Don’t Be Fooled: That’s Not a Real Email

We all know how important it is to keep yourself safe online, but scammers are becoming so sophisticated that it can be challenging to decipher what’s legitimate from what’s spam. The simple click of a link within an email could cause your computer to be attacked with a virus or your personal email account to be breached.

The good news is that there are some common strategies you can use to determine if an email is real before you click on any links or respond with any sensitive information.

Check the Email Address

The first thing I look at is the email address itself: does it have a weird combination of numbers and digits before and/or after the @ symbol? Sometimes the name of the sender may show up as someone I know, but the associated email is not theirs. Both cases indicate that the email is probably spam.

Look at the Content

The sender will often try to trick you with words. If the content is gibberish, it’s definitely spam. Otherwise, consider whether the email includes any of the following, and delete it if so:

  • Suspicious subject line. If the subject of the email doesn’t make sense or is full of symbols, the email is most likely fake.
  • Generic greeting. Most likely, a genuine email will address you using either your first or last name.
  • Extensive grammatical or spelling errors (unless of course it’s from someone you know who is just learning to read and write, such as a grandchild in first grade!)
  • Request for you to complete some action in a short amount of time. The spammer is trying to trick you by not giving you enough time to verify the action. If you know the sender, it’s worth an email, phone call, or text to their contact information you already had on hand to check if the email is real.
  • Request for personal information. Personal information should never be shared via email. The only safe way to share things like addresses, passwords, credit card numbers, and other personal information over the internet is in a secured, encrypted form.
    • If the scammer is asking for personal information, they are trying to do what is known as “phishing” – posing as a legitimate organization to try to get you to reveal personal information such as a bank account number or password.
    • If a trusted friend or family member really did ask you for personal information via email, let them know that email isn’t a safe forum for sharing, and that you will get the information to them in a secure manner, assuming there is a legitimate reason that trusted person needs your info.
  • Questionable links.
    • If a full link is shown (for example, and seems odd (similar idea to emails above), do NOT click on it.
    • If the link is embedded within text, for example, hover your mouse over the text to see what link is displayed. If it looks odd, do not click!


Trust Your Spam Filter

Sifting through your spam folder and opening random emails is never a good idea. In very rare cases, your email server may flag a legitimate email as spam. However, when this happens, the sender will probably mention to you that their email may show up in your spam folder. If you are signed up for an email newsletter but hadn’t opened any of the emails in a while, your spam filter may flag the newsletter as spam since you had been ignoring it.

If you do decide to look through your spam folder, always refer to the rules above before opening any email in your spam folder.


While these strategies aren’t 100% guaranteed to keep you safe from scammers, they will certainly help you avoid being taken advantage of. In the end, always trust your gut; if an email doesn’t seem quite right, delete it.

If you inadvertently delete an email that was real and important, the sender will follow-up with you again in another email, via phone, or in-person.


Check out Empowerline’s resources for protecting your rights to learn about legal assistance if you think your rights have been violated or if you are simply preparing for your future.

Arin Yost

Arin is a Program Analyst at the Atlanta Regional Commission, where his work focuses on health disparities and equity across the Atlanta region.