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Cybersecurity

What’s the Difference Between Phishing and Spam?

Mark Lukehart

reading an email

If you’ve ever tried to clean out an overstuffed inbox, you know just how frustrating both spam and phishing emails can be. Many people conflate the two, but there are some key differences between these two digital nuisances.

While both phishing and spam emails can harm your computer if you’re not careful, phishing attacks are particularly dangerous as they target valuable personal information. In this article, we’ll dive into the differences between them as well as ways to keep yourself safe online.

Key Takeaways

  • Phishing and spam are both frustrating types of emails, but they have some key differences.
  • Phishing is a type of cybercrime that uses social engineering to gain access to financial information, login credentials, and other types of sensitive data.
  • Spam emails are sent primarily for commercial purposes. They are not usually malicious, but occasionally contain malware and should be treated with caution.
  • Phishing emails may contain poor spelling and grammar, are sent from strange email addresses, and contain suspicious links and attachments.

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a social engineering tactic used by cybercriminals to gain access to valuable personal or financial information. These scams usually happen via email, but they can also happen on social media or even via text message.

In a phishing scam, cybercriminals will send a message to their target posing as a trusted contact, such as the victim’s bank or a company the victim makes frequent purchases from. They will use spoofing techniques to disguise their real email address or contact information and pose as the trusted source.

These messages will often contain malicious links to sites prompting the user to enter sensitive information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, or even social security numbers. The messages often use threats to create a false sense of urgency – for example, they might threaten to charge your credit card if you don’t

Similarly, more sophisticated cybercriminals can use a link in a Phishing email to steal your session token, which is used to prove your identity on systems like Office 365, Google Workspace, and more. 

There are many different types of phishing attacks, and cybercriminals are constantly developing new approaches to capitalize on changing trends. For example, spear phishing is a type of phishing attack that targets a specific individual or organization. Hackers will search for details about the victim ahead of time and use this information to personalize their emails.

What is Spam?

While phishing is a type of cyber attack that is intentionally malicious, spam emails are the junk mail of the internet. These emails are often used for marketing purposes and are sent out en masse to public email lists. SPAM is actually an acronym for “Send People a Lot of Mail.”

However, they differ from ethical marketing in that most recipients haven’t signed up to receive these advertisements or newsletters. Most modern email providers have tools in place to filter out these junk emails.

Most spam messages are harmless, but that doesn’t mean you should open them when they land in your inbox. Unfortunately, some spam emails serve as trojans for malware or viruses, which can compromise your personal information and damage your computer.

What’s The Difference Between Them?

While spam and phishing emails are both very irritating, they function very differently. Spam emails are typically sent by commercial entities. They differ from phishing attempts in that they are not always malicious.

Additionally, spammers typically don’t attempt to hide their identity or pose as someone else. Cyber criminals sending phishing emails specifically disguise themselves to give the recipient a false sense of trust.

On top of that, spam is usually easier to avoid than phishing emails. Many email service providers implement sophisticated spam filters and other helpful email security features to block spam.

The US Congress also passed the CAN-SPAM Act in 2013, which requires transparency across all commercial email messages and requires opt-out links on these emails.

How to Identify a Phishing Email

When sending a phishing email, cybercriminals will do their best to pose as a sender you already know. For example, many phishing emails impersonate major corporations such as Amazon, Google, PayPal, and more.

At first glance, these fraudulent emails might look normal. However, there are a few telltale signs that can give them away. These include:

  • Incorrect email address: Before you even open an email, it’s important to look at the sender’s address. While they may have changed their name to “Customer Support” or something equally vague, the email address is often still from a public domain, such as Gmail or Yahoo. Even if they do have a private email domain, the name is often misspelled. For example, the domain name might be “@amzon.com” rather than “@amazon.com”.
  • Spelling and grammar mistakes: Phishing emails may contain spelling and grammar mistakes. They may also use odd greetings, such as “dear” or “salutations”.
  • Lacking a Human Quality: In addition to errors, many phishing emails are now being generated by A.I., so keep an eye out for emails that lack a human quality.
  • Strange attachments: Many phishing emails contain attachments with spyware or other malware designed to capture sensitive digital information. These attachments are often accompanied by vague body text.
  • Suspicious links: Additionally, these fraudulent emails often include suspicious links disguised as links to popular websites like Amazon, Netflix, or Buzzfeed.
  • Requests for sensitive information: If an email has a direct request for bank account information, social security numbers, or other highly personal details, it’s likely a phishing scam.
  • Sense of urgency: Phishing scams use a variety of techniques to urge the victim to act immediately. Watch out for emails demanding urgent action.
  • Offers that are ‘too good to be true’: Phishing emails will often say the victim has won a sweepstakes they didn’t apply to or received a high-paying job offer.

Tips for Avoiding a Phishing Scam

Having a proactive cybersecurity strategy will help you avoid phishing scams. Here are some tips to help you stay safe from these frustrating emails.

  • Be vigilant with your inbox: One of the most effective ways to avoid phishing is simply to be very cautious when opening your emails. Know the signs of a phishing email, and avoid clicking on links and attachments from unknown senders.
  • Install antivirus software and other security programs: Security programs can help filter out malware from email attachments and provide other protections.
  • Use multi-factor authentication when possible: Multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security to your accounts, making it more difficult for cybercriminals to access your accounts even if your password is compromised.
  • Be careful when sharing your email address: Try to only share your email with trusted parties. While you may still receive phishing emails, limiting exposure will limit your frequency.