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US Federal Trade Commission offers US$50K prize for blocking robocalls

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November 7, 2012

The U.S. FTC is offering a US$50K prize for a solution to the problem of blocking robocall...

The U.S. FTC is offering a US$50K prize for a solution to the problem of blocking robocalls (Photo: Shutterstock)

In the United States, about 30 billion robocalls (pre-recorded automatically dialed solicitations) are placed each year, and similar conditions hold across much of the world. In the U.S. and many other countries, most commercial robocalls are illegal. As part of an ongoing campaign against these illegal robocalls, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is launching its Robocall Challenge, seeking a solution that blocks illegal robocalls on cell phones and on landlines. It is offering a US$50,000 cash prize for the best practical solution.

A commercial robocall is a telephone call sent by a computerized autodialer that delivers a recorded sales message. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rules for telemarketing that make such unwanted and frequently deceptive robocalls illegal, unless the caller has been given written permission in advance by the owner of the landline or cell phone number. Many other countries, including Canada, Australia, and the U.K. also regulate against unauthorized robocalling.

Despite this, robocalling is very popular with a certain class of marketers whose services or products usually teeter on (or fall off) the border between misleading information and scams. The number of such calls (which cost a few cents each to place) has skyrocketed with advances in technology, and government agencies are receiving huge waves of protests and complaints from their beleaguered citizens.

This has prompted the FTC to resort to using an innovation challenge for the first time. Hosted on Challenge.gov, it joins other government-sponsored challenges designed to empower the public to bring their best ideas and talent to bear on our nation’s most pressing issues. The FTC Robocall Challenge is free to enter and open to the public, and also to companies having ten or fewer employees. Entries will be accepted until January 17, 2013, after which judges will evaluate the entries. If a winning solution is identified, the FTC will announce the winner(s) early next April.

A complete list of official rules and frequently asked questions are available on Challenge.gov, but here are the basics. The challenge is to develop a solution that will block illegal robocalls on landlines and/or mobile phones (preferably without blocking allowed robocalls or other desired calls) and which can operate on a proprietary or non-proprietary device or platform.

The proposals will be judged based on three criteria:
  • 1) Does it work? (50 percent of total score) – includes such issues as effectiveness, universality, and robustness.
  • 2) Is it easy to use? (25 percent of total score) – covers the user's experience, including training, ease of use, and satisfaction of the user.
  • 3) Is it deployable? (25 percent of total score) – covers issues such as phone system changes required to use the solution, how long will it take to deploy the solution, and economic cost of the solution.

“The FTC is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts, and one of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, when he announced the challenge and prize at the Commission’s Robocall Summit last month. “We think this will be an effective approach in the case of robocalls because the winner of our challenge will become a national hero.”

Source: FTC.gov

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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5 Comments

If I threatened someone for ransom money to be paid by credit card, I would be identified and arrested within 24 hours of receiving it because it can be tracked.

Claiming I had no knowledge of the ransom and just happened to notice a bunch of money in my account and start spending it would almost certainly not save me.

How then do some of these companies like US Fidelis (famous for auto warranty scams) get away with robocalling and exploiting people for years (to the point that they were nearly able to just stop doing it and later emerge as a legit company with TV commercials and sponsoring a NASCAR team). They later ran with the money, declared bankruptcy (wouldn't wan't to have to warranty any vehicles with the money) and many former employees started other copycat companies.

I guess the answer I am getting at is as long as phone numbers are fairly small, many are in use, and calls are cheap to place robo-dialers will be a hard problem to solve. But all of these companies seem to have in common that they are collecting money from people on the other end of the phone and money can be followed so "sting" type operations should be easy enough to do that companies like Fidelis should have never had the level of success for as long as they did before anyone did anything about it.

Setting that point aside, my idea to reduce robo-calls is also what I think is the most obvious. A captcha type system for the phone line. Inbound callers are prompted to solve an easy problem to continue on to you:

"This user restricts calls, to continue please enter the sum of 3 and 6 on your keypad"

If they get it wrong they can retry. A small team would be able to assemble a tech demo on asterisk easily IMHO. As the robots become sophisticated enough to answer the questions people can come up with more difficult (more personal) questions.

"This user restricts calls, to continue enter the first 3 letters of their first name on your keypad"

I'll take my payment as a life supply of cheese in a can, thanks.

-Diachi

Daishi
7th November, 2012 @ 09:26 pm PST

I want to add to my proposal that if you have an interface to change preferences it would be simple to white list people from having to pass the captcha. If my grandmother struggled with it for instance I could permit her phone number for instance and the system would look at her caller ID data and pass her through if it matched.

A robocaller obviously wouldn't know to spoof grandma but you could even take white listing a step further. There are specific NPA-NXX's that I know if I receive a call from I know it is legitimate. I could white list whole blocks of numbers as capacha exempt or even use the UI to pull in my contacts file to prevent from entering a bunch of numbers manually.

It actually doesn't seem like that difficult of a problem to solve and it would give phone companies/service providers another tool they can use to differentiate themselves from the competition.

It seems like an obvious enough solution that I'm kind of surprised it doesn't already exist.

Daishi
7th November, 2012 @ 09:52 pm PST

Surely they could just use a call blocker? They're available on amazon for about forty quid.

Jamie_S
8th November, 2012 @ 01:27 am PST

"Many other countries, including Canada, Australia, and the U.K. also regulate against unauthorized robocalling."

Someone should tell Telstra this!!!!

internetscooter
8th November, 2012 @ 04:14 pm PST

For those of us using VOIP (Google Voice, Skype, etc) it would be pretty easy to add a "report this number as spam" option. Phone companies could do this too, with a *XX after the call has been made - calls that have been reported as spam by other users could come through with a recording before the other end hears a "pick-up" saying "this call has been reported as spam". These numbers and numbers that make more than 10 calls a minute for more than two minutes could get forwarded to the FCC. For people with smartphones, someone could just make an app that has a list of spam numbers and displays "This number reported for illegal calls". The FCC could just check the list at the end of each week.

OR the FCC could just ask Google to pull search results for common robocall and spam numbers - every time I get a suspicious call I just look it up, about 9 times out of 10 it pops up on the user groups.

I would submit these, but they're essentially already done. Maybe someone else will bother to code them and get the money though. Let's face it though - even if you just look at legal action, Google is probably comparable to or better than the FCC for identifying and taking down spam, despite a large call for action and an abundance of tools. That may not be a bad thing, but it does mean that the problem is not about tools, but about implementation.

Also, the coincidence to election time is notable.

Charles Bosse
9th November, 2012 @ 07:36 am PST
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