FTC awards $50k in prizes to cut off exasperating robocalls

Winning technologies use call filtering software to knock off illegal robocalls

The Federal Trade Commission today said it picked two winners out of nearly 800 entries for its $50,000 Robocall Challenge which dared  technologists to come up with an innovative way of blocking the mostly illegal but abundant calls.

According to the FTC, Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each receive $25,000 for their proposals, which both use software to intercept and filter out illegal prerecorded calls using technology to "blacklist" robocaller phone numbers and "whitelist" numbers associated with acceptable incoming calls. Both proposals also would filter out unapproved robocallers using a CAPTCHA-style test to prevent illegal calls from ringing through to a user.

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Danis's proposal, titled Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting,Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection,would analyze and block robocalls using software that could be implemented as a mobile app, an electronic device in a user's home, or a feature of a provider's telephone service. Foss's proposal, called Nomorobo, is a cloud-based solution that would use "simultaneous ringing," which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user, the FTC stated.

A Technology Achievement Award went to Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson of Google for their Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression solution. The proposal from Klein and Jackson involves using automated algorithms that identify "spam" callers, the FTC said.

The FTC said the technologies offer technologies  - they work with any phones -- that are workable and the next step is getting private industry to use these them to block and reduce the number of robocalls.  The offerings that our winners came up with have the potential to turn the tide on illegal robocalls, and they show the wisdom of tapping into the genius and technical expertise of the public," said Charles Harwood, Acting Director, FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC Robocall Challenge got 744 ideas for ways to shut down the annoying automated callers.  (The entire gallery of pitches can be viewed HERE.)

The FTC noted that the vast majority of telephone calls that deliver a prerecorded message trying to sell something to the recipient are illegal. The FTC regulates these calls under the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Challenge was issued to developing technical or functional solutions and proofs of concepts that can block illegal robocalls which despite the agency's best efforts seem to be increasing.

The FTC Robocall Challenge was judged by Steve Bellovin, FTC Chief Technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission Chief Technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital.

Criteria for the contest included:

  • Does it work?: 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 health care 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 land lines? Proposals that will work for all phones will be more heavily weighted.
  • Is it easy to use?: 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?: 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 world-wide, 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.

The FTC said it gets more than 200,000 complaints each month about telemarketing robocalls, the highest amount of consumer complaints it receives.

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