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How Local Governments Can Protect Against Phishing Email Scams

By Stephen Brandofino

Local government officials play a pivotal role in their local communities. From providing support for essential services, to upholding the integrity of their community, these officials in many ways have the wellbeing of their constituents in their hands. Not only that, but the safety and security of the citizens of their municipality is a paramount responsibility for local governments as a whole. 

Whether it is the threat of crime, violence, or natural disasters, government officials must act fast with the proper tools to resolve any issues facing their communities. One of the most recent dangers that local government officials have faced, as well as society as a whole, is cybercrime. Of the many different ways cyber criminals can perpetrate these crimes, none may be more common or dangerous than Phishing Emails.  

Read on to learn everything you need to know about phishing emails, how to identify them and how to protect against them. 

What is a Phishing Email?

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Phishing is “a type of online scam that targets consumers by sending them an email that appears to be from a well-known source” – an internet service provider, a bank, or a mortgage company, for example. It asks the consumer to provide personal identifying information. 

Then a scammer uses the information to open new accounts, or invade the consumer’s existing accounts, hack into their networks and cause havoc. These predatory emails target hapless consumers who believe they are getting a message from a trusted source, and can cause at times serious damage to a person or institution. This type of attack can create serious issues for local governments, as these officials have access to extremely sensitive information regarding their constituents. With the move to a more digitized form of data storage, local governments are extremely susceptible to these attacks. 

Why Are Phishing Emails Dangerous?

Phishing emails are extremely dangerous, due in large part to their deceptive nature and the magnitude of potential consequences they can inflict on a municipality’s networks. Phishing poses a heightened risk to local governments due to the magnitude of their operations, the sensitivity of the data they handle, and the important role they play in providing essential services to their communities. Here are a few reasons why they pose a great threat to a local government: 

  • Sensitive Data Exposure

Local governments handle a large amount of delicate data, including citizen information, tax records, social security numbers, and infrastructure details. Phishing attacks against local government employees can lead to unauthorized access to this data which will in turn compromise the security of citizens and operations of your local government.

While you’re here, check out our source on Government Data Analytics To Learn Tips & Considerations for Municipal Data

  • Financial Impact

A well thought out and successful phishing attack can cause significant financial losses for a local community. Cybercriminals may manipulate local government employees into doing things such as transferring funds, divertying allocated budgets, or disrupting financial operations, impacting a local government's ability to properly serve their community.

  • Public Trust and Image

In many respects, trust is the most important factor for a smoothly run municipality. Citizens must trust their local government officials to make the decisions that best serve their everyday needs. Breaches in local government systems due to phishing can dissolve this trust. There is an expectation by citizens that government officials will act with integrity and safeguard their personal data. A successful phishing scam can damage a government's reputation and credibility among their constituents. 

To learn more about Building Trust in Local Government and Keeping Your Constituents Happy  view our resource. 

Local municipalities may not have the proper systems dedicated to protecting against cybercrime. This may make them more vulnerable to these sort of attacks. It is imperative for local governments to invest in things like cybersecurity training,  regularly updated security protocols, or the implementation of a Government IT Disaster Recovery Plan for Municipal Governments

Learn more about 7 Government Cybersecurity Best Practices here. 

Key Ways To Identify A Phishing Email

It may be difficult to identify a phishing email at first glance. To the untrained eye, these scams may look like an email you would normally receive and not think twice about engaging with, after all that is the purpose of these attempts by cyber criminals. Identifying these emails involves scrutinizing different parts of the email to verify its authenticity. 

The following steps should be taken by your local government officials, so they can be well versed in spotting these ill intended efforts:

1. Check the Sender's Email Address 

The first step should be to intently examine the sender's email address. Phishers will often use email addresses that closely resemble legitimate ones but may have slight variations or misspellings. You should also verify the sender’s email domain for authenticity. Some examples of common phishing scam email domain tactics include:

    • Using domains that mimic credible organizations. For example, phishers may use domains like "@legitcompany-support.com" instead of the authentic "@legitcompany.com”. 

    • Phishing emails will sometimes come from personal emails. If you receive an email regarding a legitimate business from a personal email, it may be a sure sign of phishing.

    • Phishers will also use free email service providers such as GMail, Yahoo, or AOL, to facilitate these scams. A credible business or company will almost always use a paid for email domain that is consistent throughout their company. 

2. Look for Generic Greetings

A common occurrence in phishing scam emails is the usage of generic greetings. Look out for phrases such as “Dear Customer” to legitimize an email you receive. Legitimate senders will oftentimes personalize an email they are sending with the name of the recipient. Phishing scammers will also use an impersonal tone when sending these emails. Local government officials and government workers alike should look out for specifics regarding the recipient as well as the relationship with the organization before continuing.  

3. Check for Spelling and Grammar Mistakes

An easier to spot sign of a phishing email are spelling and grammatical errors. If you notice any of these or any other awkward usage of language, it is more than likely a phishing scam, as credible organizations normally have strict proofreading processes. Many phishing attempts will originate from foreign countries, so if there are inconsistencies in the use of english in the email, you should proceed with caution. 

4. Verify Links Before Clicking

It is important to verify links that you click prior to clicking them. A fool proof way to do this is to hover your mouse over the links in the email (without clicking) to reveal the actual URL. If this looks suspicious or does not properly match the stated link, it may be a phishing attempt. Also be aware of any unexpected attachments, especially from unknown senders.

5. Be Cautious with Urgent or Unusual Requests

Phishing emails will often create a sense of urgency, pressuring their recipients to take immediate action. Urgency and even at times threats, are common tactics used in phishing emails to manipulate recipients into taking immediate action without careful consideration. Certain examples of these actions may include, threats of account closure, warning of security breaches, fake invoices or overdue payments, and even threats of legal action.

It's essential to remain cautious and critically evaluate emails that create a sense of urgency. Legitimate organizations usually do not require recipients to provide personally sensitive information over email. Emails that ask for sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers, or other personal details should also be heavily scrutinized. Legitimate organizations typically do not request such information via email. 

 By remaining vigilant and scrutinizing these elements in emails, local governments can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to phishing attempts. If in doubt, it's always safer to directly contact the organization through official channels to verify the authenticity of an email.

Best Practices for Protecting Against Phishing Emails 

Due to the ease of these phishing scam attempts to infiltrate local governments information systems, it is important to take the necessary steps and precautions to protect against them. 

Some of the best practices local governments can implement to avoid these scams are listed below:  

It is important to stay informed about the latest phishing techniques and educate yourself on how to recognize phishing emails. The best safeguard against these crimes is the ability to point them out and properly react to suspicious contact attempts. You should also share this knowledge with friends, family, and most importantly, your local government colleagues.

  • Use Email Filtering and Security Software

Enable email filtering and security features provided by your email provider. These tools can help detect and filter out potential phishing emails before they reach your inbox. With the increased threat that phishing scams has created, email filtering has become more of a common  occurrence for personal and business emails. 

Check out GovPilot’s Local Government Information Technology Software

  • Avoid Providing Sensitive Information

Legitimate organizations usually don't ask for sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card details, via email. Be cautious and avoid providing such information unless you are certain of the request's legitimacy.

Store your data securely in the government cloud to keep it safe and prevent risks of cyber attacks. 

  • Keep Software and Security Tools Updated

Regularly update your operating system, antivirus software, and other security tools. These updates often include patches for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by phishing attempts. 

With the help of GovPilot’s Government IT Security Enrollment, you can enroll your local government employees in cyber security training which can help to protect your constituents.  

  • Use Different Passwords and Change Login Credentials Regularly 

It is a good idea to avoid using the same password across multiple accounts. If one account is compromised, using unique passwords helps prevent attackers from gaining access to other accounts. Regularly updating passwords for your accounts is also a beneficial way to limit phishing damage. 

  • Verify With the Sending Organization

If you receive an email requesting sensitive information or payment, contact the organization directly using a trusted contact method (e.g., a phone number from their official website) to verify the legitimacy of the request.

Local government officials should take the necessary steps to educate employees and government workers on phishing emails and how to keep their local government department safe. The safety of constituents falls in the hands of local government officials, so it is important for these individuals to be properly equipped. Book a consultation with GovPilot

Phishing Email Threat FAQs

  • What is a phishing email? 

A phishing email is an email that appears to be from a legitimate source such as an organization, school, or business. These emails will ask the recipient to provide sensitive information in the hopes that the sender can use this information to perpetrate certain identity crimes. 

  • Why are Phishing Emails bad? 

Phishing Emails are extremely dangerous and can have costly ramifications. Phishing criminals' goal is to obtain personal information from unsuspecting individuals and use that information to do things like open fake credit card accounts, send unauthorized payments, and access other personal financial information. 

  • What can be done to safeguard against phishing emails? 

Thankfully there are numerous steps that can be taken to safeguard against phishing emails. Educating yourself and your colleagues on these steps can prove to be a beneficial and important step in keeping your community safe. 

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Tags: Government Efficiency, Cybersecurity, Digital Transformation, GovTech, Disaster Recovery