Achieving a Consensual Definition of Phishing Based on a Systematic Review of the Literature

Elmer E.H. Lastdrager

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

    56 Citations (Scopus)
    352 Downloads (Pure)


    Background: Phishing is a widely known phenomenon, but currently lacks a commonly accepted definition. As a result, many studies about phishing use their own definition. The lack of a common definition prevents knowledge accumulation and makes analysing studies or aggregating data about phishing a difficult task.

    Method: To develop a definition, we used existing definitions as input and combined them using crime science theories as the theoretical framework. A systematic review of the literature up to August 2013 was conducted, resulting in 2458 publications mentioning the word phishing. All journal articles, together with both highly cited and recent conference papers were selected, giving a total of 536 peer-reviewed publications (22%) to be manually reviewed. This resulted in 113 distinct definitions to be analysed.

    Results: An analysis identified key concepts that were found in most definitions and formed the building blocks for a consensual definition. We propose a new definition that is based upon current ones, which defines phishing in a comprehensive way and - in our opinion - addresses all important elements of phishing: 'phishing is a scalable act of deception whereby impersonation is used to obtain information from a target'.

    Conclusions: A consensual definition allows future research to be aligned and it facilitates the interpretation and comparison of existing research. The findings suggest that the routine activity approach can be applied to the digital world. Finally, the 'scalability' concept of our definition provides a new theoretical notion to digital crime that is independent of the employed channel.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number9
    Number of pages10
    JournalCrime science
    Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2014


    • EC Grant Agreement nr.: FP7/2007-2013
    • EC Grant Agreement nr.: FP7/318003
    • SCS-Cybersecurity


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