What Is Email Spoofing? How It Works & How to Stop It

Most people use email every day, whether for professional or personal purposes. But while email is a great tool, it also comes with user risks. Users should be aware of malicious links, email phishing or spear phishing, and email spoofing to best protect themselves. In this article, we’ll explore email spoofing, why it’s a problem, and how to protect yourself by preventing spoofed emails from getting to you.

What is email spoofing?

Email spoofing is a type of cyberattack that hides an email’s origins by falsifying the sender address. Though there are a few moral uses for email spoofing, this activity is often done fraudulently and maliciously. Cybercriminals prey on the fact that recipients trust the alleged sender; therefore, the recipient opens the email and interacts with it. The spoofer tricks the recipient into believing the email is from a friend or trusted source when in reality, it came from a malicious person or site.

Thanks to new security protocols in the last decade, email servers are able to more easily catch fake emails and sort them into the junk folder. However, spoofed emails still get through. Cybercriminals use these messages to advertise, run scams, perform phishing attacks, and more.

How email spoofing works

Email envelope on computer screen with hand reaching through screen to steal cash and personal information in email spoofing scam

Email spoofing, at its base level, works through SMTP – that is, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. SMTP is an application layer push protocol, meaning it sends emails from one address to another. But because there is no authentication method in place for these sent emails, it’s possible for a scammer to change the fields in the email’s header to make it appear as if it’s coming from a different address. Essentially, email servers have no way to tell if a sender address is legitimate.

The spoofer includes malicious links or malware in the email and falsifies the email data to make the message display a different sender address. Spotting a fake sender address is difficult unless the recipient is looking for it, so users usually open these falsified emails without realizing what they are. Then, once the user opens the message, they’re subject to whatever malicious contents the spoofer placed inside.

Email spoofing security

There are many reasons for email spoofing. Someone may just want to conceal their identity and send an anonymous message. Advertisers and spam mailers often use the technique to get their message out to recipients and avoid block lists.

Hackers use the technique to attempt to gather sensitive information or bank details from recipients if they disguise themselves as the right sender. Recipients could have their identity or information stolen in this case. However, the biggest danger to email users is the similarities between fraudulent and legitimate emails. When done well, spoofed messages can look so legitimate that users are fooled into treating them as such.

Although detecting an altered email can prove difficult, there are many ways that users can protect themselves against the dangers of this and email phishing. First, many recipient servers already seek to detect spoofed emails, which helps eliminate the messages before they ever reach a user’s inbox. Not every server is capable of this level of email security, however.

How to spot spoofed emails

When you get a suspicious email in your inbox, check for these things:

  • Grammar or spelling mistakes from a source that claims to be a legitimate company, like Walmart
  • A displayed sender name that doesn’t match the email address
  • Generic or impersonal content from a sender that claims to be your friend or acquaintance
  • A tone or language that doesn’t match up with the alleged sender

You can also use an email header check tool to investigate the email further. Make sure that the email address displayed in the email matches the RECEIVED line in the email header and check that the email passes protocol requirements. These tips, along with an email header check, can help you spot anything from a fake message from a friend to Amazon spoof emails and PayPal spoof emails.

Preventing email spoofing attacks

Though you or your email server likely can’t block all spoofed emails, there are steps you can take to prevent some spoofing attacks and protect yourself. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Never open attachments from unknown sources. Many spoofed messages contain malicious links and viruses that appear as downloadable files or attachments.
  • Consider if the email makes sense. Are the contents of the email consistent and sensible? Does the email address of the sender line up with their name? Does the tone seem like what you’d expect from the alleged sender? Emails that don’t make sense or seem off could be spoofed.
  • Check it with Google. If you feel like you’ve received a generic or suspicious message, enter the message or the email address into Google to see what you find. Many scammers send spoofed emails to multiple people at once to try and increase the number of victims; if the message is a scam, you may see similar messages pop up in the results of a Google search.
  • Use a high-quality security software with your email server. Security software prevents malware and viruses that may get on your computer via spoofed messages or any other security breaches.

Remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Furthermore, never give any private information to someone without confirming their identity; make sure the sender is legitimate before you provide any sensitive data.

A note on other types of spoofing

Be alert for other kinds of spoofing – like website spoofing, caller ID spoofing, GPS spoofing, and DNS spoofing – in your day-to-day life as well. Ultimately, many of these methods are all attempts to gain access to your personal data, your location, your credit card information, login codes, or anything else they can. Though it may not seem like a big deal, watching out for these kinds of falsified messages and sites helps you in the long run.

Frequently asked questions

Can you stop email spoofing?

No, there’s no way to stop email spoofing entirely. However, you can learn how to spot the signs of a spoofed email to prevent yourself from being fooled.

Can someone spoof your email address?

Yes, it’s possible for someone to spoof your email address. In such a case, a cybercriminal would alter their message to make it seem like you sent the email, even though you didn’t. However, this isn’t the same as someone hacking your account, so you don’t need to worry about your account security if this does happen.