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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Spam This Deputy Minister

Spammers last week got on the wrong side of the wrong man, and quickly found themselves with a taste of their own medicine. The man? Deputy Communications Minister Andrei Korotkov.

Tired of the endless spate of unsolicited messages that clog e-mail systems everywhere, hawking everything from discounted air conditioners to pornographic web sites, a frustrated Korotkov decided he would politely ask one repeat offender, the American Language Center, to take him off its lists.

That morning he had arrived to find a flurry of e-mails inviting him to join its English classes. If he didn't need one offer, he certainly didn't need 40.

"I sent them an e-mail thanking them for the offer to teach me English -- which I already know -- and asked them to stop," said Korotkov, who oversees the government's Electronic Russia initiative, a program to use the Internet to make the paper-dependent federal bureaucracy more efficient.

But not only was he not removed from the language center's mailing list, he said he suddenly found himself added to several more. Only now, they were addressed to him, personally, by name.

This spammee had had enough; the spamming had gone too far.

With the brainstorming help of the Group Against Harmful Programs, a recently created anti-spam (and anti-virus) organization, whose members include Internet providers Russia Online and Rambler.ru, Korotkov decided he would fight unsolicited e-mails with unsolicited phone calls -- fighting fire with fire, as it were.

The plan they hatched called for Korotkov to record an audio message to be volleyed nonstop to the telephone numbers listed in the language center's own spam messages.

"They wanted to joke us around, so we decided to joke them around, too," Korotkov said flatly.

ROL and Rambler, whose own networks suffer from the volume of spam, volunteered their equipment to the goal of teaching spammers some boundaries.

The American Language Center was thus pelted with 1,000 automated phone calls in a single morning.

As the center's office near Oktyabrskaya metro station was serenaded with frenzied, incessant rings, anyone who picked up the receiver heard the Big Brother voice of Korotkov, wagging a cautionary finger and alluding to the dire consequences of further offenses:

"I want to warn you that if you continue your illegal activity, then the necessary measures will be taken not just by me," the Korotkov voice intoned, after giving his name and ministerial affiliation.

Efforts would be made, he said, "to make it impossible for you to get in the way of e-mail users and to make your life complicated.

"Once again, I implore you, stop these illegal activities and think of some legal ways to achieve your goals."

At the American Language Center, office manager Natalya Petrova admitted that the phones did indeed ring all morning, although eventually they managed to block the calls.

As she put it: "We liquidated the problem."

But that solution, ironically and inadvertently, may have posed the greatest inconvenience.

A message sent soon thereafter to an e-mail address at The Moscow Times from the language center's server read, "Unfortunately our telephones have been blocked, please contact us via the ICQ [Internet-based messaging system]."

As for how Korotkov's message was received by the language center's staff, Petrova said, "That question is for the management, who are not available."

In fact, they were "very far away, too far away to receive phone calls," she said, adding that she was authorized to say only that the e-mails sent by the center are commercial information, informing clients and potential clients of changes in the center's services.

As threatening as Korotkov's message sounds, he admits that it was artificially ominous, since there is no legal recourse for putting a stop to spam.

"There is no law against spam, it [such a law] doesn't exist anywhere," he said.

"What we did isn't a very effective way to fight spam," he conceded.

"But it has drawn attention to the problem."

And that problem is significant.

Up to 70 percent of e-mail traffic to web-based e-mail servers is spam, Korotkov said, adding that the country's advertising legislation should be amended to reduce the volume of junk mail in circulation, not just spam, but printed flyers too.

Ultimately, though, the authorities have to get at the people who pay for spamming services, Korotkov said.

Technically, there's hope.

"I think you can kill 60 percent of spam," said Andrei Kolesnikov, an internet expert with ROL who helped organize Korotkov's voice message delivery.

Spammers have ways to get around anti-spam filters, he said, but it's possible to collect patterns from their e-mails and block certain logarithms.

Kolesnikov said there were no more plans for using phone calls to annoy people out of spamming.

"This isn't 'The Empire Strikes Back,'" he said.