Phishing Not Fishing: All About TMCC's IT Department

Graphic of a fishing hook pulling a computer mouse.
Rebecca A. Eckland

It’s probably happened to you at least once: you open your inbox and discover an email from a colleague or supervisor, but something feels “off.”  You ask yourself: “why are they sending me this attachment or link?” And then, you give the person the benefit of the doubt and you open the attachment and you’re rewarded seconds or days later with the realization that you’ve been hacked—or more specifically, phished.  

Welcome to the latest initiative of the TMCC Information Technology Department: a campaign to educate all of us on the dangers of cybercrime and, specifically, phishing. Why is this important? Read on, and learn about this specific threat and the work that our IT Department does to improve and streamline access to education for our students while maintaining an appropriate level of security for us all. 

What is Phishing Anyway?

Adding “ph” to the front of a word doesn’t always have the same effect. While “phat” becomes a more positive adjective than its original “fat,” “phishing” doesn’t end up with a meal at the end of a relaxing day by a river or lake. Instead, phishing is a threat that many organizations, including TMCC, face. Phishing is one of several ways hackers attempt to access information through emails that purport to be from a reputable source in order to convince individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. 

Thwarting attacks like this—and educating our campus community—is one of the top initiatives of TMCC’s Information Technology Department, which has recently contracted with KnowBe4, a company that provides security awareness training. The training package was launched in December 2019.  “This kind of training is valuable,” said Chief Technology Officer Thomas Dobbert, who is working to integrate a CyberSecurity training module into the on-boarding process for new employees as well as ongoing training for current employees. 

It’s no wonder that CyberSecurity is a hot topic in a world where cybercrime takes one percent of the global GDP—or roughly $600 million—cybercriminals are adopting new technologies and techniques to obtain your personal information or the data stored by entities like colleges, cities and financial institutions. According to Dobbert, the most common attacks seen at TMCC utilize one or more of the following approaches:  

  1. Impersonation of someone in authority;
  2. A request for you to purchase something, e.g.: a gift card;
  3. A request that you reset a username or password by submitting identifying information;
  4. An unexpected email asking you to open an attached file; or
  5. A technique called “social engineering” in which a false social connection is used as the reason to trust the sender or visitor.

“Even though TMCC does not house financial, student or Workday data—we still need our staff to be trained on what cybersecurity attacks look like, and how to avoid them,” said Dobbert, who suggests that it’s always a good idea to check with IT if an email looks suspicious before following its directions or opening any unexpected attachments. 

The Many Facets of Information Technology

There’s more to Information Technology than just phishing, though: this department is responsible for keeping the college connected, up-to-date and secure while providing students with avenues to succeed in higher education. This includes working with teaching faculty on integrating new technologies to improve learning outcomes in classrooms, providing basic technical support to all college students and employees and maintaining the “network backbone” of TMCC’s internal systems upon which every existing and future technology runs. 

It’s no small job, and the IT Department (which is further divided into four divisions: Network, Telephony and Server Support; IT Customer Service; Desktop Computing and Media Services; and Database Services) is up to the task.  And although it might not be apparent (or even particularly visible), TMCC’s IT Department plays an integral role in the ability of the college to meet several of its goals, including reaching students and giving them the tools and access to succeed.

Five Facts about IT that Nobody Knows (Until Now)

While IT hosts a comprehensive website filled with useful information about their services, there are a few surprising ways that this department contributes to student success that you may not have known. 

  1. TMCC Programmers and Database Admins enhance internal systems. Have you noticed that notification that arrives in your inbox every three months reminding you to change your password? That is run by a program created by TMCC Programming Services. Every month, over 3,000 students and staff change their password using this program.  Our in-house programmers have also created a retention tool that enables instructors using Canvas to see when their students last logged into the platform and what their activity was. Behind the scenes, automated processes download and update TMCC’s data warehouse overnight, so other departments have current student and PS data available. 
  2. Technology is a major factor in college capital projects and day-to-day operations. Whenever a new building is added to a TMCC location or a space is renovated, IT is always involved.  “Years ago, IT was an afterthought, but now we are always at the table,” said Dobbert, who cited the recent construction of the Sports and Fitness Center as an example of this. “We were able to pre-wire the building so that we can install security cameras, televisions and to discuss with the Athletics Department what kind of content they want displayed on the screens,” said Dobbert. “We are also happy that TMCC leadership supports our suggested equipment life cycle replacement plan. Because of it, no academic computer is older than 5 years. Office computers get refreshed on a 5-year cycle, based on the available funds.” 
  3. There was not always a full time employee at the Help Desk, a.k.a. IT Customer Service. “Training a student worker takes at least six months and by the time they are ready to work they move on,” said Dobbert who advocated for a full-time IT Customer Service Employee. Since this position has been created and filled, the Help Desk has increased the number of  first-call-resolutions dramatically. IT Customer Service is a “one stop shop” where problems find appropriate solutions efficiently.
  4. IT supports student interns and students’ progression into professional careers. Through a partnership with the TMCC Career Hub, students who are interested in working with IT can apply for an internship opportunity with this essential department. Interns spend 2–3 weeks working closely with each of the four divisions within IT, learning new skills and discovering what aspect of this wide and quickly growing field interests them the most. The IT Department also “grows” its own professional employees by offering student workers opportunities to fill temporary positions, which enables them to gain experience (and sometimes to complete a degree) they need to apply for a permanent position. To date, 17 of the 23 employees in IT were once TMCC student workers. 
  5. The lights never go off in IT. Due to calibrated redundancies in our systems, TMCC students, faculty and staff can count on connecting to systems like email and Canvas 24/7.  While this makes maintaining the equipment that host these services something like a delicate dance, services have a 99% “uptime.” This means that even in the face of fire, fierce winter weather or natural disaster, TMCC has systems in place to make sure you can access your online class no matter what.  Also included in this fun-fact is the IT Department’s vigilance in the face of online cyber attackers: every minute, more than 120 potential threats are encountered and blocked by the college’s firewall.  That’s 120 phishing attempts per minute you never, thankfully, see. 

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of what this multifaceted department does (or even what it can do for you), it gestures to the many ways technology is embedded deeply into every learning experience. If you would like to learn more about technology on campus, contact or join the Technology Committee, or contact TMCC’s Information Technology Department at 775-673-7800.