Spam Filter Costly to Georgia School

A Georgia school, eager to avoid a large volume of junk e-mail, recently installed an aggressive anti-spam system. Unfortunately, the filter stopped a message from a contractor who was submitting a low bid to do work for the school, and the spam filter error may have cost the school thousands of dollars.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Cobb County has the second biggest school district in the state of Georgia, and as such, it gives contracts to vendors that are worth millions of dollars. The district has now awarded one worth more than $600,000 for long distance phone service.

But another guy, Mike Russell, offered a bid that was a quarter of a million dollars less. So why didn't the district take his cheaper bid? Two words: spam filter.

NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Let us dispense with the irony right up front. Mike Russell is the president of Elite Telecom Services. If only he had used even a middling to poor telecom service, a sneaker phone, for God's sake, just to call the Cobb County School District to say, hey, did you get that email I sent responding to your request for clarification?

But he did not make that call and the school district did not receive his email response and Russell did not win the contract.

But that is hindsight. At the time, when Cobb County schools emailed Russell asking for clarification on his bid, things seemed to be as routine as can be.

Mr. MIKE RUSSELL (President, Elite Telecom Services): The clarification email was sent to me on a Friday afternoon at about 2:20 PM with a due date of the following Monday by 5:00 PM, and it said to respond via email. It specifically said via email. It did not say follow-up with a fax or hard copy. It said because of the time constraints, we need to respond via email.

PESCA: He did and received no notification that anything was amiss. But according to Cobb County officials, their district spam filter had blocked the email. The problem may have been the inclusion of the words long distance. That phrase is frequently included in come-ons and scams that spammers send.

Unfortunately, the phrase long distance is bound to be included in a bid for long distance phone service. Though, Russell says he hasn't had any trouble other times with spam filters targeting his emails, Paul Judge, the chief technology officer of Cypher Trust, which builds spam filters, says a blanket restriction on phrases like long distance is a hallmark of some older spam filtering programs.

Mr. PAUL JUDGE (Chief Technology Officer, Cypher Trust): When the technology wasn't as mature for anti-spam several years ago, one of the things that was very commonplace was to do content filtering. Or for people to guess words that they thought would show up spam messages, like mortgage and low interest and long distance. And so there's still a lot of administrators around the world that still take part in that practice.

And the difficulty is, it may stop a lot of spam messages, but there's also a chance of it stopping legitimate email.

PESCA: Robert Morales, the district's financial officer, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that their contractors need to have more of a never say die attitude. Not to take no answer for an answer, as it were. “I think any good manager is going to follow-up the bid process,” Morales was quoted as saying.

The district, of course, has to balance two interests. One is having a consistent bidding process. They can't be allowing for exceptions for every aggrieved or over-filtered losing bidder. But the other interest is to wisely spend the taxpayer's money, and Russell says his bid would have been the best way to do that. He also says it would have been a very big contract for his small company.

Mr. RUSSELL: It would have been a huge part of my business, and it would have been something that I would have dedicated the next five years of my life to, to making sure that the Cobb County School System received the most efficient and the best services at the best value.

PESCA: A commitment to quality. Okay, you expect to hear that from any contractor. But it's especially believable to hear it from Mr. Russell, who perhaps more than other telecom providers, knows just how frustrating it can be when your attempts at communication don't go through.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. New York.

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