Phishing email

Discover the risks and tactics of phishing emails, a prevalent online threat. Learn to identify and safeguard against these deceptive attacks to protect your sensitive information.


What is a phishing email?

A phishing email is a fraudulent message crafted to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information like passwords or credit card numbers. These emails often imitate legitimate sources, like banks or popular websites, to appear credible. They aim to exploit a person’s trust in these institutions, persuading them to provide personal information, clicking on malicious links, or download attachments containing malware.

How to recognize a phishing email?

Key indicators of phishing emails include generic greetings, spelling and grammar mistakes (although not always), and urgent or threatening language that pressures the recipient to act quickly.

Suspicious links or attachments and sender email addresses that don’t match the legitimate organization they claim to represent are also telltale signs. Additionally, requests for sensitive information, which legitimate organizations typically won’t ask for via email, are a red flag.

Examples of phishing emails

Some well-known examples of these scams include a PayPal phishing attack, an IRS scam, and a Google Docs scam, each of which employs distinct tactics to deceive targets:

  1. PayPal phishing attack: This scam involves emails that appear to come from PayPal, often with convincing logos and formatting. The emails usually claim there’s an issue with the recipient’s account and asks them to click a link to verify or update their account information. The link leads to a fake PayPal website designed to look authentic, where victims unknowingly enter their login credentials, which are then stolen by the scammers.
  2. IRS scam: In this phishing attack, individuals receive emails that seemingly come from the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The emails often create a sense of urgency, claiming that there’s an issue with the recipient’s taxes or tax return. They typically ask for personal and financial information, under the guise of resolving the issue. However, the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers via email to request personal or financial information.
  3. Google Docs scam: This scam involves emails that invite recipients to view a document on Google Docs. The email might appear to come from someone the person knows, which is part of the deception. Clicking the link in the email does not lead to a real Google Docs page but rather to a malicious website which may be designed to steal Google account credentials or install malware on the victim’s computer.

In all these cases, the common thread is the use of deceptive emails that mimic legitimate sources to trick individuals into giving away sensitive information. It’s crucial to be vigilant and scrutinize emails for authenticity, especially when they request personal information or direct the recipient to an external website.

Why are phishing emails dangerous?

The dangers of phishing emails are significant. They can lead to identity theft, financial loss, and malware infections. Victims may face unauthorized transactions, loss of control over personal accounts, and long-term damage to their credit score. The personal impact of these threats includes stress, loss of privacy, and potential legal issues if one’s identity is used for illegal activities.

What happens if you open a phishing email?

Opening a phishing email itself is generally not enough to compromise your computer with viruses or malware. These malicious elements are usually triggered when you download an attachment or click on a link within the email. However, opening the email can alert the sender that your email address is active, potentially leading to more phishing attempts. It’s crucial to remain vigilant and avoid interacting with any suspicious content within such emails.

What happens if you answer a phishing email?

Responding to phishing emails is risky for several clear reasons. Even if you know it’s a fake email, replying can lead to more trouble. Most phishing attacks are run automatically, and when you respond, it puts you on the scammer’s radar. Remember, these cybercriminals are often involved in illegal activities and can be harmful.

Firstly, if you reply to a phishing email, you accidentally give the scammer your personal or your company’s email signature. This signature usually includes phone numbers and other details, which the scammer can use to make more convincing fake emails to trick you and others.

Secondly, when you reply, it tells the scammer that your email is in use. This makes you a bigger target for future scams. Your email address might even be sold to other cybercriminals.

Lastly, your email’s technical details can give away your location. This means scammers can figure out where you are, which adds to the risk.

How to report a phishing email

Reporting phishing attempts is a critical step in protecting yourself and others from online scams. The Federal Trade Commission, a US government agency responsible for consumer protection, offers a platform for individuals to report phishing. This helps in tracking and mitigating such scams.

To report a phishing incident:

  1. If you’ve received a phishing email, you can forward it to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at their email address,
  2. In the case of phishing via text message, forward the message to the number 7726, which corresponds to ‘SPAM’ on most phone keypads.
  3. Lastly, you can also report the phishing attempt directly to the FTC. This can be done through their website,

Each report contributes to the fight against these fraudulent activities, helping the FTC and other organizations to track and stop scammers.

What are common themes of phishing emails?

Phishing emails, designed to trick recipients into divulging sensitive information, often share common themes:

  1. Urgency: Many phishing emails create a sense of urgency, pressing you to act quickly. This might be a claim that your account will be closed, a threat of legal action, or a limited-time offer.
  2. Requests for personal information: These emails frequently ask for personal details like passwords, social security numbers, bank account information, or credit card numbers.
  3. Suspicious links or attachments: Phishing emails often contain links or attachments that the sender urges you to click on or open. These can lead to malicious websites or download malware onto your device.
  4. Spoofed sender information: Phishing emails might appear to be from legitimate sources, such as banks, government agencies, or well-known companies. They often mimic the look and feel of official communications.
  5. Grammatical and spelling errors: While not always the case, many phishing emails contain noticeable spelling and grammar mistakes.
  6. Threatening or alarming messages: Some phishing attempts use intimidation, like the threat of a fine or accusing you of illegal activities, to provoke a response.
  7. Offers that are too good to be true: They may promise unexpected windfalls, like winning a lottery or receiving an inheritance from a distant relative.
  8. Unsolicited requests: Phishing emails often come unbidden and may pertain to a service or a product you never used or an account you never opened.

Recognizing these themes can help you identify and avoid falling victim to phishing scams.

The senders of phishing emails face legal consequences under various consumer protection laws. In many countries phishing is considered a criminal offense, and perpetrators can be prosecuted for fraud, identity theft, and cybercrimes. The exact penalties vary by jurisdiction but can include substantial fines and imprisonment.

Related articles:

What is phishing?

What is a whaling attack (whale phishing)?

What is smishing?

What is spear phishing?


What does a phishing mail try to do?

A phishing email aims to deceive recipients into sharing sensitive information. It often                 appears as an urgent message from a trusted source, leading users to inadvertently reveal      personal details like login credentials or credit card numbers through links or attachments in       the email.