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Fear of phishing diminishes ability to choose the best safeguard

NSF Award:

E-mail Deception and Visual E-Mail Authentication Services: an Investigation  (SUNY at Buffalo)

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If you fear cyberattacks, you may be more prone to attacks and counterproductive coping strategies. That's according to research by a team of investigators from the University of Texas at Arlington and the State University of New York at Buffalo. The team found that maladaptive coping strategies and shortcuts, such as trusting all email from an apparent institutional address, actually increase as fear of phishing attacks increases.

During their study, the researchers discovered that perceptions of the likelihood of phishing attacks and low personal effectiveness in detecting such schemes stimulated fear. Once fear sets in, people's accuracy in identifying phishing messages decreases. However, even fearful people can partially improve their decision accuracy if they expend more effort in identifying phishing messages. Similarly, the study showed that older adults are better able to recognize such messages and that those with an optimistic outlook surpass their peers and younger adults in identifying phishing messages.

To overcome phishing fear, the study suggests training email users so that they:

  • recognize characteristics and cues in phishing emails that can help differentiate these from genuine emails,
  • properly appraise phishing threats without unnecessary fear, and
  • develop coping skills such as positive thinking and productive problem-solving strategies.

Adults, especially those younger than 55, may find such training helpful because, according to the study, they are more likely to engage in counterproductive coping actions.

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  • fear plays a role in ability to cope with cyberattacks
Fear of phishing can impair coping strategies.
Ashwin Rao, MYRA Business School

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