Phishing Email

Phishing Email Definition

Phishing is a type of social engineering attack that uses fraudulent communications to trick the recipient into sharing sensitive data, financial details, or business access credentials with the sender.

A phishing email is a type of phishing attack where the attack vector is an email message sent by cybercriminals to executive team members, managers, employees, or customers of the target organization. Phishing emails can leverage a variety of malicious tactics to trick the recipient into sharing their sensitive information, including spoofed email addresses, fake websites, malicious links, and delivering false information.

Email is just one vector that cybercriminals use to carry out phishing attacks - others can include social media, SMS text messages, telephone calls, or even digital advertisements.

What Does a Phishing Email Do?

Cybercriminals create phishing emails to trick the sender into sharing sensitive information. Still,  the information being targeted and the techniques used to capture it can vary substantially between cases.

With that in mind, here’s a basic overview of what phishing emails do once they hit the recipient’s inbox.

  • Gain the Recipient’s Trust - The first goal of every phishing email is to gain the recipient’s trust, or at least to avoid appearing suspicious. This is often accomplished by impersonating a trusted sender through email spoofing or copying the email layout of a trusted source. 
  • Deliver a Call to Action - Phishing emails contain a call to action, encouraging the recipient to take steps that will ultimately compromise their information or deprive them of financial assets. In addition, phishing emails often include a made-up story that creates a false pretense for the recipient to take urgent action. 
  • Steal the Recipient’s Data - The ultimate goal of a phishing email is to steal something from the recipient - either their secure data, access credentials, money, or something else. This objective may be realized when the email recipient takes the action described in the email, such as clicking a malicious link or visiting a fake website.

Three Types of Phishing Emails You Should Know

Phishing Emails that Link to a Fake Website

Some phishing emails link to a fake website set up by cybercriminals to capture access credentials or financial information from the unsuspecting target. Fake websites are designed to mimic sites that are trusted by the recipient, such as a business Intranet login page or the recipient’s bank. 

When the target enters their access credentials on a fake website, the information is shared with cybercriminals who can use it to drain their bank accounts or access sensitive personal or business data.

Phishing Emails that Send Malicious Attachments

Some phishing emails contain malicious attachments, including trojan viruses, malicious scripts, or ransomware. The attachment may be disguised as a different type of file (PDF, image, audio, etc.) and may have an intriguing name that encourages a curious target to open it. 

When the target opens the attachment, the email’s payload is activated and the consequences may be dire. For example, cybercriminals can use malicious attachments to install viruses, steal or destroy critical data, obtain remote access to computers or networks, set up a ransomware attack, or start an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attack.

Phishing Emails that Impersonate an Executive Employee

Some phishing emails work by impersonating an employee of the target’s organization, often someone in a position of power or authority over the target. For example, a cybercriminal might spoof their email to impersonate an executive leader within an organization, then send phishing emails to their employees with urgent instructions to share secure access credentials or send money to the criminal’s bank account.

When the target believes they are receiving job-related instructions from an executive leader within their organization, they may be more likely to take action without considering the message’s authenticity.

How to Report a Phishing Email

Everyone can report phishing emails to enhance their organization’s cybersecurity and help in the fight against fraudsters and cybercriminals. 

Report a Phishing Email to the Anti-Phishing Working Group

The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) is an industry association focused on supporting a unified global response to cybercrime. Phishing emails can be reported to the APWG by sending an email to [email protected].

Report a Phishing Email to the Federal Trade Commission

Phishing emails can also be reported to the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at

Report a Phishing Email to Your Email Provider

Most email providers have a feature that allows users to report phishing emails. These reports allow providers like Gmail, Outlook, and ProtonMail to investigate and block emails from malicious domains, disrupting the activities of cybercriminals.

Report a Phishing Email to Your IT Organization

Phishing emails received at work should be reported to your company’s IT organization. Your report will allow your IT department to block the malicious domain and share information about the attack that could prevent your colleagues from falling victim.

How ZeroFOX Protects Against Phishing Emails

ZeroFOX uses AI-powered technology to monitor abuse@ inboxes where business employees send reports on phishing emails, Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) failure reports generated by phishing emails. These valuable data sources are used to rapidly identify and dismantle phishing campaigns before reaching employees and harming your organization.