Phishing in an Academic Community: A Study of User Susceptibility and Behavior

Alejandra Diaz, Alan T. Sherman, Anupam Joshi

We present an observational study on the relationship between demographic factors and phishing susceptibility at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). In spring 2018, we delivered phishing attacks to 450 randomly-selected students on three different days (1,350 students total) to examine user click rates and demographics among UMBC's undergraduates. Participants were initially unaware of the study. Experiment 1 claimed to bill students; Experiment 2 enticed users with monetary rewards; and Experiment 3 threatened users with account cancellation. We found correlations resulting in lowered susceptibility based on college affiliation, academic year progression, cyber training, involvement in cyber clubs or cyber scholarship programs, time spent on the computer, and age demographics. We found no significant correlation between gender and susceptibility. Contrary to our expectations, we observed greater user susceptibility with greater phishing knowledge and awareness. Students who identified themselves as understanding the definition of phishing had a higher susceptibility than did their peers who were merely aware of phishing attacks, with both groups having a higher susceptibility than those with no knowledge of phishing. Approximately 59% of subjects who opened the phishing email clicked on its phishing link, and approximately 70% of those subjects who additionally answered a demographic survey clicked.

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