Why Me? What Makes Some People More Susceptible to Online Fraud?

With an increasing amount of online fraud being conducted in the form of “phishing” emails, a recent paper looked at the cognitive and emotional characteristics of younger and older adults that might make them more susceptible to this type of fraud.

Researchers measured cognition, emotion, and level of trust in others in study participants in three age groups (18–37, 62–74, and 75–89). Participants were asked to use the internet for three weeks during the study. Unbeknownst to participants, the study team sent 21 simulated phishing emails to participants. These emails employed common techniques in malicious emails to obtain personal information or to get the user to click on an unsafe link. After the 21 days of internet use, participants were asked to rate a different set of malicious emails on how likely they were to click on each, to measure “susceptibility awareness.”

Over the course of the study, about 57 percent of participants did not click on a malicious email. (There were no differences among the three age groups.)

When cognitive tests were taken into account, the researchers found only participants in the 75 to 89 age group showed an association between poorer performance on a word recall test and a greater likelihood of clicking on a malicious email.

As for the emotional tests, those individuals between 65 and 75 and 75 to 89 with fewer reported positive emotions were more likely to click on the malicious email, but this was not the case for the youngest group. Scores on interpersonal trust showed no association with clicking on the malicious emails.

In terms of susceptibility awareness, participants in the 25 to 39 and 65 to 74 age groups with higher category fluency scores showed lower susceptibility awareness. However, the opposite was found in the oldest group. On the emotional tests, the 25 to 39 and 75 to 84 age groups with greater positive emotions showed greater susceptibility awareness, but this was not seen in the 65 to 74 age group. Interpersonal trust showed no significant association.

Overall, these findings provide insights into factors that might impact resilience against or susceptibility to online phishing scams. And the fact that just under half of all participants clicked on at least one phishing email points to the need for greater education about online scams for all age groups.



Ebner NC, Ellis DM, Lin T, et al. Uncovering susceptibility risk to online deception in aging. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. (2018). DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gby036

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