A phishing email is spam that tries to trick you into divulging sensitive or personal information, like passwords or account numbers, by posing as a legitimate business or service. Falling for a phishing attempt not only exposes your own private information—it can also open the door for attackers to access to your workplace's data.
If an unsolicited email asks you to click on a link to "fix" your account, or even just to confirm your account details, chances are that it's phishing. There are always exceptions, however, so here is some helpful advice on how to tell the difference between phishing and legitimate emails.
Telltale signs to look for
Phishing emails can be very convincing, which is why it's important to step back for just a moment and look for these key things in every email you get:
- From address: Always check that an email has come from an appropriate, and legitimate, address. Don't only go by the name that is displayed in the "from" field; always check the address as well.
- Non-standard formatting: Official emails from reputable companies tend to follow a known format. If the text looks blurry or the alignment of certain elements is off, it might not be legitimate.
- Spelling and grammar errors: This tends to be more obvious, but sometimes you have to look harder for it. If there are misspelled words, or if something's a little off with the sentence structure, be wary.
- Urgency: Phishing emails may try to scare you by saying your account will expire, for example, if you don't take immediate action. They introduce an element of panic to try to cloud your judgment. Reputable companies generally won't send this sort of email.
- Links: Before you click on a link in an email, hover your cursor over it first to see a pop-up showing where it actually goes. Don't click the link if it doesn't lead to a relevant and legitimate site. In fact, your best course of action is usually to browse to the company's website on your own, without clicking on provided links. (One exception is when verifying your email for an account you know you just created—but still hover over that link to be sure!)
The examples below highlight elements that give away that they're phishing attempts. They may seem obvious here, but in the moment of rushing through your real-world inbox, these irregularities might not stand out so starkly.
There are several tip-offs that this email is not legitimate—starting with the fact that Emerson passwords do not expire!
Official communications from Emerson College will only ever come from an @emerson.edu email address. This should be the first thing you look at when you get a message with a call to action: Who sent it? If it's someone you know, is this the kind of email they'd usually send you, or could their account have been compromised?
This message isn't formatted to look like other Emerson IT emails, and it is signed with this generic “System Administrator" title. Note also the grammar mistakes in this message: there's inappropriate capitalization and missing punctuation.
Finally, always be careful when an email includes a link, especially when it's masked by words like "Click Here." Hover your mouse over the link for a moment to double-check where it actually leads. Phishing emails will almost always try to trick you into going to a malicious website like the one above.
This next example looks very different from the first, even though all the same things are wrong with it!
The sent-from name says "Postal Service," but its email address is from a completely unrelated website. Also, the content of the email suggests that the message is from DHL, not the Postal Service. It's important to keep an eye out for small details like this.
Just like in the first example, both of the links in this email are masked. When you hover over them, you'll see they definitely have nothing to do with a delivery! Whenever you're sent a parcel tracking number, try searching for it on Google or on the courier service's website instead of clicking the emailed link.
As with most rules, there are always exceptions. Even the most reputable companies may sometimes send suspicious-looking emails, just as attackers can send incredibly convincing phishing emails. Using these guidelines with each and every email you receive will help you tell the difference, so you can keep your information, and that of your friends and colleagues, safe.