What Is Email Spoofing and How To Secure Your Company From It

Did you know hackers send more than three billion phishing emails daily? They employ different tactics to make their scams seem legitimate, and email spoofing is one of the top-ranking choices to make that happen. So, how can you prevent email spoofing and keep your company safe from it?

Email spoofing prevention includes using spam filter software, employing security protocols, and training employees. Users should know common spoofed email telltale signs, such as bad grammar or too good to be true promises, to disregard these messages and avoid falling prey to a threat actor.

Of course, there’s more to this cybersecurity threat than a hacker using a well-known email domain. Understanding why email spoofing happens is the best way to recognize when this attack is taking place. Learning about its signs and objectives is also key.

What’s a Spoofed Email?

A spoofed email is a fake message that tricks users into believing it comes from a trustworthy source. In other words, it’s an email that appears to be legitimate at first glance – but is rather suspicious after a close inspection.

This fraudulent email appears to come from a proper domain (e.g., scams often appear to come from Amazon, Google, and other big tech companies or government agencies such as the IRS).

Further inspection will reveal certain email spoofing signs, such as bad grammar, unnecessary sense of urgency, and threats. Inspecting the email’s source code will give away that the sender and recipient addresses are different, which is the best way to spot this type of attack.

Types of Spoofed Emails

  • Spam. Humans and bots alike start spam campaigns to get people to download malware. It’s difficult for people to download attachments, especially if they receive them randomly. That makes spam a number’s game: hackers know they have to send as many messages as possible – and they have to be smart about it (i.e., use a spoofed email to increase their chances of succeeding).
  • Phishing. Email spoofing helps hackers impersonate authority figures better than any other method (other than actually hijacking the company’s domain). For that reason, spoofed emails are often used in phishing emails to instill trust and urgency in one swift blow.

Email Spoofing vs. Other Methods

It’s easy to confuse email spoofing with other attacks, such as typo traps.

In a typo trap, hackers create email addresses that look similar to the person or company they’re impersonating. For example, they’ll send you a message from an address such as “service@p4ypal.com,” where the first letter A is replaced by the number 4.

In email spoofing, the address will match the company (e.g., “service@paypal.com”), even if PayPal is nowhere near sending you the types of messages you will receive from a hacker. Yes, hackers can go as far as impersonating the biggest companies in the world – and it’s not difficult to do so.

How Does Email Spoofing Happen?

Email is rather lax when it comes to protocols. It’s an old way of sending information over the internet, so it’s understandable that hackers have come a long way in using it for harmful purposes.

After you send an email, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol will retrieve your message and send it where you want it to.

Threat actors use scripts and APIs to fool this protocol. They trick the SMTP into believing the sender’s address differs from the actual one. You may receive a message that seemingly comes from Amazon but is a scam for that reason.

What’s the Point of Email Spoofing?

Sending spoofed emails increases the chances of a successful attack. Users often check who sent them an email before moving forward with a request, but they’ll trust the message if it seemingly comes from an authority figure.

People are savvier and know how to recognize common scams – but most will doubt their instincts when the email domain matches the person who’s allegedly speaking.

In other words, users will trust an urgent email from Amazon if the email apparently comes from Amazon. Email spoofing tactics improve a threat actor’s chances of achieving their objectives.

Spoofed Email Objectives

  • Malicious Links. The primary goal of a threat actor sending a spoofed email is to get you to click a malicious link. This link will either have you download malware or help you open a fake website designed to steal your information. In rare cases, these emails will outright ask you for money, leaving the malicious link element out of the table – but that often makes users realize they’re dealing with a scam, so it’s rather uncommon.
  • Malware. We see more than half a million new malware every day! Bots will try to spread malware for plenty of reasons, and emails are often the preferred option for carrying out that attack. Humans do it too, so you shouldn’t trust attachments found in suspicious emails.
  • Data. Information is valuable. Threat actors can use your login credentials to access your bank account and steal your money. They can also use your personal information for fraud. You don’t need to know why a hacker wants information to realize giving it away will be bad for you. No companies ask for personal information or login credentials via email.
  • Money. As you know, the boldest scams ask for money out in the open. A threat actor impersonating a high-ranking IRS employee will order you to wire money to an account unless you want to have legal trouble. It’s always a good idea to never trust emails like that – and contact the authorities after you disregard it.

Signs of a Spoofed Email

  • Urgent Message. The most successful phishing scams follow a pattern: threat actors try to instill a sense of urgency in their victims. Why is that? Because urgency puts you in a tough spot, making you stop thinking and start acting. Hackers often come up with ingenious ways of doing so, such as threatening legal action from the IRS or saying they’ll close your Google account if you don’t comply.
  • Asking for Money or Information. Hackers use email spoofing to trick you into trusting them, so they can force your hand into sending them money or information. They could also hope you download malware. Remember, nobody will ask you for money or information via email – and no updates are sent that way either. When in doubt, contact the company that allegedly sent you an email (via different means) before moving forward (i.e., not via email but by phone or in person if possible).
  • Different Sending and Receiving Parties. A clear-cut way of spotting a spoofed email is by checking its source code. Hackers can bypass poor email protocols – but they can’t do it without leaving a trace for you to see. There are different ways to do it depending on your email service provider. However, the main gist is checking who sent you an email and who’ll receive your response: if they don’t match, you’re looking at a spoofed email.

How To Protect Your Company From Email Spoofing

People shouldn’t open unsolicited emails, especially if they come from what appears to be an authority figure. However, it wouldn’t be impossible for your bank to contact you via email.

Nevertheless, banks will never send you a link to log into your account. They won’t tell you to download anything via email either. For that reason, never clicking links from an unsolicited email (even if they appear to be legitimate) is key.

2. Beware of Bad Grammar

Hackers come from different places – and most aren’t native English speakers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that small piece of information will help you spot spoofed emails.

Big companies often undergo a tedious process before sending an email, which hackers don’t. More often than not, scam emails come with typos and other issues, making it easier to spot them.

Of course, one typo isn’t enough to disregard an email – but having overall bad grammar is.

3. Stay Away From Messages That Are Too Good To Be True

Check your spam inbox: you’ll see countless prizes waiting for you. It could be money, streaming subscriptions, phones, and more. Of course, none of them are real.

There’s a reason for that: hackers know people love winning prizes, so they exploit that information by setting up fake contests and fake prize giveaways.

It could be something simple as a free Netflix subscription. You click a link to receive your prize and register your Netflix account – on a fake website created to steal your personal data.

4. Realize an Urgent Message Is Often a Phishing Scam

As you know, threat actors look to instill a sense of urgency in their victims to prevent them from thinking. They want people to act right away when they receive their emails.

Big companies and government agencies will not threaten you over email. They’ll ask you to contact them or visit them at one of their branches. More importantly, they’ll do so calmly and politely.

In contrast, hackers will do the exact opposite: they’ll demand things from you and do so violently, which is a clear-cut of a scam coming from a spoofed email.

5. Learn Common Spoofed Email Domains

There’s no sense in using email spoofing tactics unless a victim can recognize the domain an email appears to come from.

For that reason, hackers will look for the biggest companies and impersonate them. We’re talking about businesses like Amazon, Google, and Meta. They’ll also impersonate government agencies like the FBI and IRS in certain scenarios.

These companies and organizations seldom contact people. More importantly, they never ask for money or information over email, so you know you’re dealing with a spoofed email when something like that happens.

6. Check the Source Code

The easiest way to spot a spoofed email is to check its source code. How you’ll do so varies depending on your email provider.

However, the result is always the same: you’re looking at a spoofed email if the sender is different from the address that will receive your response.

The reason is rather obvious: a hacker will impersonate a company – but can’t retrieve your message if you send it to that same address, so they have to receive your message in their inbox instead.

7. Google the Message Before You Reply

You can find common scam messages online.

Hackers are not dumb enough to upload their carefully crafted emails or recycle old ones. However, responsible users will upload a scam message to protect others from falling for it.

A quick Google search will help you figure out if you’re looking at a spoofed email because of that.

8. Use Spam Filter Software

There are countless anti-spam software products you can use. You don’t have to use all of them, but shopping around and finding the right one for your company can help employees stay safe from trouble, especially when dealing with sophisticated email spoofing attacks.

9. Train Your Employees

Do you want to know how to stop email spoofing attacks? The key is to train your employees. There’s little you can do unless they can spot common spam and phishing emails.

Using defensive software will help you stop a big number of scams, but some will manage to slip through your defenses. At that point, your employees will either have the training to recognize what’s in front of them – or not.

10. Employ Security Protocols

Your customers aren’t safe from email spoofing either. Companies often center their attention on protecting their employees – but what happens when hackers reach out to your customers pretending to be you?

Using something like Sender Policy Framework or DomainKeys Identified Email is a must to prevent threat actors from using your domain in a harmful way.

Takeaways

Preventing email spoofing is never easy – but far from impossible. Users must learn to recognize common spoofing patterns, such as telltale signs and objectives. Companies must train their employees, employ protection, and implement rules and guidelines to prevent any data breaches or malware infection caused by a threat actor impersonating someone else. U.S. Cybersecurity has solutions to help you company with preventing email spoofing.

Herman McCargo

Herman is a Microsoft Certified Security Engineer and Cybersecurity Specialist. He’s been in the technology field for over 20 years and has expertise working with the most critical technology infrastructures. He has a deep understanding of cyber risks, threat mitigation and prevention, and overseeing infrastructure.