Applied Cognitive Psychology

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Perceptual representation of spam and phishing emails

Summary Understanding how computer users allocate attention to features of potentially dangerous emails could help mitigate costly errors. Which features are salient? How stable is attention allocation across variation in email features? We attempted to measure the mental salience of several email features common in spam and/or phishing emails. We created two email sets: one in which messages contained company logos and urgent actionable links and one without these features. Participants rated pairwise similarity of emails within each set. Multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis was conducted to quantify psychological similarity between emails. A separate group rated the same emails for presence of five other features: important downloadable content, collecting personal information, account deletion or suspension, advertisement, and large images with clickable content. Regressing feature ratings onto the MDS coordinates revealed that similarity judgments were influenced mostly by advertisement/large images and collecting personal information, regardless of presence or absence of company logos and urgent actionable links.

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