FTC targets aggravating robocallers again with new public contests

FTC enlists public again with $50k in prize money to slay robocalling

Despite a number of efforts the Federal Trade Commission hasn’t been able to kill off robocalls so it is once again turning to the public with two new challenges to come up with a solution to the scourge.

strikesback contest FTC

First, the agency is looking to crowdsource a robocall system consumers can use to block or forward unwanted robocalls automatically to a honeypot where researchers and investigators can use to study the calls.  

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The contest called Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back has two phases: a qualifying phase and a final phase. The first phase starts now and ends June 15, 2015. The top five scorers will move on to the final phase, which ends at DEFCON 23 on August 8, 2015. There the top prize of $25,000 will be awarded and up to two honorable mentions may be awarded $10,500.

The second contest, called DetectaRobo will be part of the National Day of Civic Hacking on June 6, 2015. At this event contestants will use exiting call data to develop an algorithm that predicts which calls are likely to be robocalls. Submissions are due June 7, 2015. Specifically the FTC says: You’ll be given two sets of call data from an existing honeypot. The first set will indicate which calls are likely robocalls; the second set won’t. Use the first set to develop an algorithm, and then apply your algorithm to the second set to predict which calls are robocalls.

The contests come on the heels of the FTC settling one of its largest robocall cases. This week the FTC and 10 state attorneys general settled charges against a Florida-based cruise line company and seven other companies that averaged 12 million to 15 million illegal sales calls a day between October 2011 through July 2012, according to the joint complaint filed by the FTC and the states.

Consumers who answered these calls typically heard a pre-recorded message supposedly from “John from Political Opinions of America,” who told them they had been “carefully selected” to participate in a 30-second research survey, after which they could “press one” to receive a two-day cruise to the Bahamas. Once consumers completed the survey and pressed one for their cruise were connected to a live telemarketer working on behalf of Caribbean Cruise Line, Inc. (CCL), to market its cruise vacation packages, the FTC said.

The rat in the ointment here is that while the FTC’s do-not-call and robocall rules do not prohibit political survey robocalls, the defendants’ robocalls violated federal law because they incorporated a sales pitch for a cruise to the Bahamas. The robocalls generated millions of dollars for the cruise line, the FTC said.

The robocall scourge continues to confound. The FTC has held two crowdsourcing events to come up with new technologies that can beat back the robocallers, the most recent was last summer’s DEFCON where the FTC challenge was called, “Zapping Rachel,” a reference to the “Rachel from Cardholder Services” robocall scam the agency took out in 2012. The FTC’s Robocall Challenge in 2012 yielded nearly 800 new ideas on how to stop robocallers. One of the winners of that challenge, Nomorobo, offers a free service to prevent robocalls.

According to the FTC, the growth in robocalls has been enabled by technological changes that have drastically decreased the cost of making phone calls. Robocall companies use technical tricks to lower their costs even more. For example, some experts believe that the robo-voices that you hear on their calls are chosen, in part, because they are especially compressible--they can be transmitted at low data rates and still sound good.   This lets the robocallers cram more simultaneous calls through the same Internet connection.

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