Spearphishing: It's Curiosity That Makes Them Click

Researchers prove that people can be fooled just because they want to know what’s on the other end of that email. Here are three steps you can take without spending too much money.

BLACK HAT USA – Las Vegas – If it was curiosity that killed the cat, it can also be the reason organizations can experience a costly spear phishing attack.

In research conducted by Zinaida Benenson, who studies human factors in security at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, Benenson and her colleagues learned that 34 percent of those who clicked on a test survey they emailed out to select students did so out of curiosity.

Benenson conducted two separate tests in which students were prompted to click on an email that allegedly contained pictures from a recent New Year’s Eve party.

“Many admitted that they didn’t know the sender, but they wanted to see what was in the pictures,” Benenson told attendees last week at a special briefing at the Black Hat conference.

Benenson added that 78 percent knew that the links could be dangerous – but they still clicked. On a more positive note, 51 percent said they did not click because they did not know the identity of the sender.

“Some of the respondents said they did not see any reason to look up private pictures of a stranger who obviously made a mistake,” she added.

The participants were recruited to conduct a survey about “online behavior.” They were not told that the true purpose of the study was to conduct research on spear phishing. Each participant was given an online shopping voucher as an incentive. The messages were then sent three weeks later — enough time so the initial contact with the professor’s group was out of mind. In the first study, 45 percent “really” clicked, and an additional 20 percent “reported” clicking. 

Based on her research, here are some key takeaways for security managers looking to prevent spear phishing at their organizations:

Be cautious about what defense the company puts into practice. People won’t and can’t abstain from decisional heuristics. They will constantly be making snap decisions and can err on the side of clicking even if all the warning signs of a phishing attempt are present. Companies also don’t want to put people in what Benenson calls “James Bond” mode in which they are constantly on the lookout for a dangerous email. Managers want people to be aware of the threat, not scared to death.

Pen testing and patching humans is tricky, so gain consent of the staff. Whatever techniques the company decides on to prevent spear phishing and train the staff, it’s important to gain consent of the employees. Think about the implications of any tests or training on the employees and the company at large. 

Spend time talking to the users. Automated observations and measurements are not enough. Talk directly to the staff about their experiences with questionable emails, ask for their opinions on the topic, what they look for, and find out more about how they actually do their work.

Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

More Insights