Phishing Email Examples (2023): The 3 Worst Attacks Ever

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

Phishing Email Examples (2023): The 3 Worst Attacks Ever

Phishing Email Examples

Think of your email inbox as a house, and the phishing emails as crafty con artists. They knock on your door, claiming to be your bank, your service provider, or your favorite online store. They’re convincing. They use the right logos, the right language, and they know just what to say to make you trust them. But don’t be fooled, they are not who they claim to be. Just like the con artists, phishing emails are here to trick you out of your personal information.


Phishing emails are deceptive messages that mimic legitimate communication to trick recipients into disclosing sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. These fraudulent emails often appear genuine, using familiar logos and language, but lead the unsuspecting user to counterfeit sites or malicious software.

Example 1: eBay (2003). The first major example of phishing occurred in 2003 when fraudsters sent emails to eBay users. The email appeared to come from eBay, and it asked users to update their credit card information on a fake eBay site. Thousands of users fell for the scam, making it one of the first mass-scale phishing incidents.

Example 2: IRS Phishing (2016). In one of the largest phishing scams of 2016, scammers impersonated the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Users received emails claiming they were entitled to tax refunds. To “claim” the refunds, victims were directed to a website that mimicked the IRS site where they were asked to input their personal information.

Example 3: COVID-19 Phishing (2020-2021). The global pandemic saw a spike in phishing scams, with criminals exploiting fear and uncertainty. Emails appeared from seemingly legitimate organizations such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These messages typically offered vital information about the virus in exchange for personal data or directed users to malware-laden sites.

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Phishing Email Examples In-Depth

eBay (2003)

Imagine, for a moment, a time when eBay was the biggest online marketplace, long before Amazon claimed the throne. It was a wild west of digital shopping, bustling with products from all corners of the world. The promise was simple – the joy of finding an object of desire, bargaining, and the ultimate thrill of winning an auction. It was, indeed, a shopper’s paradise.

But in this paradise, an unseen threat began to loom. A new, sinister phenomenon was about to turn the tide, transforming the joy of online shopping into a risky affair. In 2003, eBay users started receiving peculiar emails, seemingly from eBay itself.

Remember getting that little heart flutter when you receive an unexpected email from a friend or a favorite brand? That’s what these emails initially felt like. They bore the eBay logo, the colors were spot on, and the language sounded just like the emails users received after winning an auction. Everything seemed just right.

The emails had a simple message: “Dear user, please update your credit card information”. An innocent request on the surface, perhaps something most would do without a second thought.

But these emails weren’t as they appeared. Underneath the shiny veneer of eBay’s branding, a fraudulent beast was hiding. Those who clicked on the provided link found themselves not on eBay’s official website, but a cunning replica designed to steal sensitive information. The site, just like the email, seemed entirely legitimate. But when unsuspecting users entered their credit card information, they were not updating their eBay accounts. They were, in fact, sending their financial data directly into the hands of cybercriminals.

The scam was a grand-scale hit. Thousands of eBay users fell victim, their trust in the familiar branding leading them astray. The consequences were serious, ranging from financial loss to identity theft.

This incident was one of the earliest and most significant examples of what we now know as phishing. Cybercriminals had found a way to exploit trust, using a disguise to trick users into revealing their personal data. The eBay scam of 2003 was a wake-up call, alerting internet users to the presence of digital wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Despite the seeming gloom, there’s an important silver lining. This event ignited a spark, driving companies and individuals alike to take cybersecurity more seriously. Email providers began implementing spam filters, companies invested in educating their users about online scams, and individuals became more cautious with their online dealings.

The eBay phishing incident of 2003 is a harsh reminder of the risks that come with our interconnected digital world. It serves as a lesson and a warning, prompting us to think twice before we trust an email just because it looks familiar. After all, in the wild west of the internet, not every cowboy wearing the sheriff’s badge is there to uphold the law.

IRS Phishing (2016)

Now, picture this. It’s the tax season of 2016, a time where the hustle of number crunching and paperwork could feel a bit like preparing for a grand ball. There’s anticipation, a little stress, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, you’d get a decent refund.

Then, out of the blue, an email pops up in your inbox. It’s from the IRS, or so it seems. A bit of unexpected sunshine, right? It tells you that you’re eligible for a tax refund. Instantly, your day seems brighter. What better news could there be amid the tax season grind?

The email, dressed up with the IRS logo and official-sounding language, provides a link to a website where you can claim your refund. All you need to do is input some personal information. It seems like a small price to pay for such a pleasant surprise. But wait, is it really?

As it turned out, these emails weren’t from the IRS. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing, a sophisticated phishing attempt aimed at extracting personal data from unsuspecting tax-payers. The link in the email led to a fake website designed to mirror the official IRS portal.

The stage was set to perfection: an official-looking email, a website that mirrored the IRS, and the lure of a tax refund. Unsuspecting recipients entered their information, hoping for a refund, but instead, they fell into the hands of cybercriminals. It was like a grand magic show, with the audience left bewildered and cheated.

This scam marked one of the largest phishing incidents of 2016. The attackers didn’t just impersonate the IRS, they played on people’s hopes and anxieties around tax time. It was a cruel magic trick, with personal data instead of a rabbit coming out of the hat.

But every dark cloud has a silver lining. This incident led to a substantial push for increased cyber awareness. The IRS took measures to educate the public about such scams, emphasizing that they never initiate contact with taxpayers via email to request personal or financial information.

The 2016 IRS phishing scam is a crucial chapter in the story of phishing emails, highlighting the cunning lengths to which attackers will go to exploit vulnerabilities. It serves as a stark reminder that not every pleasant surprise in your inbox is cause for celebration. Sometimes, it’s a trojan horse, cloaked in the guise of an expected refund, biding its time to steal your data.

This tale from the annals of cybercrime serves as a powerful lesson: no matter the sender, no matter the promise, always verify before you trust. In the world of email communication, it pays to be a little skeptical and a lot cautious.

COVID-19 Phishing (2020-2021)

There’s a profound saying, “In every crisis, there’s opportunity.” However, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, some saw an opportunity that was anything but noble. Amid the fear, uncertainty, and global chaos, a new wave of phishing scams surfaced, exploiting the crisis like a cunning pickpocket in a panicked crowd.

Imagine the scene. It’s 2020, a year that will forever be etched in our collective memory. The pandemic has pushed everyone indoors, and the internet is our window to the world. Emails have become lifelines, connecting us with loved ones, providing essential work communication, and most importantly, delivering crucial health updates.

One day, you see an email appearing to be from the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Your heart races. Could it be essential news about the virus? An update on the lockdown? Or perhaps information about the vaccine? The email prompts you to click on a link for vital COVID-19 information. Trusting the well-known organizations, you click, but you are not directed to life-saving information. Instead, you’re led into a trap.

These emails, despite their convincing appearance, were not from health organizations. They were the handiwork of cybercriminals. The links in the emails led to fake websites asking for personal information or initiated downloads of malicious software designed to steal data.

What made these phishing attempts so insidious was how they leveraged people’s fears and the desire for information during a crisis. It’s human nature to seek knowledge, especially during uncertain times, and these criminals capitalized on that, casting wide nets in a sea of vulnerable people.

However, with every dark act comes a beacon of light. As these scams became more prevalent, they triggered an international response. Cybersecurity firms, global organizations, and even tech giants like Google and Microsoft stepped up, taking measures to filter out these phishing attempts and educate users about the threats.

The COVID-19 phishing scams of 2020 and 2021 serve as a grim reminder of how crises can be exploited by cybercriminals. These incidents underline the need for constant vigilance and skepticism when it comes to unsolicited emails, even those seeming to come from trusted organizations.

The echoes of this chapter in cybercrime history will reverberate for years to come. It underscores that while we cannot control the crises that come our way, we can control how we respond to them. We can keep our guard up, validate the information we receive, and ensure that our desire for knowledge doesn’t compromise our digital safety. In an age of uncertainty, these are the certainties we must cling to.


In the ever-evolving world of cybercrime, phishing stands out as a constant and potent threat. From eBay’s first encounter in 2003 to the IRS phishing scam in 2016, and the recent COVID-19 related phishing attempts, the intent remains the same: to deceive and steal personal information. These historical episodes remind us that the face of phishing may change, but its essence remains a predatory threat in the digital realm. As we move forward, it’s imperative that we learn from these incidents, arming ourselves with knowledge and vigilance to ensure our personal and financial information remains secure in our own hands.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is the purpose of phishing emails?

Phishing emails are designed to trick you into divulging personal or financial information such as your passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security number. This is done by masquerading as a trustworthy entity, like your bank or a reputable company, in an attempt to deceive you into thinking the request is legitimate.

How can I spot a phishing email?

Phishing emails often have telltale signs: generic greetings, spelling and grammar mistakes, requests for personal information, and links to dubious websites. They may also convey a sense of urgency or use scare tactics. Always verify the sender’s email address, and when in doubt, contact the company or organization directly through a known, trusted method.

What should I do if I receive a phishing email?

If you suspect an email is a phishing attempt, do not click on any links, open attachments, or provide any personal information. Report the email to your internet service provider and to the supposed sender (contact them directly via their official website). Also, forward the email to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at If you think you’ve been a victim of a phishing scam, contact your bank and credit card companies, and monitor your accounts for unusual activity.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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