FTC announces winners of anti-robocall contest

The Washington PostApril 2, 2013 

— Almost everyone hates robocalls, but technology has made it easier for those pesky prerecorded messages to work around your caller ID and even get to you on your cellphone.

Looking to fight fire with fire, the Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday that it was awarding a $50,000 prize to two developers who submitted the best ideas in a contest it announced in October asking for ways to stop robocalls for good.

Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will receive $25,000 each for their proposals, which use filtering technology to stop robocallers from being able to reach you at all.

Foss’s proposal, which he called Nomorobo, would use “simultaneous ringing” to route incoming calls to a second line. The second line would then be responsible for identifying the bad calls and hanging up on them. The software, he said, identifies robocallers with an algorithm he compared to an email spam filter that looks for specific characteristics of the callers. It will work on both mobile and traditional phones.

A freelance software developer from Long Island, N.Y., Foss said he was eager to enter the contest when he read about it in October – in part because he hates robocalls just as much as anyone else.

“I know how annoying they are,” Foss said. “They always interrupt you when you’re trying to get things done.”

He said he will use the prize money as a seed investment for his business as he looks for partners to take the product to market.

Danis’s proposal uses software that people could implement through a mobile app, an electronic device in their home or as a part of their provider’s telephone service to block unwanted calls by consulting lists of good and bad phone numbers.

Acting consumer protection bureau head Chuck Harwood said that robocall complaints are the most common complaint the agency receives.

The FTC has taken steps to stop robocalls in the past, most notably with the Do Not Call registry, which allows consumers to tell companies they do not want to receive these kinds of calls. However, Harwood said, technology that allows robocallers to “spoof” or mimic other telephone lines has made these measures less effective.

The FTC won’t implement the winning solutions, but Harwood called for private companies to release products like Foss’ and Danis’ that could help with the problem. He also suggested that all contest entrants publish their ideas publicly.

The FTC also put together a video listing consumer tips from contest entrants for minimizing unwanted calls on their own. These include contacting your carrier to block certain numbers or playing a recording of the three-tone “disconnected” noise at the start of their voice mail or answering machine message to reduce the number of robocallers.

Google engineers Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson were also recognized through the contest’s challenge to businesses, which did not come with a monetary prize, for their suggestion to use automated algorithms to identify spam callers.

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