What is a Phishing Email Attack? And Why It’s a Big Deal

what is phishing email cover with a hook and sim card

Imagine getting an email from the Small Business Administration about a $100,000 loan you qualified for. 

That’s exactly what happened to Emily. With plans to expand her business, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So, she started filling out the attached form without thinking twice. 

But soon, red flags appeared – unusual requests for personal and financial information. Then, Emily noticed a misspelling in the email address, and it hit her: this was a scam. But her personal data was already compromised, and her bank account took a hit.

This experience with phishing emails is a lesson we can all learn from. So, let’s unpack the definition and purpose of email phishing and arm you with the knowledge to spot and sidestep these online traps. 


Table of Contents


Phishing Emails Defined

Phishing is a type of online scam where scammers send emails or messages that appear to be from a legitimate source, like a bank, a government agency, or a familiar company. 

What’s the goal behind phishing emails? 

They want to trick you into giving away sensitive information, such as passwords, bank account numbers, or credit card details.

Phishing scams often direct you to bogus websites that closely mimic legitimate ones. These websites are designed to look real, with logos, colors, and layouts that match the genuine sites they’re impersonating. 

Once on these fake sites, they ask you to enter personal information. The scammers then capture this information and use it for fraudulent activities or identity theft. 


Real-Life Examples of Phishing Emails

If you think phishing attacks are harmless, think again. Some of the most sophisticated hacking incidents in recent history involve phishing. Let’s cover a few of them to give you an idea of what’s possible. 

The 2016 DNC Email Leak

In one of the most notorious phishing attacks in recent history, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) fell victim to a sophisticated phishing scam during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Attackers sent phishing emails to DNC staff resembling legitimate Google security alerts. These emails contained links leading to fake Google login pages. When staff entered their credentials, the attackers gained access to their emails, leading to a significant data breach.

The Google Docs Phishing Attack

In 2017, a widespread phishing scam targeted users with a deceptive invitation to edit a Google Docs document. The email appeared to come from a known contact. 

When users clicked the link, they were taken to a real Google sign-in screen, then asked to grant permissions to a malicious third-party app. 

The Twitter Bitcoin Scam

In 2020, a complex phishing operation targeted Twitter employees, which compromised high-profile Twitter accounts. The attackers initially used phone spear phishing to manipulate Twitter employees into providing credentials that gave them access to Twitter’s internal systems. 

They then hijacked several prominent accounts, such as celebrities and politicians, to promote a Bitcoin scam. 


What Is the Purpose of Email Phishing?

Phishing on its own is a deceptive technique to get unauthorized access. Once the attacker gets that access, they can use it for a variety of purposes. 

Here are the main reasons for sending phishing emails:

  1. Financial gain: This is the most common goal. Scammers steal money directly by obtaining banking details, credit card numbers, or convincing victims to transfer funds under false pretenses.
  2. Identity theft: Phishers often gather personal information to impersonate victims. They use this information to make unauthorized purchases or open new accounts under the victim’s name.
  3. Access: Some phishing attacks target login information for individual accounts or corporate networks. If an attacker gets access to this information, they can steal sensitive data.
  4. Spreading malware: Many phishing emails contain malicious attachments or links. Once you click on these links, they might infect your device with malware to steal your data or lock it and ask for a ransom. 

Phishing attacks have a wide-ranging impact that goes beyond email security. Many victims often experience anxiety and lose their trust in digital communications. 

Organizations also stand to lose a lot. A successful attack can damage the company’s reputation or even cause legal problems. 


What’s the Difference Between Phishing and Spoofing?

Phishing and spoofing often get tangled up in discussions about online security. It’s easy to see why – both involve deception and misuse of information. Plus, it’s rare to see one happen without the other. 

In a nutshell, phishing is an attempt to trick you into giving up secret information, while email spoofing is an attempt to impersonate someone for any reason. 

Let’s explain. 

With phishing, attackers send misleading mass emails that mimic legitimate sources. The goal is to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers.

Spoofing is a broader concept. It involves impersonating someone else to appear as a trusted, legitimate source. The objective can include stealing sensitive information, sabotaging someone’s reputation, or causing public panic. Plus, spoofing can happen across various platforms – not just emails, but also phone calls, websites, SMS, and other means of communication.

Here’s a quick comparison of email phishing and email spoofing: 

FeaturePhishingSpoofing
Primary goalTo trick recipients into revealing sensitive information To disguise the attacker’s identity, for various reasons, including phishing.
Common mediumTypically emails or online messages.Emails, phone calls, SMS, websites, and more.
MethodOften involves a lure, like a link or attachment in an email.More about the disguise itself, without necessarily including a lure.
ScopeSpecifically focused on information theft.Broader in scope, used in various cyberattacks including phishing.
Comparing phishing and spoofing

What’s the Difference Between Phishing and Spam?

It’s common to hear the terms phishing and spam used as if they’re the same thing. But they actually have a different purpose and impact. 

Phishing is a specific kind of deception. But spam has to do with those emails that fill up your inbox with stuff you didn’t ask for. These can be annoying advertisements, random offers, or sometimes even attempts to spread malware. 

While phishing is about stealing your sensitive information, spam email senders care more about volume — casting a wide net and seeing who bites. And it’s often for advertising but sometimes for more malicious purposes. 

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two: 

FeaturePhishingSpam
Primary intentTo steal sensitive information for malicious use. Advertise products or services, but it can include malicious intents like spreading malware. 
TargetingTargeted and personalized to trick specific individuals or groups.Sent in bulk to a wide audience, usually without personal targeting.
Content styleMimics legitimate sources and includes links or attachments.Range from harmless ads to malicious content, but lacks sophisticated personalization
ImpactCan lead to significant personal or organizational harm, such as financial loss or data breaches.Generally more of a nuisance, but can pose risks if it includes malicious links or content.
Comparing phishing and spam

What Are the Signs of a Phishing Email?

Being able to spot a phishing email is a crucial line of defense. We all receive so many emails daily that it can be easy to miss the warning signs, especially when we’re rushing through our inboxes. 

Here are a few points to watch out for:

  • Fake email addresses: The sender’s email might look almost identical to a real company’s email address, with only minor differences.
  • Unknown senders acting friendly: Be careful with unfamiliar senders who act like they have a relationship with you. This is often a tactic to lower your guard. 
  • Urgent or threatening language: These emails often create a sense of urgency or fear, prompting you to act quickly without thinking.
  • Requests for personal information: They typically ask you to provide personal details, which legitimate organizations would never request via email.
  • Suspicious links or attachments: Phishing emails often contain links that lead to fake websites or attachments that can harm your computer.
  • Spelling and grammar mistakes: Professional emails are usually well-written. Poor grammar and spelling can be signs of a phishing attempt.
  • Unrealistic offers: Offers that seem too generous or incredible might be baits to lure you into a scam.

How to Protect Yourself from Phishing Attacks

To protect yourself against phishing, your first line of defense is always personal vigilance. Being alert and informed can make all the difference. Security tools can protect you in some cases, but in most situations, it comes down to how aware and prepared you are.

Always check the sender’s email address to make sure it’s valid. Be skeptical of emails from unknown sources. If you receive an unusual email from a known contact, call them to verify the request. 

If the message is from a business or organization, don’t use any contact information in the email itself. Instead, go to the official website by typing the URL directly into your browser or use a trusted contact number.

Also, consider these email security best practices for your protection:

  • Be wary of sharing personal information: Be cautious about personal information you share online. Scammers often use this data to tailor their attacks and write more convincing emails. 
  • Be cautious with links: Don’t click on links from suspicious emails. Hover over links to see where they lead. If you’re on a mobile device, long-press the link to preview the destination without opening it. You can also use a URL redirect checker, such as WhereGoes
  • Don’t download attachments: ISPs usually prevent sending executable files as attachments. But even a seemingly harmless ZIP or PDF file can contain malware. Never download attachments from people you don’t completely trust. 
  • Use strong, unique passwords: Create strong passwords for all your accounts and don’t reuse them. This way, if an attacker gets access to one of your accounts, they won’t be able to infiltrate others. Also, consider using a password manager, such as LastPass or 1Password, for better email security. 
  • Enable two-factor authentication (2FA): 2FA requires a second form of verification to log you into your account. So, if someone steals your passwords, they still can’t get in without the second code, which will be on your phone. 2FA can make signing in a bit inconvenient, so you can enable it for your most critical accounts if you want. 
  • Regularly update your software: Keep all your software, especially antivirus and security programs, up to date to protect against the latest security threats.
  • Back up important data: Regularly back up your important data. This way, you’ll have a recovery option in case a phishing attack leads to data loss.

What Happens if You Answer a Phishing Email?

Opening a phishing email is usually not harmful. Virtually all modern communications use email encryption and have SSL protection. The real danger lies in the actions that you take after opening the message. 

If your answer to a phishing email doesn’t contain sensitive information, you still have nothing to worry about. The scammer will probably try to keep the conversation going to get more information. But you can stop responding at any time and prevent damage. 

If you realize that you’ve disclosed personal or financial information by answering a phishing email, here are the steps you should take immediately:

  1. Reach out to your bank or credit card company as soon as possible. Inform them about the potential breach so they can watch for suspicious activity and, if necessary, freeze or secure your accounts.
  2. Change your compromised passwords immediately. This applies not only to the accounts directly compromised but also to other accounts where you might have used the same passwords.
  3. Inform other people who may be involved. If the exposed information could affect others, like coworkers, family members, or people in the CC field, let them know so they can also take protective measures.
  4. Keep a close eye on your financial statements and credit reports for any unusual activities or unauthorized transactions in the following weeks and months.

We also recommend reporting the incident so that the scammers can’t continue exploiting people. 

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have mechanisms to let you report phishing emails both through their email services and websites. If you live in the US, you can report phishing emails to the Anti-Phishing Work Group (APWG) or through the FTC Complaint Assistant on their website.

If the phishing attempt is related to your work or you used a company device, report it to your company’s IT department. They can take steps to secure the network and alert other employees.


Why Does Phishing Work?

Phishing is still a significant threat, despite widespread awareness. 

Phishing Exploits Human Psychology

One of the biggest reasons phishing attempts succeed is because they tap into basic human psychology; they manipulate emotions and decision-making processes in subtle yet effective ways.

For example:

  • Fear and urgency: Many phishing emails create a sense of panic or urgency, getting recipients to act quickly without thinking. This might involve warnings about a compromised account or urgent requests for action to avoid negative consequences.
  • Curiosity: Some phishing attempts lure recipients with tempting offers. The promise of a prize or an exclusive deal can tempt people into clicking malicious links or sharing personal information.
  • The illusion of authority: Phishers typically present themselves as figures of authority. Their emails mimic an official tone as if written by well-known organizations or authorities. This way, they exploit the human tendency to comply with requests from perceived superiors.

Phishing Attacks Continue to Get More Sophisticated

You probably remember the Nigerian Prince who needed help transferring his fortune out of the country. The scam was widespread in the 1990s and 2000s, and it went like this: 

The “Prince” asked the victim to send him a small amount of money to help him unfreeze his assets. Then promised to return the favor when he got his money back, which never happened.  

The scam was too far-fetched, but still, some people fell for it. Phishing emails and websites have come a long way since then. 

Modern phishing attempts have three distinct characteristics: 

  • Enhanced realism: They feature meticulous designs that mimic the look and feel of legitimate sources. Phishers use well-known company logos, colors, and formatting in their emails and fake websites to create a false sense of security.
  • Convincing language: Gone are the days of poorly written content full of grammatical errors. Today’s phishing messages closely mimic the tone and style of the organization they’re impersonating. The scammers even use industry-specific jargon and phrasing to make their messages more convincing.
  • Personalization: Advanced phishing schemes go a step further by personalizing emails to include the recipient’s name or other personal information. This makes the communication seem more credible. Phishers usually gather this data from previous data breaches or social media. 

Trust and Safety in Email Marketing with Campaign Refinery

In the shadow of phishing threats, the key to successful email marketing is choosing a platform that prioritizes trust and safety as core values.

At Campaign Refinery, we understand that engaging with your users and generating consistent revenue are crucial. But it’s equally important to achieve these goals in a safe and reputable environment. 

That’s why we rigorously vet every customer before onboarding them. Our commitment to working only with reputable senders means you can focus on growing your business without the worry of being associated with scams and security breaches. 

Interested in a platform that puts safety alongside success? 

Apply to become a sender with us. Let’s explore if we can work together to keep your email marketing secure and effective.

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