Local authorities are warning of the dangers of misinformation from agents purporting to be from council services, ranging from fake parking notices to fake emails from scamsters using council email addresses.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils across England and Wales, is today outlining guidance to residents to help them sort legitimate information from councils from “fake news” which can be inaccurate and misleading.
Councils are responsible for an array of services, and use their websites, email services, and social media to keep residents up to date with developments, from informing them about roads and school closures during severe weather, to keeping relevant residents up to date about essential social services.
The Government has recently established a National Security Unit to tackle fake news on a national and global scale, and the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee are currently investigating its impact on political discourse.
However, councils are concerned about the use of misinformation to impact local authorities’ day-to-day work and are warning residents to be on their guard for unexpected communications purporting to be from authorities that are in fact from scammers seeking to trick people into obeying fake parking laws or swindle them out of money.
The LGA is urging residents to follow a “three-stage fact-check” to determine whether they are seeing genuine information online or fake news or a scam.
Who: Residents should first check the source of the online information. If it’s information on social media such as Twitter or Facebook, some accounts will be verified with a blue tick, which will make checking the source simple.
How: Residents should ask themselves about the media they are seeing this information on. If they are looking at a council website purporting to be a council site, the domain name should end gov.uk and it should include basic information such as the details of elected councillors and how to contact relevant services. Twitter and Facebook feeds will usually have a straightforward, fairly formal tone about communication on behalf of a public body.
What: Most importantly, residents should ask questions about what content is being distributed and whether it is something a council would want to communicate to residents. If the information is sensationalist, out of character for a public body, or looks to actively campaign as opposed to being politically neutral, those are all red flags that the information may not be legitimate.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:
“The ability to supply accurate information to residents is crucial to councils – whether it’s advising of closures owing to severe weather or updating on essential services. Fake news and misinformation can have serious consequences.
“The best way to tackle misinformation is for residents to be constantly vigilant, and ask the key questions of any information they see online – who is supplying this information, how are they doing it, and what are they saying? If those questions set off any red flags or alarm, it’s worth cross-referencing information with other council communication channels, such as the council website, social media, or calling the council directly.
“Councils will always endeavour to communicate in an accessible and professional way. Simple checks such as looking for verification ticks on social media, or checking the tone and style of written communications can help residents sort between genuine council correspondence and misinformation.
“Anybody concerned about fake communications purporting to be from a local authority should contact their council directly.”
Calderdale Council had issues with fake emails being sent from addresses using the council’s domain name, claiming that a PayPal transaction had been processed, but that were actually part of a phishing scam. As soon as the illegitimate emails were detected, the Council issued an immediate media alert, published an online response, and contacted residents to let them know the emails were fake and advised any respondents to contact the police’s fraud action team to take further action. Residents with questions about the emails would have been able to find out more on the council’s website or contacting them directly.
Coventry City Council recently issued guidance on how to sift fake news from factual stories, so that residents could be equipped to sort fact from fiction online. The guidance highlights a number of online resources, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica and UK Newsstand, which enable residents to cross-check news stories with verified factual information. In addition, the council recommends that residents ask themselves a series of questions when viewing material online, such as where else the story has been reported and whether or not the outlet is trustworthy. Their guidance is available at their website.
Nottingham City Council had to deal with misinformation when fake parking notices were put up in Sneinton Close in the city, advising residents they would face a £120 parking charge or have their vehicle removed by “a toe truck” [sic]. The letter featured the council’s logo and was typed on what appeared to be an official letterhead, but was in fact fake. The Council worked with local police to distribute notices to residents in the area and briefed local media to let them know the notices were false.
Leicestershire County Council issued general advice to residents to tackle misinformation and avoid being scammed. The Council advised residents to discourage uninvited callers over the phone or at the door, to get multiple quotes for any home improvement plans, and cautioned that buying off auction sites and social media could be “very risky”. They also advised that residents had the option to call the Telephone Preference Service to opt out of marketing calls by ringing 0345 070 0707.