FTC throws down robocall gauntlet: $50,000 for best way to stop annoying calls

FTC already has the law on its side but wants new tech ideas to back it up

It's not clear if the Federal Trade Commission is throwing up its hands at the problem or just wants some new ideas about how to combat it, but the agency is now offering $50,000 to anyone who can create what it calls an innovative way to block illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones.

Officially the program is called the FTC Robocall Challenge, and it will be judged by Steve Bellovin, FTC chief technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission chief technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. A complete list of rules and frequently asked questions are available on Challenge.gov.

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The FTC Robocall Challenge is free and open to the public. Entries will be accepted beginning on Oct. 25 at 5 p.m. ET, until Jan. 17, 2013, at 5 p.m. ET. The winner or winners will be revealed in April 2013.

The FTC said the prize will be awarded to an individual, team, or small corporation (10 employees or less) if a solution is developed based on the following criteria:

•Does it work? (50%): How successful is the proposed solution likely to be in blocking illegal robocalls? Will it block wanted calls? An ideal solution blocks all illegal robocalls and no calls that are legally permitted. (For example, automated calls by political parties, charities and healthcare providers, as well as reverse 911 calls, are not illegal robocalls.)

•How many consumer phones can be protected? What types of phones? Mobile phones? Traditional wired lines? VoIP landlines? Proposals that will work for all phones will be more heavily weighted.

•Is it easy to use? (25%): How difficult would it be for a consumer to learn to use your solution? How efficient would it be to use your solution, from a consumer's perspective?

•Are there mistakes consumers might make in using your solution, and how severe would they be?

• Can it be rolled out? (25%): What has to be changed for your idea to work? Can it function in today's marketplace? (Does it require changes to all phone switches worldwide, and require active cooperation by all of the world's phone companies and VoIP gateways, or can it work with limited adoption?) Solutions that are deployable at once will be more heavily weighted, as will solutions that give immediate benefits with even small-scale deployment.

Additionally, organizations that employ more than 10 people may compete for the FTC's Technology Achievement Award, which does not include a cash prize.

As part of the challenge, the FTC announced it will provide participants with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012. Challenge participants interested in this data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through Dec. 31. The complaint data will include: date of call; approximate time of call; reported caller name; first seven digits of reported caller phone number; and consumer area code.

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The FTC has also been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still allows shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information, the FTC said.

The FTC said it will host on Oct. 25 two live social media chats for 60 minutes each to answer questions about the challenge. Chat participants can follow the @FTC Twitter handle and are encouraged to ask questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter using the hashtag #FTCrobo. Immediately after the chat, at 2 p.m. ET, staff will answer questions on the agency's Facebook page.

While there are legal measures in place to stop most robocalls, the use of the annoying automated calling process seems to be on the rise. The Challenge was announced at a hearing this week on what could be done to further tighten the rules.

The FTC defined the rules that outlawed most robocalls in 2009 has taken notice of the increase of late -- 2 million public complaints of violations in the past year alone.

The agency, which says it has stopped billions of robocalls in the past couple of years, says a variety of technologies are making it easier for telemarketers to skirt or at least try to get around the law. The increased use of automated phone call systems that just blast away calls without first screening the Do Not Call registry is one of the main enabling technologies. The ability to operate such systems via the Internet and hiding or spoofing their location is another problem.

According to the FTC, nearly all telemarketing robocalls have been illegal since Sept. 1, 2009, and the only legal sales robocalls are ones that consumers have stated in writing that they want to receive. Certain other types of robocalls, such as political calls, survey calls and charitable calls remain legal, and are not covered by the 2009 ban.

To date, the FTC says it has brought 85 enforcement cases targeting illegal robocalls, and violators have paid $41 million in penalties. Since January 2010, the FTC has brought law enforcement actions, shutting down the companies responsible for more than 2.6 billion illegal telemarketing robocalls.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: @nwwlayer8 and on Facebook.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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