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Free service blocks robocalls

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October 1, 2013

Nomorobo is a new service, the role of which is to block illegal robocalls (Image: Shutter...

Nomorobo is a new service, the role of which is to block illegal robocalls (Image: Shutterstock)

You're relaxing after a hard day at work, or just getting ready to cut into a juicy steak at dinner. All seems right with the world, just for a moment. Then the phone rings, disturbing your bliss with yet another recorded spiel for some shady deal. You slam the phone off, and return to your life while muttering vague obscenities. Nomorobo now offers a transparent system for reliably blocking such robocalls, that is far more effective than Do-Not-Call lists. Best of all, the service is free.

The scourge of robocalls disrupting the smooth flow of life occurs for most of us at an unacceptable level. In 2004, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) instituted a Do-Not-Call list intended to prevent unsolicited calls from pitchmen, while FCC regulations also forbade such calls to cell phones. These measures proved ineffective, largely owing to spoofing techniques and a lack of enforcement (The FTC receives nearly 200,000 complaints per month about robocalls). I receive several robocalls each day, which always seem to occur at the least convenient moments of life.

Earlier this year, the FTC held a contest for potential solutions to the problem of robocalling. One of the two co-winners was an inventor named Arron Foss, whose previous inventions include a dipping bowl for buffalo wings and a cancer treatment tool for children. His solution to the robocalling problem is Nomorobo (a portmanteau for "no more robocalls").

Nomorobo is a verbal relative of the CAPTCHA system used to verify that the user of a website is not a robot. You ask your phone service to set up Simultaneous Calling service (free with Vonage phone service and others). Once this is done, any call to your phone will ring first at Nomorobo's servers.

Nomorobo first compares caller ID information against a continuously-updated blacklist. If the number appears there, the call is immediately blocked. Next, the recent activity on the calling phone is analyzed. If the calling phone is too active, or is calling blocks of phone numbers sequentially, the call is identified as a potential robocall.

A potential robocall is answered by the Nomorobo servers (yes, with a robotic voice). The caller is asked to type a number on their phone dial. Presumably, a human will do so, while a robot (for now) will not. If the proper response is made, then the call is allowed to pass through to your phone.

At present, Nomorobo blocks over a million robocalling numbers (out of perhaps half a billion currently assigned phone numbers), these having been collected by the FTC and other entities concerned with robocalling ravages. A number of beta testers have been using the service in stealth mode over the past few months, finding that about 80 percent of illegal robocalls are successfully blocked by Nomorobo. This proportion is improving with time.

How does Foss intend to make money with a free service? At present he has a small amount of angel funding that is supporting the roll-out of the service. As time goes by, he will be selling the service to businesses, which take real losses when their employees burn time, require more phone lines, and lose focus when answering robocalls. Eventually, he wants to offer value-added services, such as blocking robotic political calls, which are technically legal, but as annoying as marketing robocalls. I can hardly wait!

The video below provides a basic introduction to the system.

Source: Nomorobo

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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12 Comments

In Austria something like this would not be possible at all for data protection reasons. These robocallers have you in a database. In Austria it is not allowed to enter persons into databases without their permission. By law you can request to get information about your presence in a database and if you are there, you can request to be removed. Illegally entering a person into a database is a violation of the data protection laws and can result in a fine of 10,000 Euro (14,000 USD) and up to two years in prison. I would recommend the US implements simillar laws and the problem is solved.

Elmar Moelzer
1st October, 2013 @ 04:59 pm PDT

@Elmar - it's a robot, not a person, so it would not be illegal to list them

Also, law is enforced (or not) by humans. Even if you listed human pest callers, no matter how angry the pest is going to get, they're never going to convince the law to take any action - it's too stupid, and lawmakers are too busy on important stuff.

The law already isn't shutting down nuisance callers, there's no chance it's going to try to shut down an anti-nuisance caller solution - if for no other reason that leaving them alone is going to halve the amount of nuisance caller complaints they don't shut down. That improves their clearance rates, and makes them look good and efficient. No brainer :-)

christopher
2nd October, 2013 @ 12:24 am PDT

Some government agencies offer bounties on notification of fineable offences. This nomorobo detects and documents sources of robocalls. Perhaps he could fund the service by detecting and turning in offenders and collecting a % of the fines?

Of course the arms race will always continue....

Bob Ehresman
2nd October, 2013 @ 07:16 am PDT

We have laws in Canada similar to Austria but it doesn't stop robocalls from companies or computers located outside of Canada.

I am listed on Canadian Government's do not call lists, so I don't get robocalls from Canadian companies.

But I get 2 to 6 robocalls every day - from companies and computers in other countries (mostly from the USA).

robo
2nd October, 2013 @ 07:28 am PDT

We would welcome anything that can get the maximum fines imposed on the violators, especially since we've started getting many more robo calls on our cell phones. If the service can at least more efficiently block anybody that doesn't want to share their identity (which many of us block as unlisted numbers) for us personally that would be worth a bit to us (without violating the "rights" of those who think I'd be interested in letting them contact me).

We're all for rewards/bounties on the real criminal violators, no matter what clever ways they find around laws and other technical solutions (we want the laws and tech solutions working more effectively for us).

Even better is providing us with premium blocking based on simple "metadata" like phone numbers we choose. If the "metadata" arguement works for the NSA, why wouldn't it work for us?

aerojim
2nd October, 2013 @ 09:31 am PDT

What the article fails to mention is that to use this service your phone carrier has to support it.

I checked AT&T, T-Mobile and Straight Talk...none of them support it. The NoMoRobo folks off the helpful suggestion of calling your carrier to ask that they add support for this product.

Another great, but unusable idea.

Michael R. Hawk
2nd October, 2013 @ 09:39 am PDT

Now go after spam emails and Google ad ware. Trackers are just as annoying! Advertisers have become nothing more than peeping paparazzi and data thieves. A bounty usually gets rid of vermin!

donwine
2nd October, 2013 @ 09:52 am PDT

This is very cool, but will always be less than 100% effective because collectors need to legally be able to contact deadbeats. But what if ALL mass calling and use of autodialing tech were a crime? Then stricter criteria would be used in lending decisions, and there'd be fewer deadbeats. Combined with stiffer penalties for defaulting on consumer debt this would put most collection agencies out of business, leaving only those emotionally and financially prepared to deal with their deadbeat contacts human to human. As for telemarketers, I think I'm going to write a little script of my own to use on people who call me to hawk me something: "Excuse me, sir/ma'am, the only things I ever buy on impulse are cheap knick-knacks at the register. I know that if I buy something I hadn't budgeted for already, I've paid 100% too much and wrecked my monthly budget. Thank you for calling. Goodbye!" Now, if I could just get nomorobo to program THAT message to be played to unwanted callers, I'd gladly pay a buck or two per month for the privilege. Rock on, Aaron Foss!!

William B. Bangs
2nd October, 2013 @ 10:47 am PDT

When the phone rings at inopportune moments just ignore the dumb thing.

Slowburn
2nd October, 2013 @ 09:28 pm PDT

There are easier ways....

One. All robo-dialers listen for a disconnected number tone...it's to the dialers advantage to check because they dont' want to waste time on disconnected numbers! So, all you need to do is play the tone that tells robodialers that the number called is disconnected. I have such a device on my home phone. Cost me $19. It's plugged into the phone line anywhere in the house. when I pickup any other phone in the house, the device emits a tone that both parties can hear. Nobody's ever complained, and I never get any robo calls. Plus, it also works if your answering machine picks up...just before your outgoing message, it plays the tone and by the time your outgoing message plays, the robodialer has already hung up!

You can do the same thing for free as well. Just find a site on the internet that has the audio file for the sound. Record it as the first thing on your outgoing message on your answering machine (or voicemail or whatever you are using to answer your calls) then record your message as normal...now, if you screen your calls, all robocalls will hang up!

You're welcome!

Ed
2nd October, 2013 @ 11:46 pm PDT

ed, I accept that I can tell my family and friends that when they hear the tone on my line it's a fake, but how do I explain that to non-robot callers from companies with which I do business?

dalroth5
3rd October, 2013 @ 10:27 am PDT

@ dalroth5

The robot callers hang up so fast that you do not need to just talk after a bit of tone.

Slowburn
3rd October, 2013 @ 10:08 pm PDT
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