Cheshire County held a cybersecurity briefing for local officials Thursday, just weeks after the town of Peterborough announced it had lost $2.3 million in an email scam earlier this summer.
That attack prompted county officials to make cybersecurity the topic of Thursday’s virtual session in an effort to prevent similar incidents, according to County Administrator Christopher Coates.
“We felt it was important to have a discussion,” Coates told attendees, who included representatives from several area towns as well as state lawmakers from the region. The county has held informational sessions for local officials on a variety of topics during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Local officials heard Thursday from a trio of cybersecurity experts: Cori Casey, a risk management consultant at NH Primex, the insurance firm that Peterborough has asked to cover its losses; Timothy Benitez, an agent with the U.S. Secret Service, which is investigating that scam; and Jason Sgro, senior partner and chief strategist for the Portsmouth cybersecurity firm ATOM Group.
Since small communities typically have few employees with little cyber knowledge managing a substantial budget, Sgro said they’re frequently targeted in cyberattacks.
“You’re housing high-value targets with a relatively low level of defense,” he said. “That makes us prime targets here.”
In addition to using a secure email domain and multi-factor authentication, Sgro urged local officials to provide cybersecurity training for town employees and to develop a response plan in case of an attack. Each successful attack, he warned, encourages scammers to perpetrate more of them.
Benitez said the cybersecurity threat calls for a “whole-of-government approach,” stressing the need for local officials to get trained on preventing attacks.
“The more people that are knowledgeable on these crimes, it helps us to better understand where our risks lie,” he said.
Officials in Peterborough, which has a $15.8 million budget this year, have said the town was defrauded by scammers posing as ConVal Regional School District staff and a contractor working on the Main Street bridge. In the former scheme, the scammers duped town finance staff by telling them via email that ConVal had changed banks and providing wire-transfer information for a fraudulent account, according to Town Administrator Nicole MacStay.
Peterborough has since recovered nearly $600,000 of the lost funds, MacStay announced last week.