FTC splits $50,000 robocall killing tech prize

Mobile apps and cloud checks to silence spammers


The Federal Trade Commission is awarding $25,000 apiece to two inventors who have come up with methods to defeat the hated robocaller, and has tipped its hat to Google for also putting in a good suggestion.

Last October, the FTC announced it would offer $50,000 for workable solutions from individuals or companies with less than ten people to block illegal automatic calls. Both of the proposed solutions use a form of black- and white-listing, but with different approaches.

The first idea, from computer engineer Serdar Danis, involves either a mobile application or software built into a standard phone or telephone exchange to apply a black or white list to calls automatically.

Danis shares the $50,000 with Aaron Foss, a software engineer who devised a system dubbed "Nomorobo" that uses conditional call-forwarding to send incoming calls to a cloud-based checking service. This looks at black and white lists, too, but also adds in a Catpcha service – if it's unsure if the caller is real, it asks them to input a number sequence.

"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."

In addition, the FTC recognized an idea from Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson at Google which, while not eligible for the prize, was the most interesting commercial suggestion, in the organization's view.

"The recommended system ... would provide a means whereby users can make reports of spam calls as well as ask if others have reported a caller as a spammer. While the first few people called would get spammed, after a sufficient number of reports are made, further calls would be blocked," they suggest.

The FTC gets hundreds of thousands of complaints a month about robocalls, and has been cracking the whip on the practice by closing down some operations and threatening others. While it's not endorsing the prize winner's solutions, it says it hopes new technology can be brought in soon to curb the voice spammers. ®

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