According to a telecommunications executive in Atlanta, Georgia’s Cobb County School District missed a possible opportunity to save $250,000 a year in a telephone services deal, because the district’s spam eMail filter captured his bid information before it reached officials’ desktops.

District officials admit they never received the eMail message in question from Mike Russell, president of Elite Telecom Services. However, they say they have time-stamped evidence suggesting that Russell’s bid would not have won anyway–and that he has taken belated advantage of the situation to claim he should have.

Regardless of whether that is true, the episode underscores the imperfect nature of spam filters–and serves as a warning to school officials and vendors about the danger of relying solely on eMail for important communications.

It has become routine–almost a cliché–in school districts and the workplace to criticize spam filters as being almost as annoying as spam itself. The filters are difficult to calibrate and often capture eMail messages from legitimate senders in efforts to weed out pornography, internet scams, and other unwanted solicitations.

Russel was bidding to get a lucrative local and long-distance telephone deal with the district. When Cobb County officials sent him an eMail message to ask some questions about his bid, his return message was eliminated as spam. District officials, who say they have no way to retrieve the message in question, say their spam filter likely caught Russell’s use of the term “long distance,” a common product spammers attempt to sell, and rejected the eMail as junk.

BellSouth Corp. ultimately won the telephone services contract, to the tune of about $670,000 a year for five years. That price is about $250,000 higher than what Russell, who was acting as a representative to the district for the telecom provider ITC Deltacom Inc., claimed to be able to offer, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported on the incident.

Russell’s eMail message was a follow-up to a formal hard-copy bid already in possession of district officials, according to the Atlanta newspaper. When officials needed to get some questions answered, which is standard in most bidding arrangements, they contacted Russell via eMail and asked that he respond the same way.

“We must have our response to this request returned via eMail … in order for your company’s response to be considered further,” Jill Vestal, a purchasing official, wrote to Deltacom’s Michael Smalley.

District purchasing officials considering the contract said they disqualified Russell’s bid because they believed he had not responded to their request for more information. Russell appealed the process, but on May 1, Cobb County Superintendent Fred Sanderson declared the matter closed.

Jay Dillon, Cobb County’s director of communications, said district officials did not learn about the lost eMail message until after they awarded the contract on Feb. 23. “A simple phone call [from Russell] would have clarified everything,” he said. Still, Dillon said, the district awarded the contract to the lowest bidder anyway, which was BellSouth.

“The fact is, his bid was higher,” Dillon said of Russell.

To corroborate his assertion, Dillon forwarded an eMail message dated Feb. 24–the day after the winning bid had been announced–to eSchool News. The eMail apparently was sent by Russell to district Chief Operations Officer Diane Bradford, whom Dillon said Russell knows personally. In the message, Russell appears to acknowledge that BellSouth had the lower price:

“Diane, I bid on RFP 53-05 and BellSouth beat out my price by $229.34 per month. Is it possible for me to see the RFP selection breakdown for the award. [sic] Thanks, Mike”

Russell told eSchool News that, if given the opportunity to present a “best and final offer,” he would have offered an additional 10-percent discount off his originally bid price. He said he never got that opportunity, though, because the message he sent on Jan. 30 in response to Vestal’s eMail was blocked.

Russell told other news organizations that the district had received every other eMail message he had sent, so he had no reason to suspect this one would be blocked. In an interview with the Journal-Constitution, Russell also brought up another recent scandal in Cobb County involving the district’s difficulty in rolling out a proposed one-to-one laptop computer program (see story: http://eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5812).

“I would have thought that, because of the laptop procurement, they would have been much more diligent in handling the bidding process [for telephone service],” Russell reportedly told the Atlanta newspaper. “But they were not.”

Said Cobb County’s Dillon: “The one issue we would [dispute] is … that he says his bid was lower. We don’t have any evidence of that. We didn’t find out that there was any problem with his eMail until after we awarded the contract. If we had found out beforehand, it might have made a difference.”

Dillon continued: “Our lesson is that we will work to perfect our spam filter technology. His lesson is that, any time you send an eMail with an important attachment, it is probably best to follow up with a phone call to make sure it got where it is supposed to go.”

Anders Johnsson, a spokesman for DerbyTech Inc., a spam filter provider, called maintaining an anti-spam filtering system a “constant cat-and-mouse game,” with spammers constantly finding new ways to get around anti-spam techniques–and spam filters adapting to those strategies.

“Anti-spam filters blocking legitimate eMail is a problem we see all the time–a false positive, we call it. Most traditional anti-spam features will use a number of different criteria: blacklisted eMail servers, an eMail message that has images and no text, or keywords that indicate someone is trying to sell you things,” Johnsson explained.

“Some systems will block the message and return it to the sender; it gets lost or it’s put into what they call a quarantine. Some send messages to queues and offer an administrative configuration to train the filter. Configure something too loosely, and a lot of spam comes through. That’s why a legitimate message was blocked. This is something that is found in any anti-spam system.”

Links:

Cobb County School District
http://www.cobb.k12.ga.us

Elite Telecom Services
http://www.elitesvc.com

BellSouth Corp.
http://www.bellsouth.com

DerbyTech Inc.
http://www.derbytech.com