Half of US Susceptible to Online Scams, Study Finds

May 31, 2012 Updated: June 5, 2012

If you browse the Web, chances are you’ve seen alerts saying you’re the millionth viewer or offering a vague “work from home” opportunity. Or maybe you’ve received emails saying you’re the heir to $52 million, and you just need to wire over some money for the transfer.

Despite the seemingly obvious nature of these scams, a study found that close to half the people targeted by them are likely to fall victim. The study was conducted by digital security company PC Tools, and the Ponemon Institute, a think tank that researches privacy and data protection.

The results drift away from some stereotypes: young people, between 18 and 25, were more likely to fall for the attacks than elderly users. The findings, according to Eric Klein, marketing manager at PC Tools, ran “contrary to what we expected because we think they’re the more tech savvy users.”

“The customer behavior didn’t actually match up with what the perception was. And to us, that means that consumers are still out there, and they are still very at risk of some of these threats,” he said.

Klein said women were more likely to fall victim, as were people living in the southwestern United States. Also, education and income came into play—people without high school diplomas and in the income range of $25,000 to $50,000 were more vulnerable.

They also checked political parties, finding that people in the Green Party were the least likely to be duped.

Klein said the new forms of scams tie into an emerging trend. Online scams, he said, have been moving away from the conventional malware, and into “behavioral tricks that cybercriminals were starting to play on users online.”

“We saw this trend develop over several months—even years—and we wanted to start getting to the root of the issue, understanding what that meant to customers. Are they aware that these threats are out there, that they’re changing, and if they are aware, does that have an impact on their behavior as well?” he said.

The study was done with both a first party and a third party. They polled people across the United States, with questions about themselves and people they know.

“We were really surprised that in the first party contract, in what do you do, a lot of people acknowledged the fact that they would fall prey to the different scams we presented. It was very surprising that in many cases in the U.S., it was more than half of respondents said they would in fact do something that could be a scam,” said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute.

Klein said they ran respondents through several scenarios, and “in general, most customers were aware of the types of threats we positioned in front of them.”

“A large percentage of U.S. respondents, in particular, were aware that oftentimes that those could have malicious intent, but a very large percentage responded that they would still be likely to provide personal or financial information in some of those test scenarios,” Klein said.

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