Have low self-control when it comes to online sales? You may be at high risk for cybercrime

EAST LANSING, Mich. — If you find yourself drawn to a daily Amazon spree or you can’t resist checking your email inbox throughout the day for those frequent sales from your favorite online retailers, there’s a good chance you don’t have the greatest self-control. And if you’ve got low self-control, there’s a good chance you’ll fall victim to cybercrime, a recent study finds.

Researchers at Michigan State University found that impulsive online shopping, downloading music, and compulsive email use are common behaviors associated with low self-control. Identifying whether or not a person has the personality trait could help prevent them from having their identity stolen or computer held for ransom.

“People who show signs of low self-control are the ones we found more susceptible to malware attacks,” says lead author Tomas Holt, professor of criminal justice at MSU, in a release. “An individual’s characteristics are critical in studying how cybercrime perseveres, particularly the person’s impulsiveness and the activities that they engage in while online that have the greatest impact on their risk.”

Low self-control can manifest itself in many ways, according to Holt and his team. Typically, a person with this type of personality may demonstrate negligence, make short-sighted decisions, or has little patience, instead requiring instant gratification. They also tend to hang with the wrong crowd.

“Self-control is an idea that’s been looked at heavily in criminology in terms of its connection to committing crimes,” says Holt. “But we find a correlation between low self-control and victimization; people with this trait put themselves in situations where they are near others who are motivated to break the law.”

The study examined 6,000 survey participants, and tested for strength of self-control. The team compared their results, interestingly enough, with self-reported behaviors of each individual’s computer that could indicate signs of malware or virus infection. That is, respondents were asked if their machines crashed frequently, had shoddy processing, dealt with frequent pop-up ads, or had instances of the homepage on their browsers changing often.

Hackers and other cybercriminals tend to prey on people with low self-control, targeting websites where the at-risk segment is likely to make a download or spend significant time.

“The internet has omnipresent risks,” says Holt. “In an online space, there is constant opportunity for people with low self-control to get what they want, whether that is pirated movies or deals on consumer goods.”

The research will be useful for experts hoping to fight back against cybercriminals, especially for those who are most prone to being victimized. Simply understanding the behaviors and personality traits of those who fall prey to hackers can help software engineers design smarter solutions to stop a cybercrime before it happens.

“If we can identify risk factors, we can work in tandem with technical fields to develop strategies that then reduce the risk factors for infection,” says Holt. “It’s a pernicious issue we’re facing, so if we can attack from both fronts, we can pinpoint the risk factors and technical strategies to find solutions that improve protection for everyone.”

The study was published October 25, 2018 in the journal Social Science Computer Review.