Nothing ruins a family dinner like an unwanted spam call. In fact, no one wants a robocall at any hour of the day; it’s frustrating to pick up the phone and be greeted by a recording. At least you can tell off a telemarketer!
What you may not know is that robocalls are actually illegal. The Federal Trade Commission blocks the practice and enforces a strict policy blocking billions of pre-recorded marketing calls per year. Still, robocalls keep coming.
Spurred by negative public reaction to such calls, the FTC recently mounted a challenge for technological innovators called the FTC Robocall Challenge. The object? To find creative and workable solutions to blocking incoming spam communications.
The FTC’s Call to Action
The contest was created in hopes of sparking innovation amongst computer scientists, marketing experts, and businesses in order to address the widespread issue of robocalls. Said Charles Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection:
“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. 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.”
And it turns out that innovators all over the country agree.
Almost 800 submissions were received for the competition, judged by “All Things D” Co-Executive Editor Kara Swisher, FTC Chief Technologist Steve Bellovin, and FCC Chief Technologist Henning Schulzrinne.
The main guideline was to come up with a solution to the robocall problem that is technically well-conceived. The decision was broken down into three areas of consideration: 50% workability, 25% ease of use, and 25% readiness to roll out to consumers.
The Winners: Their Solutions and How They Work
In the first challenge category of Best Overall Solution, two winners tied for the coveted $50,000 prize (which they’ll split). Both proposals operate on a platform of “blacklisting” and “whitelisting” calls — effectually blocking calls containing pre-recorded messages and allowing acceptable numbers to come through.
Their systems rely on CAPTCHA technology, which is most recognizable as a letter-entry anti-spam measure for Internet users (you might see it when you pay with your credit card online, or reset a password).
The first winner, Serdar Danis, invented a model that relies on a device or mobile app installed on a user’s phone that uses software to intercept robo-calls. Aaron Foss, winner #2, came up with a cloud-based system titled “Nomorobo,” which would direct all calls to a second line that picks out robocalls and terminates them before passing calls to the user.
The FTC also chose a winner of the Robocall Challenge Technology Achievement Award, given to a corporate innovator. Google’s Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson received the honor for their solution, which also involves electronic algorithms and the automatic blocking of spam calls.
Educate Yourself on Robocalls
If you’re interested in seeing what other kinds of creative solutions for robocalls are out there, the FTC has posted short descriptions of all of the contest entries on their website. The suggestions ran the gamut from computer- or electronic-based strategies to legal maneuvers.
Many of the submitters wrote a detailed overview of their suggestions, which the FTC hopes will ignite more public conversation about the issue. They’ve already dealt with a multitude of phone scams (check out our feature on their victory against text message spammers), and hopefully they can help put robocalls to rest, too.
Just remember that the FTC doesn’t officially endorse any of these solutions or services, and you should check with your local law enforcement and your telephone provider before implementing any measures to prevent future robocalls.
If you have an idea for blocking robocalls that has a certain ring to it, be sure to visit the FTC’s website. Or tell us your thoughts in the comments!