What is the Difference Between Hacking and Phishing?

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

Hacking and phishing are likely two terms you are familiar with, but unless you have been a victim or you work in an industry related to computer security you might not understand the difference between the two.

Both crimes are typically committed by nefarious individuals intending to defraud someone out of money. However, in some cases, innocent actions can be misconstrued as an attempt to commit a computer crime. This is especially true when a person’s job requires them to perform certain actions related to computer security, information gathering, or interacting with people via email or social media. Understanding hacking and phishing, and knowing the difference between the two, can help you protect yourself from becoming a victim of criminals. It can also help you protect your freedom if you are accused of a crime.


Phishing is an illegal means by which to acquire the information consumers use to identify themselves online. For instance, many phishing scams target usernames and passwords to sites that store credit card or bank information. An example would be when a criminal sends an email to a consumer that claims to be correspondence from his or her bank. The email includes a link that appears to be the bank’s website. The victim clicks the link and enters his or her sign-in information. However, the link was actually to a look-alike site that is designed solely for the purpose of collecting information illegally.

Computer Hacking

Hacking, in its simplest terms, is the act of gaining access to information to which you are not authorized. Hacking might have a similar intent to phishing, to defraud consumers in some way, but the means of doing so is different. Hacking can also be done for other purposes and is considered by the United States government a matter of national security. The FBI considers hacking part of its Computer Intrusions category of crimes, which also includes malware, spyware, viruses, worms, and bots.

Some consider phishing a form of hacking, but in hacking, the information is extracted involuntarily. The criminal is forced to take over a system, as opposed to baiting the victim into participating, as would be the case in phishing.

Protecting Yourself

Both hacking and phishing are on the rise and continue to increase in complexity. People who consider themselves smart enough to recognize an unusual email or fraudulent website have fallen victim to some of the more elaborate perpetrators. Likewise, hacking crimes have become more elaborate, as evidenced by the recent successful attempts to access credit card information of consumers shopping at Target and other retailers.

What does this mean for you? First, you need to protect yourself from the criminals and know how to recognize suspicious activity. Second, if you have a job that requires you access computer information, you need to know your limitations. There are instances in which people work as so-called ethical hackers and are responsible for finding weaknesses in the computer systems of their clients. If this is you, make sure you understand the parameters of each assignment and that you have extensive written details of the project.

Finally, if you consider yourself an “amateur hacker” and you just like to fool around occasionally without ever intending to steal or cheat, you can still get into a great deal of trouble. Gaining access to computer systems to which you are not authorized, even if you have no intentions of taking anyone’s money, is still a crime.

If you cross a line unintentionally or otherwise, I can help. I am an attorney that understands the complexities of computer crime laws and I know how easy it is to find yourself in trouble when you never intended to break the law. To learn more about computer crimes defense in Collorado and Wyoming , contact criminal law defense attorney David Lindsey, in Denver to schedule a free consultation to discuss the specifics of your situation.

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