Are phishing scams illegal? It's complicated.

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There are thousands of phishing scams launched daily — but cybersecurity software can help protect your devices and your personal information. (Photo: Getty)
There are thousands of phishing scams launched daily — but cybersecurity software can help protect your devices and your personal information. (Photo: Getty)

Going online, even just to check your email, can be risky these days thanks to phishing scams. Cyber criminals are getting incredibly smart about finding ways to get your personal information, often without you even realizing that something is off.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there are thousands of phishing scams launched daily, increasing the odds that you or someone you care about will fall victim to them. But the sheer volume of schemes out there raises an important question: Are phishing scams illegal? The answer is a little complicated.

One thing is clear: You need reliable methods to protect yourself and your sensitive information.

Software like Malwarebytes Premium can help. It offers continuous protection against online threats, including phishing scams, ransomware and viruses before they can reach your devices. Malwarebytes Premium will also signal when you've accidentally landed on a malicious website to help shield you and your privacy.

Shop it: Malwarebytes, free 30-day trial*, then just $4.99 a month

Cybercriminals often try to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment that they will then use to steal your personal information. (Photo: Getty)
Cybercriminals often try to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment that they will then use to steal your personal information. (Photo: Getty)

Here's what you need to know about phishing scams, whether they're illegal and how to protect yourself.

What are phishing scams?

Phishing scams are online schemes where a cybercriminal will usually impersonate a reputable party that you trust, like your bank or online streaming service, and try to trick you into divulging your personal information, Joseph Steinberg, cybersecurity expert and emerging technologies advisor, tells Yahoo Life.

These criminals often try to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment that they will then use to steal your personal information. Phishing scams can come in the form of texts or emails, the FTC says, and they'll often say one or several of the following:

  • They've noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts on your account

  • They claim there’s a problem with your account or your payment information

  • They say you must confirm certain personal information

  • They include a fake invoice

  • They encourage you to click on a link to make a payment

  • They say you’re eligible to register for a government refund

  • They offer a coupon for free food

"Because of advances in graphics, the use of automation for phishing attacks, and the fact that ransomware from phishing has become very profitable for cybercriminals, email phishing scams are almost a daily encounter for most users," tech and cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International, tells Yahoo Life. "Unfortunately, with the volume of attacks and sophistication of attacks, everyone is a target and phishes are not always easy to detect."

Cybersecurity experts say that everyone is a target when it comes to phishing scams. (Photo: Getty)
Cybersecurity experts say that everyone is a target when it comes to phishing scams. (Photo: Getty)

Are phishing scams illegal?

Here's where things get a little tricky. "In most cases, the act of sending a single phishing message is, in itself, not explicitly prohibited by federal criminal law," Steinberg says. "However, there are multiple criminal laws that do apply to nearly all cases of phishing, whether it is perpetrated to steal money, data or identities."

An example: When prosecutors charge someone who conducted a phishing scam over the internet, they usually cite federal wire fraud laws, Steinberg explains. "Of course, depending on the particulars of a phishing scam scenario, state laws may also apply, as may laws from jurisdictions outside the United States," he says.

What to do if you think you were the victim of a phishing scam

If you think or know that you've been the victim of a phishing scam and you think a scammer has important information such as your Social Security number, your credit card number or your bank account information, visit IdentityTheft.gov and follow the steps based on the information you think was stolen.

If you think you clicked on a link or opened an attachment that downloaded harmful software on your device, the FTC recommends updating your computer's security software and running a scan.

Installing cybersecurity software like Malwarebytes Premium can also help by offering another layer of protection — and the software can prevent you from becoming the victim of a phishing scam in the first place. It's important to protect your personal information online to avoid getting yourself into a bad situation.

Shop it: Malwarebytes, free 30-day trial*, then just $4.99 a month

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