What is email spoofing: Learn to detect spoofed emails

Anton P. | March 03, 2023

Email spoofing refers to fraudulent emails with forged sender addresses. So, this phishing scam attempts to convince victims that they have received legitimate emails. However, the spoofed email comes from criminals trying to steal personal information or money. 

Find out how to recognize email spoofing and which emails feature forged addresses.

Email spoofing sends messages while hiding their true senders.

Email spoofing meaning

Email spoofing refers to emails with fabricated email headers to make users believe the sender is reliable. It is one of the phishing strategies, and the email content uses social engineering tactics. 

A simple email spoofing example:

  • The email creates a pretext for issues like unauthorized Amazon purchases
  • Seeing an Amazon email address as the sender, users are to be more willing to open the message. 
  • The fraudsters require the victim to provide personal information, passwords, credit card details, etc. 

Email spoofing means sending messages from email accounts that do not belong to you. Culprits achieve this via email spoofing tools or exploiting SMTP protocols with email clients. 

Email spoofing vs. phishing 

Phishing is a broader term than email spoofing. However, email spoofing can be used in phishing to create a more believable attack. Furthermore, email spoofing will nearly always use phishing strategies to trick victims.

Can you detect spoofed emails

Users might only detect email spoofing after examining the header or other technical details. However, a spoofed email likely arrives suddenly and requires immediate action. Thus, you might notice a spoofed email from its content, like asking for your bank details. 

How is an email spoofed

Email spoofing occurs due to gaps in email security. The email address gets attached to a message by the client application. In turn, mail servers cannot verify the sender address authenticity. 

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) also plays a role in spoof attacks. The SMTP email contains the following details: FROM, RETURN-PATH, and REPLY-TO. Due to a lack of authentication, scammers can manipulate which addresses users see as senders. 

Then, email spoofing works by manipulating the sender’s address to imitate legitimate domains and services. Thus, unsuspecting users assume they received an authentic email message. 

Email spoofing via Display Name 

Some email clients only show the display name on smaller screens like smartphones. Thus, a spoofing attempt can add an identity of a trusted person or brand. The user sees the reliable name as the display name. 

Luckily, this attack is relatively easy to detect as you only need to check the sender’s email address. 

Spoofing legitimate domains 

Email spoofing can aim to exploit the actual email address belonging to a legitimate service. It works due to security holes in various email protocols. Hackers typically go for email-sending services that do not verify domain ownership. 

Using similar email addresses

While not technically email spoofing, many spam messages feature email addresses that mimic legitimate services. For instance, walmart-payment-issues could be the sender address. While it associates with Walmart, it is not their official email address. 

Business email compromise 

Such email spoofing means criminals forge the addresses of higher-level employees or CEOs. Then, they email various teams and require them to log in or provide sensitive information. Criminals could even instruct accountants to wire money to unknown accounts. 

Why do people use email spoofing 

Email spoofing mostly relates to phishing attacks and attempts to impersonate brands. However, since email spoofing conceals the actual email sender, users might turn to it for different reasons. For instance, spoofing can be an option for sending emails anonymously

However, such type of phishing usually involves the distribution of malicious links or attempts to steal user data.

Here is a brief recap of reasons behind using email spoofing:

  • Hackers wish to conceal their identities. 
  • Scammers impersonate services and people their victims recognize. 
  • Fraudsters spoof one’s address to ruin their reputation. 
  • Hackers need to avoid spam block lists stopping their email campaigns.
  • Scammers pretend to be from a business like a bank. 

What happens if you open a spoofed email

There is usually no harm in opening a spoofed email. However, senders may see whether you have opened it. Thus, they will learn three things: 

  • Your email account is active. 
  • You tend to open emails from unknown sources. 
  • Your metadata, like when you opened the email and IP addresses

As a result, you might receive more spam emails in your inbox. 

However, the situation is more difficult if you open such emails and click on links, download attachments, or reply. Here are some things that email spoofing can aim to achieve: 

  • An email might contain malicious links that lead you to fake websites asking for personal information. 
  • A fake website could feature login pages that require credentials. Fraudsters set up such sites and see everything victims submit. 
  • Spoofed emails might contain malicious attachments. They could secretly infect your device with malware and viruses. 

Spoofed emails from myself

Email spoofing might not work in favor of tricking you. Instead, it could exploit your email address to contact friends, family, or colleagues. 

A clear indication that someone has spoofed your email address is getting bounce messages. Hackers use software to generate random lists of email addresses to spoof. 

If you receive spoofed emails from yourself, report them as spam. Furthermore, enabling Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) help stop email spoofing. 

Since November 2022, Google has required new senders who email personal Gmail accounts to have SPF or DMARC enabled.

How to stop email spoofing 

Email spoofing is delicate, but you can protect your account and detect spoofed emails quickly. 

It is also possible to use email spoofing protections from modern frameworks such as: 

  • SPF or Sender Policy Framework checks whether a specific IP address can send emails from particular domains. 
  • Domain Key Identified Mail (DKIM) uses cryptographic keys that sign outgoing messages to validate emails. 
  • DMARC or Domain Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance show recipients whether the sender uses SPF or DKIM. 

Tips for detecting email spoofing 

People can quickly recognize spoofed emails by paying attention to the following details.

  1. Look at the full email header

Inspect the full email header of a suspicious message. Pay attention to From, To, Subject, and Date sections. To see accurate information, you need to choose the Show Original option. 

  1. Email content is unrealistic

The spoofed email contains information that is not applicable to you. In other cases, the email can mention tax fraud, identity theft, bank fraud, or other severe crimes. It is best to contact official services to see whether there are any issues.

  1. Email looks unusual 

The email’s content might seem believable, but design might not be. If a message does not feature the usual fonts, images, or buttons, it might be a red flag. 

  1. Email has many grammatical errors

Amazon, LinkedIn, Paypal, or other legitimate businesses take time to prepare emails for clients. If you see messy content with grammatical errors, it is likely a phishing email.

More tips on email security 

Email spoofing is only one of the potential dangers that might attack your inbox. So, follow these recommendations to protect your email account:

  • Use two-factor authentication on your email account. 
  • Block suspicious emails and report their senders. 
  • Use a complex password for your email account.
  • Do not open email attachments without verifying the email as trustworthy. 
  • If an email suggests critical issues, contact the service via other channels.
  • Frequently check whether an email account is safe and has not been involved in data breaches. 
  • If necessary, change email passwords as soon as possible. 

Also, consider a VPN for improving email security. First, it will conceal your IP address and your approximate location. 

Second, Atlas VPN has more features to make your digital life safer. Our Data Breach Monitor lets you add your email address, and we will inform you if your email address leaks.

Third, a VPN lets you safely use your email account on any network.

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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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