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FTC rewards plans to block robocalls

Two inventors split $50,000 for innovations to fight annoying telephone solicitations.

By Mitch Lipka Apr 2, 2013 7:49PM

Whether it's about lowering your interest rates, "winning" a trip or getting a great car warranty, most of us have gotten a call from an auto-dialing robot that plays a prerecorded announcement. And pretty much everyone who has gotten one of those robocalls has been annoyed by them.


Plus, most of the calls -- which are all about separating you from your money -- are illegal. Many of us are all too familiar with "Rachel from Cardholder Services."

Try as they might to stop the companies that generate these calls by the millions, the Federal Trade Commission has been unable to halt the practice. So, the agency came up with the FTC Robocall Challenge to try find someone out there who could come up with an innovation to help solve the dilemma. Prize money for the winning solution: $50,000.


About 800 people submitted entries, and, in the end, there were two winners announced Tuesday -- each receiving $25,000. Two Google employees, who were not eligible for prize money, also were recognized for their "Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression Solution."

Here's what the two prize winners came up with: A way to intercept and filter the illegal calls by blacklisting phone numbers used by robocallers and using a test similar to CAPTCHA that's on websites to ensure the user is human and not a robot.

“The solutions 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 of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re hoping these winning proposals find their way to the marketplace soon, and will provide relief to millions of American consumers harassed by these calls.”


Winner Serdar Danis, a computer engineer, offered a proposal that would block robocalls using software in the form of a mobile app, electronic device or as part of the telephone service. His proposal is titled  "Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection."


Co-winner Aaron Foss, a software developer whose proposal was called "Nomorobo," designed "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."


Foss and Danis were tied for "best overall solution."


The FTC issued the challenge last year as part of its ongoing fight against these prerecorded marketing calls. The FTC hosts the national Do Not Call Registry, where consumers can list their phone numbers if they don't want to receive marketing calls. Politicians, companies you do business with and charities are not blocked. And the lawbreakers disregard the list -- making the battle particularly frustrating.

If you get a robocall, here's some advice from the FTC about how to handle it:

  • Hang up without choosing any of the options. Pressing a number will likely lead to more nuisance calls.
  • Think about telling your phone service provider and asking if they could block the number. But ask doing so comes with a charge. Because the calls can come from many numbers, it probably isn't worth paying to do that.
  • Report the call to the FTC.


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Apr 3, 2013 4:23AM
These calls are subject to a $5,000.00 personal charge and $10,000.00 federal charge for each call.  Seems the FTC should be interested in making a profit by enforcing existing laws.  Just nail one of these guys for the $15.0 million in fines they generate each month and the rest would disappear.  So tell me again what the FTC does except generate paperwork?
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