Online tool can measure individuals’ likelihood to fall for internet scams

Researchers have developed an online questionnaire which measures a range of personality traits to identify individuals who are more likely to fall victim to internet scams and other forms of cybercrime.

The psychometric tool, developed by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Helsinki, asks participants to answer a range of questions in order to measure how likely they are to respond to persuasive techniques. The test, called Susceptibility to Persuasion II (StP-II) is freely available and consists of the StP-II scale and several other questions to understand persuadability better. A brief, automated, interpretation of the results is displayed at the end of the questionnaire.

The results of the test can be used to predict who will be more likely to become a victim of cybercrime, although the researchers say that StP-II could also be used for hiring in certain professions, for the screening of military personnel or to establish the psychological characteristics of criminal hackers. Their results are reported in the journal PLOS One.

“Scams are essentially like marketing offers, except they’re illegal,” said paper’s first author Dr David Modic from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “Just like in advertising, elements of consumer psychology and behavioural economics all come into the design of an online scam, which is why it’s useful to know which personality traits make people susceptible to them.”

Modic and his colleagues at the University of Exeter designed an initial version of the test five years ago that yielded solid results but was not sufficiently detailed. The new version is far more comprehensive and robust.

“We are not aware of an existing scale that would measure all the constructs that are part of StP-II,” said Modic, who is also a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge. “There are existing scales that measure individual traits, but when combined, the sheer length of these scales would present the participant with a psychometric tool that is almost unusable.”

The questions in StP-II fall into 10 categories, measuring different traits which might make people more susceptible to fraud: the ability to premeditate, consistency, sensation seeking, self-control, social influence, need for similarity, attitude towards risk, attitude towards advertising, cognition and uniqueness. Participants are given a score out of seven in each of the ten areas.

Using a large data set obtained from a collaboration with the BBC, the researchers found that the strongest predictor was the ability to premeditate: individuals who fail to consider the possible consequences of a particular action are more likely to engage with a fraudster. However, they found that the likelihood of falling for one of the measured categories of Internet fraud is partially explained by at least one of the mechanisms in StP-II.

“Over the past ten years, crime, like everything else, has moved online,” said co-author Professor Ross Anderson, also from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science. “This year, about a million UK households will be the victim of typical household crime, such as burglary, where the average victim is an elderly working-class woman. However, now 2.5 million households will be the victims of an online or electronic scam, where the victims are younger and more educated. Crime is moving upmarket.”

“Scams have been around for hundreds of years, and over the centuries, they haven’t really changed that much – the only difference now is with the internet, it requires a lot less effort to do it,” said Modic.

The researchers say that despite the changing demographics of crime victims, there isn’t a ‘typical victim of cybercrime. “Older generations might be seen as less internet-savvy, but younger generations are both more exposed to scams and might be seen as more impulsive,” said co-author Jussi Palomӓki, from the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Science Unit. “There isn’t a specific age range – there are many different risk factors.”

“The immediate benefit of StP-II is that people will get an indication of the sorts of things they should look out for – I’m not saying it’s a sure-fire way that they will not be scammed, but there are things they should be aware of,” said Modic. “StP-II doesn’t just measure how likely you are to fall for scams, it’s how likely you are to change your behaviour.”

Ross Anderson’s blog on the paper can be found at: https://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2018/03/16/we-will-make-you-like-our-research/.

David Modic, Ross Anderson and Jussi Palomäki. ‘We will make you like our research: The development of a susceptibility-to-persuasion scale.’ PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194119

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