Why We Click on Spam

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 06-27-2007

Money is the motivation for scam-spam. The motivation for clicking on it is far less straightforward, and none of us is immune.

"It's not like certain people are going to be nailed by spam all the time. Or that there are certain motivations that will just [always] trigger people [who respond] to spam scams. It's really the interplay between personality and motivation, emotion—all sorts of things," said Dr. James Blascovich, professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara and co-director of the university's Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior.

"It's a little more complex, but not much different from the complex interplay of psychological factors that get people to succumb to any sort of scam."

The idea that none of us are immune is the main takeaway from a report titled "Mind Games: A psychological analysis of common e-mail scams," that Blascovich and McAfee published on June 25.

While the motivations to click on spam aren't much different than those that motivate people to play Three-card Monte, the pool of potential marks—targets of a scam—is far larger on the Internet.

McAfee, of Santa Clara, Calif., throws around figures like these: If half of the population in the United States (about 150 million people) use e-mail on a daily basis, and if only half of them (75 million) are gullible, and only 1 percent (750,000) buy into scam-spam on a given day, and if those victims were to cough up a mere $20 per scam, the potential market amounts to $15 million a day, or $105 million per week, or nearly $5.5 billion per year in just the United States.

According to the report, many—or even most—e-mail users think that in addition to installing spam-filtering software tools and tagging suspect e-mail, they can mentally filter spam via subject line. McAfee notes two problems with this assumption: First, users are less likely to tag spam so as to take advantage of filtering tools. "In the short run, it is simply easier to delete a message than to take the time to remember what to do to tag and add it to a spam filter list, even though in the long run, it would save deleting never-ending repetitions of messages from the same source," the report notes.

The second problem is that subject lines have simply become more sophisticated, making successful mental filtering tricky even for sophisticated users, according to the report.

Hundreds click on 'click here to get infected' ad. Click here to read more.

These problems with mental filtering make it more important than ever to recognize the mental games spammers play, said McAfee and Blascovich.

One of the most obvious psychological characteristics necessary for scam-spam to succeed is naiveté. Among computer-savvy, young e-mail users, naiveté tends to surround legitimate business practices—i.e., the methods with which legitimate companies and organizations conduct business. Business-savvy older people, on the other hand, tend to be less computer savvy and more trustful of apparent, virtual e-businesses than younger people, according to the report.

Read the full story on eWEEK.com: Why We Click on Spam