -3.928 0.085 -2.104 0.291 -3.926 0.074 -1.705 0.409
n 323 272 273 322
LR Chi2 33.660 78.390 73.870 53.380
Prob > Chi2 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.003
Pseudo R2 0.212 0.208 0.204 0.121
The main objective of this study was to determine the message, personality traits, and Internet-related
variables that are related to the likelihood that an individual would be susceptible for phishing by clicking
on links in unsolicited e-mails. We found and measured several variables that can increase one’s
propensity for phishing. We analyzed these results at several levels of analysis (basic, treatment level and
full model) and found several general predictors that we discuss here by theoretical framework.
Although no measure of trust or distrust was statistically significant as a main effect in predicting the
susceptibility for phishing, further analysis revealed several interesting findings. First, as expected we find
that trust will most likely have an effect on phishing susceptibility when the truster knows the trustee.
Specifically, when the source of the e-mail is known by the truster to have integrity or a lack of deceitful
intentions, than the truster will be more likely to click on e-mailed links. This result is more pronounced
when the link is textually based, rather than a numeric link, which reverses this effect.
Second, we also find that it is likely for the truster to attribute distrusting attributes to unknown sources
of e-mails, which reduces the likelihood of clicking on enclosed links. However, we note two exceptions.
First, it is also possible that the truster attributes the unknown source of an unsolicited e-mail with
benevolent intentions and will have an increased likelihood of clicking on a link when it is textual. Second,
we also note an unexpected finding in that if the truster believes that the unknown sender of an e-mail is
being deceitful, the truster has an increased likelihood of clicking on the link. Perhaps this increased
likelihood of clicking on such links is to discover the intentions of this unknown sender, and how they
attempt to trick the truster.
Which Phish Get Caught?
Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 13
In summary, we find that trust tends to have an important effect on phishing susceptibility. It tends to
increasing one’s susceptibility when the sender of the e-mail is known, and to reduce this tendency when
the sender is unknown and attributed to be deceitful.
Surprisingly, we find few instances where personality traits showed an effect on phishing susceptibility,
contrary to our predictions. We find that when individuals are unable to focus, they are less likely to click
on e-mailed links from known sources. E-mail recipients with a tendency to not focus on given tasks may
have increased tendencies to avoid e-mailed links given that they recognized the source and thereby have
less incentive to attend to such a message. However, such a tendency to attend to messages from unknown
sources was not found to be significant.
In summary, despite the expected effect of personality traits on phishing susceptibility, it produced no
general effects, excluding two rather specific, yet powerful effects.
The recipient’s experience with the Internet was the most predictive grouping of variables tested in all of
our models. We report two general, yet contradictory results. The more that the recipient used the
Internet, the more likely he or she was to click on links in unsolicited e-mails. This likely occurred due to
previous experience with such e-mails and the belief that the recipient will continue to avoid potential
negative consequences in the future by continuing to engage in this risky behavior. However, a smaller
negative effect on phishing susceptibility occurred when the individual strongly identified with the
Internet: The more time that an individual spends on the Internet, the more likely that he or she will
acquire expertise with threats or information about Internet threats and be better equipped to identify
potential those threats and attacks.
In summary, the individual’s experience with and attachment to the Internet were the two most important
collection of factors in determining phishing susceptibility. Generally, individuals who are very frequent
users of the Internet were more likely to click on links in e-mails, while individuals who have anxiety
towards the Internet or who are strongly identified with other Internet users were less likely to click on
Our results revealed two consistent findings. First, individuals who are prone to engage in financial risks
are less susceptible to phishing; this effect is present when the source of the e-mail is known, or contains a
numeric link. Given that victims of phishing attempts often have their identities stolen, which could harm
their finances, this finding is unsurprising. It is surprising to note that no further risk propensities
produced a similar effect.
Special consideration must be given to the very unexpected finding that individuals who believe clicking
on links in e-mails to be risky are also more prone to engage in such behaviors. This is found as a main
effect, in regards to known sources only. We believe that such a finding can be explained by the
psychological tendency to underestimate the possibility for negative consequences to occur for one’s self
and instead overestimate its effect for others, often called an optimistic or self-serving bias (Dhamija et al.
2006; Rhee et al. 2005).
In summary, we have both expected and unexpected findings with regard to risk tendencies. Rather than
finding support for several risk propensities reducing one’s phishing susceptibility, we find that only the
financial risk tendency produces statistically significant results that reduce phishing susceptibility.
However, we find that individuals are also falling prey to a self-serving bias in believing that they are more
likely to identify phishing attempts and thereby may fall prey to actual phishing attempts, that they
inappropriately believe to be legitimate communications.
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14 Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011
Demographics and Manipulations
We further report that, contrary to previous studies (Jagatic et al. 2007; Kumaraguru et al. 2009a; Sheng
et al. 2010), gender was not a statistically significant predictor of phishing in this study. Perhaps, given
that this study regarded a variety of predictors and used e-mail as its phishing attempt, it systematically
differs from these previous studies. Given the ubiquitous use of e-mail, perhaps it should be expected that
both genders have been equally, and highly exposed to multiple phishing attempts and are thus equally
prepared to identify and prevent phishing attempts. We also note a similar lack of results for age, which
contradicts previous studies (Kumaraguru et al. 2009a; Sheng et al. 2010). Similar to gender, this lack of
results may also be due to the ubiquitous nature of e-mail.
We did find that the level of education served as a strong deterrent of phishing. This effect was predictable
and held for most models.
Most importantly, we find that our manipulations were very strong antecedents for phishing. Specifically,
by sending a message from a known source, it is more likely that the recipient will fall prey to the phishing
attempt. As expected, familiarity with the source generated enough trust that the recipients relied upon
this relationship and were more likely to be phished. As expected, making the link more understandable
and familiar to the recipient increased the likelihood of being phished.
Implications for Research
This study makes several contributions to the research on phishing. First, this is the first such large-scale
study that focuses on several theoretical foundations to determine their effect on individuals’
susceptibility towards phishing. By further explicating and testing these theories, we show which
dimensions serve as accurate and reliable predictors of phishing susceptibility.
In particular, we show that the most important indicators regarding an individual’s stable predictors of
phishing susceptibility are determined by their previous experiences with the Internet. Namely, we find
that frequent users of the Internet are also more susceptible to phishing. This effect is also offset by the
individuals’ anxiety towards the Internet or their identification with other users of the Internet. These
findings highlight that individuals who use the Internet on a frequent basis will likely increase their
susceptibility for hacking, beyond the number of attempts that they experience.
Further, the results are surprising in that they indicate the relatively ineffective power of personality traits
and even trust in determining phishing susceptibility. Contrary to the strong theoretical bases that such
individual differences variables should matter for phishing, our study indicates that very few of these
variables are significant. It is possible that other personality traits would show better predictive power.
Future research could determine whether security orientation, risk aversion, computer self-efficacy, etc.
have predictive ability in regards to phishing susceptibility. Special attention should be given to non-static
personality traits in future research as potential areas that researchers and managers could focus on to
reduce the level of phishing susceptibility in at-risk individuals.
We also demonstrate that individuals operate under an optimistic bias regarding their own susceptibilities
towards phishing. Specifically, they believe that given phishing behaviors are dangerous, however when
attacked with such a behavior, they fall prey to it. The overconfidence in identifying actual phishing
attempts causes the recipients of such attacks to have accurate beliefs, but belie them with their overly
Lastly, we demonstrate that financial risk propensities as the only significant deterrent of phishing
susceptibility. Although we expected that other risk propensities would also deter phishing
susceptibilities, only the financial risk propensity produced such results. This indicates the importance of
financial risk inherent in phishing attacks that can successfully alert phishing susceptibilities.
Implications for Practice
Our results indicate several ways in which individuals’ susceptibilities for phishing can be successfully
altered to encourage safer behaviors and practices. First, given that the manipulations of the source and
type of link were very consistent in producing increasing susceptibility for phishing, training programs
can be created to focus on identifying and increasing individuals’ awareness of such situations. Namely,
Which Phish Get Caught?
Thirty Second International Conference on Information Systems, Shanghai 2011 15
technical authentications (e.g., private and public key encryption, digital signatures and e-mail filter
protocols) can increase the abilities of e-mail users to identify and verify the actual identities of those
sending messages that may or may not be phishing attempts. Further, by educating individuals about the
dangers of relying on textual links, it would be further possible to avoid clicking on such links. However,
even with education, individuals would still be overconfident in their abilities and thus fall prey to
phishing attempts that they fail to identify, but this overconfidence could be limited through the use of
education (Alba and Hutchinson 2000).
Second, by increasing the focus and direction of phishing education campaigns on the risk to finances, the
natural risk propensities towards financial loss should also reduce the general susceptibility for phishing.
Third, educational campaigns should be directed towards the frequent usage of the Internet and the
inherent danger that it has towards phishing susceptibility. Increased usage of the Internet will lead to
greater likelihood that individuals will be confronted with numerous phishing attacks, which in turn
increases their likelihood to fall prey to phishing attempts. Further, our results indicated that increased
usage of the Internet is related to an increased susceptibility to phishing. Educating individuals about this
danger may help to educate them and thereby avoid phishing attempts.
It is also possible that individuals with high Internet use, risk propensities, or boredom proneness can be
the ones identified and equipped with tools that will provide warnings or block the links in phishing
messages. An extra step might be required that could prevent loss.
Finally, given that the largest effect size in the model is related to individuals with boredom proneness
and numeric links from known individuals, special education or advertising campaigns should be made to
alert individuals with such a tendency towards boredom. In particular, they should be informed of the
propensity of phishing attacks to include suspicious URL addresses as links.
Individuals and organizations are very reliant on the Internet (Anandarajan 2002; Cheung et al. 2000;
Lim and Teo 2005), despite the everyday risks of phishing attacks. This papers explores several constructs
from IS, psychology and communication research streams to explain why certain individuals are more
prone to phishing attacks than others. Our experimental results indicate that several of these constructs
are important predictors of phishing success. These findings provide important insights for future
research and practice focused on reducing the threat posed by phishing.
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