Email phishing is one of the most frequent forms of cyber crime, but despite how much we think we know about these scams, they still catch us out all too often.
According to Proofpoint’s 2022 State of the Phish Report, 83% of organisations fell victim to a phishing attack last year.
Meanwhile, Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report found that 25% of all data breaches involve phishing.
These figures help explain why phishing is considered to be among the biggest cyber security risks that organisations face. With a single email, criminal hackers can steal our personal information or infect our devices with malware.
Fortunately, preventing these attacks can be as simple as knowing how to identify phishing emails.
But how do you spot a scam email? This blog uses five real-life examples to demonstrate the common signs that someone is trying to scam you.
1. The message is sent from a public email domain
No legitimate organisation will send emails from an address that ends ‘@gmail.com’.
Not even Google.
Except for some small operations, most companies will have their own email domain and email accounts. For example, genuine emails from Google will read ‘@google.com’.
If the domain name (the bit after the @ symbol) matches the apparent sender of the email, the message is probably legitimate.
By contrast, if the email comes from an address that isn’t affiliated with the apparent sender, it’s almost certainly a scam.
The most obvious way to spot a bogus email is if the sender uses a public email domain, such as ‘@gmail.com’.
In this example, you can see that the sender’s email address doesn’t align with the message’s content, which appears to be from PayPal.
However, the message itself looks realistic, and the attacker has customised the sender’s name field so that it will appear in recipients’ inboxes as ‘Account Support’.
Other phishing emails will take a more sophisticated approach by including the organisation’s name in the local part of the domain. In this instance, the address might read ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
At first glance, you might see the word ‘PayPal’ in the email address and assume it is legitimate. However, you should remember that the important part of the address is what comes after the @ symbol. This dictates the organisation from which the email has been sent.
If the email is from ‘@gmail.com’ or another public domain, you can be sure it has come from a personal account.
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2. The domain name is misspelt
There’s another clue hidden in domain names that provides a strong indication of phishing scams – unfortunately, it complicates our previous clue.
The problem is that anyone can buy a domain name from a registrar. And although every domain name must be unique, there are plenty of ways to create addresses that are indistinguishable from the one that’s being spoofed.
Take a look at this example:
Here, scammers have registered the domain ‘microsfrtfonline.com’, which to a casual reader mimics the words ‘Microsoft Online’, which could reasonably be considered a legitimate address.
Meanwhile, some fraudsters get even more creative. The Gimlet Media podcast ‘Reply All’ demonstrated that in the episode What Kind Of Idiot Gets Phished?.
Phia Bennin, the show’s producer, hired an ethical hacker to phish various employees. He bought the domain ‘gimletrnedia.com’ (that’s r-n-e-d-i-a, rather than m-e-d-i-a) and impersonated Bennin.
His scam was so successful that he tricked the show’s hosts, Gimlet Media’s CEO and its president.
As Bennin went on to explain, you don’t even need to fall victim for a criminal hacker to gain vital information.
In this scam, the ethical hacker, Daniel Boteanu, could see when the link was clicked, and in one example, that it had been opened multiple times on different devices.
He reasoned that the target’s curiosity kept bringing him back to the link but that he was suspicious enough not to follow its instructions.
I’m guessing [the target] saw that something was going on, and he started digging a bit deeper and […] trying to find out what happened […]
And I’m suspecting that after, [the target] maybe sent an email internally saying, “Hey guys! This is what I got. Just be careful. Don’t click on this […] email.
Boteanu’s theory is precisely what happened. But why does that help the hacker? Bennin elaborates:
The reason Daniel had thought [the target] had done that is because he had sent the same email to a bunch of members of the team, and after [the target] looked at it for the fourth time, nobody else clicked on it.
And that’s okay for Daniel because he can try, like, all different methods of phishing the team, and he can try it a bunch of different times. [And] since [the target is] sounding alarm bells, he probably won’t include [him] in the next phishing attempt.
Therefore, criminal hackers often still win even when you’ve thwarted their initial attempt.
That is to say, indecisiveness in spotting a phishing scam provides clues to the scammer about where the strengths and weaknesses in your organisation are.
Launching subsequent scams that use this information takes minimal effort, and they can keep doing this until they find someone who falls victim.
Remember, criminal hackers only require one mistake from one employee for their operation to be a success. Everyone in your organisation must be confident in their ability to spot a scam upon first seeing it.
3. The email is poorly written
You can often tell if an email is a scam if it contains poor spelling and grammar.
Many people will tell you that such errors are part of a ‘filtering system’ in which cyber criminals target only the most gullible people.
The theory is that if someone ignores clues about how the message is written, they’re less likely to pick up clues during the scammer’s endgame.
However, this only applies to outlandish schemes like the oft-mocked Nigerian prince scam, to which you must be incredibly naive to fall victim.
That, and scams like it, are manually operated: once someone takes to the bait, the scammer has to reply. As such, it benefits the crooks to ensure the pool of respondents contains only those who might believe the rest of the con.
But this doesn’t apply to phishing.
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- Phishing attacks: 6 reasons why we keep taking the bait
- Catches of the month: A round-up of the latest phishing scams
With phishing, scammers don’t need to monitor inboxes and send tailored responses. They simply dump thousands of crafted messages on unsuspecting people.
As such, there’s no need to filter out potential respondents. Doing so reduces the pool of potential victims and helps those who didn’t fall victim to alert others to the scam, as we saw in the earlier example with Gimlet Media.
So why are many phishing emails poorly written? In this case, the most obvious answer is the correct one: the scammers aren’t very good at writing.
Remember, many of them are from non-English-speaking countries and backgrounds where they will have limited access or opportunity to learn the language.
With this in mind, it becomes much easier to spot the difference between a typo made by a legitimate sender and a scam.
When crafting phishing messages, scammers often use a spellchecker or translation machine, giving them all the right words but not necessarily in the proper context.
Take this example of a scam imitating Windows:
No individual word is misspelt, but the message contains grammatical errors that a native speaker wouldn’t make, such as “We detected something unusual to use an application”.
Likewise, there are strings of missed words, such as “a malicious user might trying to access” and “Please contact Security Communication Center”.
These are consistent with the kinds of mistakes people make when learning English. Any supposedly official message written this way is almost certainly a scam.
That’s not to say any email with a mistake is a scam, however. Everyone makes typos from time to time, especially when they’re in a hurry.
It’s, therefore, the recipient’s responsibility to look at the context of the error and determine whether it’s a clue to something more sinister. You can do this by asking:
- Is it a common sign of a typo (like hitting an adjacent key)?
- Is it a mistake a native speaker shouldn’t make (grammatical incoherence, words used in the wrong context)?
- Is this email a template which should have been crafted and copy-edited?
- Is it consistent with previous messages I’ve received from this person?
If you’re in any doubt, look for other clues that we’ve listed here or contact the sender using another line of communication, whether in person, by phone, via their website, an alternative email address or through an instant message client.
4. It includes suspicious attachments or links
Phishing emails come in many forms. We’ve focused on emails in this article, but you might also get scam text messages, phone calls or social media posts.
But no matter how phishing emails are delivered, they all contain a payload. This will either be an infected attachment you’re asked to download or a link to a bogus website.
The purpose of these payloads is to capture sensitive information, such as login credentials, credit card details, phone numbers and account numbers.
In this next section, we’ll explain how each of those works.
An infected attachment is a seemingly benign document that contains malware.
In a typical example, like the one below, the phisher claims to be sending an invoice:
It doesn’t matter whether the recipient expects to receive an invoice from this person or not because, in most cases, they won’t be sure what the message pertains to until they open the attachment.
When they open the attachment, they’ll see that the invoice isn’t intended for them, but it will be too late. The document unleashes malware on the victim’s computer, which could perform any number of nefarious activities.
We advise that you never open an attachment unless you are confident that the message is from a legitimate party. Even then, you should look out for anything suspicious in the attachment.
For example, if you receive a pop-up warning about the file’s legitimacy or the application asks you to adjust your settings, then don’t proceed.
Contact the sender through an alternative means of communication and ask them to verify that it’s legitimate.
You can spot a suspicious link if the destination address doesn’t match the context of the rest of the email.
For example, if you receive an email from Netflix, you would expect the link to direct you towards an address that begins ‘netflix.com’.
Unfortunately, many legitimate and scam emails hide the destination address in a button, so it’s not immediately apparent where the link goes.
In this example, the scammers are claiming that there is an issue with the recipient’s Netflix subscription. The email is designed to direct them to a mock-up of Netflix’s website, where they will be prompted to enter their payment details.
The fraudsters achieve two things by including the link within a button that says ‘Update account now’.
First, it makes the message look genuine, with buttons becoming increasingly popular in emails and websites. But more importantly, it hides the destination address, making it a hyperlink.
To ensure you don’t fall for schemes like this, you must train yourself to check where links go before opening them.
Thankfully, this is straightforward: on a computer, hover your mouse over the link, and the destination address appears in a small bar along the bottom of the browser.
On a mobile device, hold down on the link, and a pop-up will appear containing the link.
5. The message creates a sense of urgency
Scammers know that most of us procrastinate. We receive an email giving us important news, and we decide we’ll deal with it later.
But the longer you think about something, the more likely you will notice things that don’t seem right.
Maybe you realise that the organisation doesn’t contact you by that email address, or you speak to a colleague and learn that they didn’t send you a document.
Even if you don’t get that ‘a-ha’ moment, returning to the message with a fresh set of eyes might help reveal its true nature.
That’s why so many scams request that you act now, or else it will be too late. This has been evident in every example we’ve used so far.
PayPal, Windows and Netflix provide regularly used services, and any problems with those statements could cause immediate inconveniences.
The manufactured sense of urgency is equally effective in workplace scams.
Criminals know that we’re likely to drop everything if our boss emails us with a vital request, especially when other senior colleagues are supposedly waiting on us.
A typical example looks like this:
Phishing scams like this are particularly dangerous because, even if the recipient did suspect foul play, they might be too afraid to confront their boss.
After all, if they are wrong, they’re implying that there was something unprofessional about the boss’s request.
However, organisations that value cyber security would accept that it’s better to be safe than sorry and perhaps even congratulate the employee for their caution.
Prevent phishing by educating your employees
The best way to protect your business from phishing scams is to educate employees about how they work and what to look out for.
Regular staff awareness training will ensure that employees know how to spot a phishing email, even as fraudsters’ techniques become increasingly more advanced.
It’s only by reinforcing advice on avoiding scams that your team can develop good habits and detect detect signs of a phishing email as second nature.
With our Phishing Staff Awareness Training Programme, these lessons are straightforward.
The online subscription course explains everything you need to know about phishing, and is updated each month to cover the latest scams.
A version of this blog was originally published on 16 March 2018.