Spam vs Phishing: What’s the difference and why it matters?

The number of email users globally is rapidly increasing and is expected to touch 4.6 billion by 2025. These statistics may seem harmless at first, but in reality, they are expanding the surface area of phishing for cybercriminals. As of January 2023, the United States has received the highest number of spam emails, which is around 8 billion. Numbers like these make it vital to learn how to detect and prevent phishing attacks.

What is a Spam Email?

Spam emails are uninvited or unrequested junk emails sent in bulk. These are usually sent with benign intentions of selling products and services. Harmless spam doesn’t contain malicious links or attachments, however, cybercriminals can exploit this concept to gain access to your computers by injecting malware.

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a common type of cyberattack where cybercriminals send fraudulent emails by impersonating a trusted entity, generally a company. They can also disguise themselves as your friends, relatives, employees, colleagues, bosses, etc using social engineering. Their aim is to trick you into sharing sensitive information like financial details, social security numbers, contact details, medical reports, etc. 

Cybercriminals may also covertly install malware on your device to steal or intercept crucial and confidential information. 

Some common phishing types include spear phishing, whaling, smishing, and vishing. As per the spear phishing definition, it’s a fraudulent practice of sending emails to a specific person or group to steal or intercept important information.

What is a Common Indicator of a Phishing Attempt?

Now that you know the difference between spam vs phishing, you and your employees should know the 6 indicators of a phishing attempt.

  1. Unfamiliar Tone or Greeting

If you’ve received emails from a known person and you find that the language isn’t quite right, then it could be a spear phishing attempt. For example, one of your colleagues always addresses you by your surname, and suddenly the email mentions your first name. 

  1. Grammatical Errors and Unprofessional Graphics

Cybercriminals don’t spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on professional writers and graphic designers. They don’t even use any tools for these. Legitimate and professional business emails generally have a spell-check feature activated for all outbound emails. So, consider grammatical errors and unprofessional graphics a big red flag.

  1. Too Good to be True Offers

Cybercriminals may send malicious spam emails to people in bulk offering free vacations, lottery tickets, expensive gadgets, coupons, etc. Before clicking on any links or sharing the requested details, just ask yourself a question – why would any individual or company do this without knowing you?

The aim of such phishing attempts is to trick you into sharing personal and financial information that’s used for making purchases or transferring money from your bank accounts. So, always be wary of golden offers!

  1. Links to Cloned Websites

Never open a link without hovering the cursor on it (not clicking) and looking at the bottom left corner of your computer screen. You’ll see where the link is going to take you. Don’t click on it if you don’t recognize the domain, catch a smart spelling alteration (for example, replacing O (the 15th letter of the English alphabet) with 0 (zero)), or realize the sender isn’t who they are claiming to be.

These malicious links can take you to a cloned website that looks exactly like the legitimate one where you’ll be asked to share details, download malware-injected files, or make payments.

  1. Suspicious Domain Name

A phishing attack is still one of the common ways of fooling people online. Cybercriminals often use fake domain names to win your trust. Say, you’ve received an email from amaz0n.com instead of amazon.com about coupon codes worth $500. The moment you click on any link to claim it, you’ll be tricked. So, always keep an eye on domain names and potentially malicious websites.

  1. Threats or Sense of Urgency

“Reply ASAP”, “offer is valid for 10 minutes only”, “hurry up”, “immediately,” etc. are just some of the words that you should be wary of. Cybercriminals create a sense of urgency so that you respond to their requests in haste. They don’t give you sufficient time to think about or scrutinize the email body for errors and inconsistencies. This way phishing emails pass undetected.

Spam vs Phishing; What’s More of a Threat?

Spam is generally harmless as it’s for marketing and sales purposes. Phishing, on the other hand, has a malicious intent of obtaining personal and sensitive details to attempt cyberattacks. Generally, a phishing attack is planned and executed with the intention of making money or winning over in political or business rivalry. Thus, phishing is more of a threat!

How to Stop Spam Emails?

To stop junk emails, it’s important to use a combination of strategies including utilizing email filters provided by your email service, regularly updating filter settings to adapt to new types of spam, avoiding opening or responding to junk emails, being cautious about sharing your email address, and using unsubscribe links wisely. Implementing email authentication methods like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC can also help in identifying and blocking spam. Additionally, using third-
party spam filtering tools or services can provide an extra layer of protection against unwanted emails.

  1. Be careful about revealing your email address: Your email address is valuable, keep it private. Don’t give it to irrelevant people or websites. 
  2. Unsubscribe from irrelevant newsletters’ lists: Newsletters are common means of marketing and they fill your inbox meaninglessly. So, unsubscribe from all the irrelevant newsletters to steer clear of spam. 
  3. Use a throwaway email account: There are many websites that ask for your email address to access particular information. You can use a secondary throwaway email account for that.
  4. Block spam senders: Block senders of spam emails. But, if you’re receiving messages from the same address over and over, you can block it within your email client. This will stop it from hitting your inbox. 
  5. Set up email filters: Email filters automatically send emails with a specific subject line or from a particular sender to the trash folder. 

How to Stop Phishing Emails?

  • Implement globally-recognized security measures like DMARC: DMARC is an email security protocol which prevents cybercriminals from impersonating your domain to carry out phishing attacks. It’s a foundational and essential measure that all businesses should implement at full protection. Find out how to implement it quickly and easily here.
  • Train yourself and your employees: Phishing emails are designed to push you into taking immediate action. Implement Security Awareness Training to teach yourself and your employees about these red flags and the mitigation methods to minimize harm.
  • Email filtering: Set filters to detect malicious links and attachments by blocking emails with specific subject lines or senders’ addresses.
  • Scan for malicious attachments: You can scan malicious email attachments using dedicated tools and antivirus programs.
  • Use an Email DLP solution: Email data loss prevention (DLP) solutions protect against spear phishing by preventing cybercriminals from exfiltrating data from your network, storage, or endpoints.   

Strengthen your Email Resilience and Prevent Spear Phishing 

While spam emails can be annoying, it’s spear phishing and other forms of business email compromise that present the real problem for businesses today. At Red Sift, we understand that companies need a reliable solution to mitigate these threats, and applications on the Red Sift Platform exist to do just this. Discover how you can improve your email security setup and prevent spear phishing attacks and more with Red Sift OnDMARC.

PUBLISHED BY

Faisal Misle

19 Apr. 2023

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