Email Spoofing and How It Works

Most people use email every day, whether for professional or personal purposes. Users send and receive emails without a second thought. But as many benefits as email provides in everyday life, there are also risks that users need to watch out for. Malicious links, email phishing or spear phishing, and email spoofing are all issues that users should be aware of to best protect themselves. In this article, we’ll explore email spoofing and why it’s a problem, as well as how you can protect yourself.

What is email spoofing?

Email spoofing is a technique that hides an email’s origins. There are moral uses for email spoofing. However, many times, this activity is done fraudulently and with malicious intent. Senders can trick recipients into believing that the email came from someone they can trust, when in reality, it came from another person or place altogether.

Thanks to new security protocol in the last decade, email spoofing is more easily caught by email servers and sent to junk mail, but spoofed emails still get through. Uses of email spoofing include advertising, scamming, phishing, and more.

How email spoofing works

The basis of email spoofing comes down to SMTP—that is, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. SMTP is an application layer push protocol. It sends emails from one address to another. However, no authentication is in place for sent emails, which opens the door for falsified emails. Essentially, email servers have no way to tell if a sender address is legitimate.
Email envelope on computer screen with hand reaching through screen to steal cash and personal information in email spoofing scam
Senders falsify email data in spoofed messages so that the received email appears to display a different sender address. Spotting a fake sender address is difficult unless a user looks for one. Most of the time, users open these emails from forged addresses and expose themselves to malicious links and false information.

Other kinds of spoofing

Though email spoofing is the most prevalent type, being aware of other types of spoofing benefits you, too. Here are a few types of spoof attacks you might encounter online.

Website spoofing, or domain spoofing, makes dangerous sites seem legitimate, typically in order to lure you into entering your login information or personal data. These fake websites look very similar to actual sites; the idea is that the user won't even notice that they're on the fake site until it's too late. Spoofed websites are often sent out as links in spoofed emails, so these two kinds of cybercriminal behavior go hand-in-hand.

Caller ID spoofing and text message spoofing are different, but they both work the same conceptually: someone tries to disguise their phone number or identity in order to contact you with a phone call or text. This could be for marketing purposes or in an attempt to gain access to your personal information, but either way, it's best to be wary.

GPS spoofing has probably been done by everyone at least once; you make your GPS believe you're at a location other than the one you're actually at. Mobile games benefit from altered locations, especially if they're location-specific. However, cybercriminals can also take advantage of this in dangerous ways.

DNS spoofing uses the Domain Name Server (DNS) system to steer users to fake websites. Altered DNS records redirect web traffic to the spoofers' sites, where users enter their login information. This allows cybercriminals to steal their access credentials and other important information.

Ultimately, many of these methods end up being for the same purpose. Cybercriminals want 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.

Email spoofing security: protecting yourself and your information

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 emails can look so much like legitimate emails that users are fooled into treating it 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.

Tips for avoiding spoofed emails

Email users should also keep these things in mind when evaluating whether or not an email is from a false sender address:

  • Never open attachments from unknown sources. Hackers send malicious links and viruses as links or downloadable files from random senders.
  • If something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
  • Many scammers will send the same message to multiple people in an attempt to garner more victims. If you think that an email’s contents seem suspicious or impersonal, put the email into Google. Investigate the results. If the text is registered as a common scam, this will show that.
  • Download and use a high-quality security software to prevent malware that may get onto your computer from a spoofed email.
  • Check to see if the email's contents are consistent and sensible. Does the email address of the sender line up with their name? Does the tone seem consistent with what you’d expect from the alleged sender and trusted source?
  • Don’t give any private information to someone asking via email. Always confirm that their identity is legitimate first.

Email spoofing can become a big problem, but staying aware and smart will help keep you and your email accounts safe.