I've received an email which is an obvious phishing attempt. However, a .pdf has been attached which I want to open, just out of curiosity!

What are the risks in downloading .pdf files from unknown sources? Can .pdf's be harmful to my phone or computer, or is it just an attempt to look like it's come from a legitimate source?

  • 3
    Yes, PDFs can be very very harmful (one of the most common places to embed a virus). But are you asking if there is danger in downloading but not opening, or downloading and opening?
    – schroeder
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 17:59
  • 1
    Related but perhaps not a duplicate: security.stackexchange.com/questions/64052/… Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 18:00
  • @schroeder, I'm not sure. What about just opening the file, without downloading it?
    – dvniel
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 19:42
  • I am concerned that you have not been exposed to very basic security awareness and phishing basics. Do you have a deeper question that I am not seeing?
    – schroeder
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 19:52
  • 1
    Any attachment can be a vector for infection. That is why the main advice has always been to never open an attachment from a source that you do not know or cannot verify. Some organisations strip all attachments that are in inbound emails.
    – schroeder
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 20:47

1 Answer 1


Check out this thread on superuser, which explains how PDFs can do damage:

PDF files are both complex (so easy to have bugs in parsing code that can be used for malware) and have Javascript, which can be used for nefarious purposes as well.

A PDF exploit is one way in which these file types can be dangerous:

Earlier this month, Belgian researcher Didier Stevens demonstrated how malicious PDFs could use a standard feature of the PDF specification to run attack code hidden in the file; he also demonstrated a way to modify an Adobe Reader warning message in order to further trick users into opening such documents.

If I recall correctly, and a post in the Stack Overflow thread "Safely opening .txt files" supports my recollection, the only safe file type is .txt, but I could be mistaken.

  • 3
    The vulnerability is not the format itself but rather the software with which you open the file. If you open a .txt file with notepad and notepad has a vulnerability, then yes, it can be harmful as well.
    – Xavier59
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 3:20
  • 1
    With the advent of Unicode even .txt files are not always safe; check the recent exploits of Apple systems by some emojis. Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 9:11

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