'Information-rich' emails aid phishing scams

'Information-rich' emails that include graphics, logos and other brand markers which communicate authenticity may be driving the incredible spread of email phishing scams, researchers, including those of Indian-origin, have found.

New York: 'Information-rich' emails that include graphics, logos and other brand markers which communicate authenticity may be driving the incredible spread of email phishing scams, researchers, including those of Indian-origin, have found.

In the first study of its kind, scientists found evidence that phishers' increased use of 'information-rich' emails alter recipients' cognitive processes in a way that facilitates their victimisation.

Arun Vishwanath, professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, and co-author of the study, said 'information-rich' emails contain text which is carefully framed to sound personal, arrest attention and invoke fear.

It often will include a deadline for response for which the recipient must use a link to a spoof 'response' website. Such sites, set up by the phisher, can install spyware that data mines the victim's computer for usernames, passwords, address books and credit card information.

"We found that these information-rich lures are successful because they are able to provoke in the victim a feeling of social presence, which is the sense that they are corresponding with a real person," Vishwanath said.

"'Presence' makes a message feel more personal, reduces distrust and also provokes heuristic processing, marked by less care in evaluating and responding to it," he said.

"In these circumstances, we found that if the message asks for personal information, people are more likely to hand it over, often very quickly," he said.

"In this study such an information-rich phishing message triggered a victimisation rate of 68 per cent among participants," he added.

The study involved 125 undergraduate university students - a group often targeted by phishers - who were sent an experimental phishing email from a Gmail account prepared for use in the study.

The message used a reply-to address and sender's address, both of which included the name of the university.

The email was framed to emphasise urgency and invoke fear. It said there was an error in the recipients' student email account settings that required them to use an enclosed link to access their account settings and resolve the problem.

They had to do so within a short time period, they were told, otherwise they would no longer have access to the account.

Vishwanath said 49 participants replied to the phishing request immediately and another 36 replied after a reminder.

The respondents then completed a five-point scale that measured their use of systemic (critical thinking) and heuristic information processing in deciding what to do with the email.
When a few other variables were factored in, the phishing attack had an overall success rate of 68 per cent.

Raghav Rao, a graduate student in the Department of Management Science and Systems in the UB School of Management, was co-author of the study presented at the 48th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences at the University of Hawaii.

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