How can you tell if an email is real or a scam? Today, both phishing scams and annoying spam messages rely on a technique called “spoofing” to fake their sender information. This means an email might say it’s from PayPal when the sender is actually a scammer or a hacker attempting to infect your computer with a virus.

Luckily, there are 4 tips you can use to help determine if an email was sent fraudulently. By examining the sender information and detecting a spoofed sender address, you’ll avoid phishing scams and other email fraud.

Read on to find out how to tell if an email is real or a scam:


1. Email Headers

Like everything else on the Internet, there’s a lot of complex code you don’t see embedded into each email that hits your inbox. If you look closely at the “Header” code in an email, you can learn a lot about where your mail really came from. As messages are delivered to you, they get passed from server to server, and each server adds records to the invisible message header.

By learning how to find this Header and figuring out what the Header information means, you’ll spot email scams no problem!

In Gmail, you’ll want to go to the drop down menu next to the “Reply” icon, and select “Show Original.”

Screen capture of "Show Original" command

Show Original: The first step in getting to the bottom of this sketchy-looking Craigslist inquiry.

2. MX Lookup

“MX” stands for “Mail Exchanger,” and it’s the server a domain uses to route email. You can use an online tool like MxToolbox to find out the MX server for the last trusted domain in the header (keep in mind the newest server is at the top, just as the newest message is at the top of a reply-all chain of email).

If you can identify your own domain’s stamp, you can identify what IP address sent the message to that domain. If a spammer or scammer has been reported sending dubious mail before, chances are that address will appear on a Blacklist.

MX Lookup for Gmail

An MX Lookup for Gmail — the servers Google uses to get email to your inbox.

3. IP Blacklists

MxToolbox can also run a blacklist check on IP addresses. In a case over at LifeHacker, it looks like the IP address that sent a phony email is on three separate blacklists. Not a good sign that the email is genuine.

You can skip a few steps in the process. After the “show original” step, you can paste all the header information into a tool like Google Header Analysis, which will find all the IPs involved for you.


4. Don’t Feed The Spammers

It might seem easiest to reply to a bogus email with an identity-affirming trick question (“Remember spring break in Florida?” – Gotcha! It was Vegas!), but don’t do it. If the email is from a scammer, you’ll only advertise that your email is active, and you’ll just receive more spam. If you’re not sure about an email, don’t reply.


Spread the Word and Report Scams

Help your friends and loved ones avoid falling for an email scam! Share these tips on social media like Facebook and Twitter. If you’ve encountered an email scam, click here to file a complaint on Scambook.


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