Toward an Understanding of the Online Consumer's Risky Behavior and Protection Practices

By Milne, George R.; Labrecque, Lauren I. et al. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Toward an Understanding of the Online Consumer's Risky Behavior and Protection Practices


Milne, George R., Labrecque, Lauren I., Cromer, Cory, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


This research draws upon protection motivation theory and social cognitive theory to investigate the extent to which the level of perceived threat and likelihood of threat along with online self-efficacy affect online behaviors. This article contributes to the literature by investigating a wide range of risky and protective behaviors and examining the role of online self-efficacy with a national online survey of 449 nonstudent respondents. Results show that both self-efficacy and demographic factors such as age have a differential impact on the type of behaviors taken online.

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Self regulatory policy in the United States requires consumers to be, in part, responsible for their online behaviors and to protect their privacy and security. To do this, consumers must have an understanding of online security and privacy risks (Miyazaki and Fernandez 2001), what is happening to their data, what tools are available to protect them, and they must have the skills to do something about it. Research has suggested that consumers' level of awareness and skills vary, and that education is needed as a corrective prescription (LaRose and Rifon 2007a).

For consumers to educate themselves and acquire such skills takes time and continued effort to be current with evolving technologies (LaRose, Rifon, and Enbody 2008). Indeed, consumers face a continuing array of privacy and security threats while shopping online. New tracking devices such as web bugs are being used and identity theft has been growing (Jakobsson and Myers 2006), while the opportunity for connecting to the Internet has expanded through the creation of a wide variety of abundant computing devices and increasing public online access points. Much has been made about the fact that consumers say they are concerned with their privacy, yet they continue to shop online and divulge personal information. Some take prudent actions to protect themselves, whereas others take risks with their personal information and security. Such a paradox exists at the macro societal level, and not until recently has investigation begun at the individual level (Norberg, Home and Home 2007). In this article, we examine what variables lead consumers to make adaptive or maladaptive responses in the face of privacy and security threats. Adaptive behaviors are actions taken with an online business to keep information safe. Maladaptive behaviors are avoidance responses that are driven by a more general fear of online shopping. In addition, our research examines factors that lead consumers to conduct protective and risky online behaviors. These factors are not specific to online shopping, but rather address other activities conducted online. Risky behaviors are specific computer-based actions that put people at risk, whereas protective behaviors are specific computer-based actions that consumers take to keep their information safe.

More broadly, the purpose of our research is to examine how consumers' perception of the threat and likelihood of threat associated with online experiences affects the decision to engage in these behaviors. Importantly, in this research we examine the extent to which a consumer' s self-efficacy directly affects protection choices and also moderates the relationship between threat and protection decisions. We examine self-efficacy's role in terms of both security and privacy, which are intrinsically linked (Miyazaki and Fernandez 2001). Our research contributes to the growing literature using protection motivation theory and social cognitive theory to understand privacy behaviors (Rifon, LaRose and Lewis 2007; Milne, Cromer and Culnan 2006; LaRose and Rifon 2007a) by examining how self-efficacy affects (1) maladaptive and adaptive shopping behaviors and (2)protective and risky computer-based behaviors outside of an experimental context with a large sample of US online shoppers. By focusing on the online behaviors that either put consumers at risk or serve to protect them, we develop a more nuanced understanding of what background and contextual factors lead individuals to make such decisions. …

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