Do psychological differences make some people more vulnerable to being deceived online?

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The Psychology of Internet Fraud Victimisation: a Systematic Review

Internet-based fraud is a fast-growing crime. Although fraud studies often refer to psychological explanations such as impulsiveness and loneliness, their actual use of established behavioral theories and methods is often limited.

Norris et al. conducted a systematic review of the literature relating to how victims respond to fraudulent communications. They restricted their search to empirical examinations of established psychological theories, from peer-reviewed journals, conference presentations and book chapters in English. The authors then categorized the 34 articles they obtained in three categories of decision-making cues.

Message factors : How fraudulent messages are framed to hook their target and maximize their enticement potential.
Experiential factors : How knowledge of internet scams and computer experience can help make individuals more resilient to fraud.
Dispositional factors : How personality and cognitive ability are related to fraud susceptibility.

The review underlined the importance of the content of scam messages and of the device on which they are received. Messages presenting as from a credible source, requiring a quick response and responded to on a smartphone were more effective. Computer experience and expertise also appeared to lead to resilience. People with higher levels of security knowledge and better email processing abilities were less susceptible to phishing attempts. However, it was also clear that whilst message content and internet experience have some predictive ability, they cannot alone explain how a person becomes a victim of web-based fraud. Dispositional factors, such as motivation and personality, appear to be key in determining how messages and experiences are processed. Unfortunately, research has not settled on a common set of psychological principles explaining an increased likelihood of victimization.

This study highlighted the rarity of empirical examinations of online fraud based on established psychological theory. The majority of the 1036 papers initially extracted discussed other fraud types (corporate, academic), did not focus on individual factors or did not include at least one established and testable theory. The review of the 34 included papers then indicated no clear agreement on a set of applicable psychological principles.

The evidence currently supporting online fraud literature is limited and too often anecdotal, which can lead to misleading myths. Additional research with a theoretically and practically informed agenda is necessary in this important and growing field, so that we can provide individuals most at risk of fraud with targeted preventative measures. Mood as a factor in how people think about potentially fraudulent messages could present an overlooked area that could prove fruitful.

Dispositional factors, such as motivation and personality, appear to be the key mediating factor determining how message and experiential factors are processed.