The 6 Most Successful Email Phishing Attacks and How to Avoid Them

A fish hook on top of a keyboard

Email phishing attacks are a prevalent and growing threat in today's digital landscape. Cybercriminals use email scams to trick people into providing sensitive information, such as passwords, bank details, and other personal data. This article delves into some of the worst email phishing attacks in history, the impact they had, and the crucial lessons we can learn to protect ourselves from cyber threats.

What is Email Phishing?

Email phishing is a type of cybercrime that involves sending fraudulent emails to individuals or organizations to obtain sensitive information, such as login credentials, credit card numbers, or other personal data. Phishing emails often appear to be from legitimate sources, such as banks, online retailers, or government agencies, and they use various social engineering techniques to trick recipients into clicking on malicious links or opening infected attachments.

Phishing attacks can be highly effective because they play on people's trust and use emotional triggers to get them to take action. For example, a phishing email might claim that a person's bank account has been compromised and that they need to log in immediately to fix the problem. The email might include a link to a fake login page that looks identical to the real one, but is designed to steal the victim's login credentials when they enter them.

7 Worst Email Phishing Attacks in History

Phishing attacks have been around for a long time, and they continue to evolve and become more sophisticated. Here are some of the worst email phishing attacks in history that caused significant damage to individuals and organizations alike:

1. The RSA Breach (2011)

In 2011, attackers targeted RSA, a leading provider of cybersecurity solutions, with a phishing attack that used a fake recruitment email to trick an employee into opening an infected attachment. The malware contained in the attachment allowed the attackers to access RSA's network and steal sensitive information related to the company's SecurID authentication tokens, which are used by millions of people around the world.

2. The Target Data Breach (2013)

One of the largest and most publicized email phishing attacks in history was the Target data breach in 2013. Attackers gained access to the company's systems by sending a phishing email to an HVAC contractor that worked with Target. The email contained malware that allowed the attackers to steal payment card information from millions of Target customers, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars for the company.

3. The Sony Pictures Hack (2014)

In 2014, hackers targeted Sony Pictures Entertainment with a phishing attack that resulted in the theft of sensitive company data, including unreleased films, employee personal information, and confidential emails. The attack was believed to be in retaliation for the company's release of the film "The Interview," which depicted the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

4. The Yahoo Breach (2014)

In 2014, attackers targeted Yahoo with a phishing attack that resulted in the theft of data from over 500 million user accounts. The attackers used the stolen data to gain access to other accounts, including those of high-profile individuals such as government officials and celebrities.

5. The W-2 Phishing Scandal (2016)

In 2016, cybercriminals targeted companies with a W-2 phishing scam, which involved sending emails posing as a company executive and requesting employee W-2 forms. The scammers used the stolen data to file fraudulent tax returns and steal identities, resulting in significant financial losses for both the companies and their employees.

6. The Google Docs Phishing Scam (2017)

In 2017, attackers targeted Google with a phishing scam that involved sending emails inviting users to edit a Google Doc. The link in the email directed users to a fake Google login page, where the attackers could steal login credentials and access the user's Google account.

What Can We Learn from These Attacks?

The attacks listed above demonstrate how sophisticated and damaging email phishing attacks can be. They also highlight the importance of taking steps to protect yourself from cyber threats. Here are some lessons we can learn from these attacks:

  • Phishing attacks can happen to anyone, regardless of their industry or level of security.
  • Cybercriminals often use social engineering tactics to trick victims into taking action, so it's essential to stay vigilant and question any suspicious emails or requests.
  • Passwords and sensitive data should be protected with strong encryption and two-factor authentication.
  • Regular security awareness training and education can help employees identify and avoid phishing scams.

How to Protect Yourself from Email Phishing Scams

Protecting yourself from email phishing scams involves a combination of common sense and technological solutions. Here are some tips to help you stay safe online:

  • Be cautious when opening emails from unknown senders, and avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from suspicious emails.
  • Look out for red flags such as misspellings, unusual requests, or urgent calls to action.
  • Use strong, unique passwords for all your accounts, and enable two-factor authentication whenever possible.
  • Keep your software and antivirus programs up-to-date, and regularly back up your data to a secure location.
  • Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when accessing the internet, especially when using public Wi-Fi.


Email phishing attacks are a constant threat to individuals and businesses alike. The attacks listed above demonstrate just how damaging they can be and how important it is to stay vigilant and protect yourself from cyber threats. By being aware of the risks and taking steps to protect yourself, you can reduce your risk of falling victim to email phishing scams.


1. What is social engineering, and how does it relate to email phishing attacks?

Social engineering is a tactic used by cybercriminals to manipulate people into giving up sensitive information or performing an action that benefits the attacker. Email phishing attacks often use social engineering to trick people into clicking on links or opening attachments that contain malware or other threats.

2. What are some signs that an email might be a phishing scam?

Some signs that an email might be a phishing scam include misspellings or grammatical errors, urgent or threatening language, requests for personal information or money, and suspicious links or attachments.

3. Can two-factor authentication protect me from email phishing attacks?

Two-factor authentication can help protect your accounts from email phishing attacks by adding an extra layer of security. Even if a cybercriminal obtains your login credentials, they won't be able to access your account without also having access to your phone or other authentication device.

4. How can I report a suspicious email or phishing scam?

Most email providers and cybersecurity companies have mechanisms in place for reporting suspicious emails or phishing scams. You can usually report a suspicious email by forwarding it to a designated address or clicking a "report phishing" button in your email client.

5. What should I do if I think I've fallen victim to an email phishing scam?

If you think you've fallen victim to an email phishing scam, it's important to act quickly. Change your passwords immediately, contact your bank or credit card company if you've provided financial information, and run a malware scan on your computer or device. You should also report the incident to the appropriate authorities, such as your employer's IT department or law enforcement agencies.

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