Print 44 comment(s) - last by superstition.. on Oct 25 at 6:58 PM

Contest will only stop "illegal" robocalls, i.e. those intended to sell a product or receive a donation

With just two weeks before Americans elect their next president, both incumbent Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are busy -- in digital form -- harassing beleaguered voters with robocalls.  Both candidates vowed not to funnel super political action committee (PAC) funds to pay for third-parties to conduct the practice that many find annoying, but both candidates -- awash in hundreds of million from a record-shattering campaign on both sides of the aisle to court special interests -- appear to have abandoned their promises.

But the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is offering a bit of solace to frustrated citizens.  It has created a "prize competition" called the "Robocall Challenge", which: intended to provide recognition to individuals, teams of individuals, for-profit legal entities and/or non-profit organizations (collectively, “Contestants”) for developing proposed technical solutions or functional solutions and proofs of concepts that can block illegal robocalls (each a “Solution”).

U.S. federal telemarketing laws outlaw most robocalls looking to sell products (though the aforementioned political calls are legal).  The competition focuses on block "illegal" calls, so it won't exactly offer relief from the advertising.

But for those with an axe to grind against the pesky automatons of the phone lines, you can win up to $50,000 USD yourself or as an organization/group of less than 10 individuals.

Robocall frustration
The FTC feels your pain. [Image Source: FTC]

The FTC will be providing participants with data to use in the study.  The Commission will be holding a Q&A session on the event on Oct. 25, the day the program kicks off.  The contest will run through January 17, 2013, at 5:00 pm ET, with winners announced in April.

Winners will be selected based on:
  • Whether their solution works (particularly on mobile devices) (50 percent of the score)
  • Ease of use (25 percent)
  • How easy it is to roll out (25 percent)
Not everyone is so intent on killing the robocaller, though.  University of Denver Political Science Professor Seth Masket in a recent interview with a CBS Corp. (CBS) station commented, "It’s really just a very inexpensive way to contact a lot of people at once.  You don’t even really need employees to run the thing. It’s so inexpensive to contact that one extra person that as long as you’ve persuaded even a handful of people, it can be seen as worth it."

We're guessing he won't be entering the contest.

Source: FTC [PDF]

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Automated Cruise missiles!
By geddarkstorm on 10/19/2012 1:13:56 PM , Rating: 6
Nuking the robo-centers from orbit... it's the only way to be sure.

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By KC7SWH on 10/19/2012 1:41:03 PM , Rating: 3
A very well deserved 6.

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Souka on 10/19/2012 4:26:38 PM , Rating: 2
a 5 gallon gas can + 5 gallons of gas + a lighter...$25

At that cost you could burn down 2000 robo calling centers...

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By marvdmartian on 10/22/2012 11:02:25 AM , Rating: 2
You obviously haven't purchased gasoline or gas cans lately. If we get the lighter for $1, that leaves $24 to buy the can and 5 gallons of gas.

5 gallons of gas, at my local price of $3.35/gallon, will come out to $16.75. Add $17 for the 5-gallon can, plus the dollar for the lighter, and you're up to almost $35.

But yeah, I get what you were alluding to. ;)

How about death penalty for people who set up robocallers? A 9MM bullet is only ~$0.25!

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By javiergf on 10/19/2012 2:31:34 PM , Rating: 3
+9,000 thumbs up to Lt. Ripley here

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Uncle on 10/19/2012 2:57:56 PM , Rating: 3
I found a couple of new "Screen Machine" from a few years back at a thrift store for a buck each. Excellent idea. First ring, we have a recorded message saying we don't want to be solicited,but if they want us to call them back at their suppertime, to please leave a number, anyone else hit 5 to connect, we notified our friends to just hit 5, that keeps the computer robocalls from getting through. Haven't received one unwanted call since.

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Xplorer4x4 on 10/20/12, Rating: 0
RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Mint on 10/21/2012 10:53:38 PM , Rating: 2
The problem with this solution is that it only works because so few people are using it. If it was in wide use, it would be very simple for someone to write software to recognize whatever hoops you have regular callers go through to get through to them.

I've even heard of robocallers that try to carry a little conversation at first!

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By martin5000 on 10/22/2012 7:16:49 AM , Rating: 2
In the UK we don't get these robo callers, but I do fairly often get automated calls from banks verifying payments from my accounts, surely your machine filters out these as well?

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By jnemesh on 10/19/2012 4:36:57 PM , Rating: 2
You beat me to it! I was thinking nukes myself! Great answer!

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Reclaimer77 on 10/19/12, Rating: -1
RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Jeffk464 on 10/20/2012 11:51:13 AM , Rating: 2
Sure, just dump your land line. I'll forward my info on where to receive the $50k check.

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By Jeffk464 on 10/20/2012 11:52:19 AM , Rating: 2
ah, send the check

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By vapore0n on 10/22/2012 7:32:53 AM , Rating: 3
I think you missed the part where 50% of the score is for a solution that works with mobile phones. Meaning cellphones do get robocalled too.

I'm guessing your next though will be to dump the cellphone too.

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By NellyFromMA on 10/22/2012 1:11:25 PM , Rating: 2
So, basically if you can device a way to solve this problem, you will get .00000000000001 % of the commercial success of your idea....

No thanks. Solve the problem, patent, and enjoy!

RE: Automated Cruise missiles!
By superstition on 10/25/2012 6:53:10 PM , Rating: 2
If the government wanted them stopped, they'd be stopped.

But, by all means, continue with juvenile nonsense about nukes.

Give me a break
By KFZ on 10/19/2012 2:50:43 PM , Rating: 2
So the government is going to tell us that they can't figure out how to get this done, they need help. In a world where individual Internet users are targeted for their download behavior and dragged into court? It seems dubious that a robo-call service is impenetrable when it SOLICITS a product or service (meaning contact information, licensing, taxes, paper trails)?

Web browsers have pop-up blocking by default. Ad-blocking is easily available. Free web mail has spam controls. Why can't my phone, provider or government deal with these 100% illegal calls?

RE: Give me a break
By FITCamaro on 10/22/2012 7:50:53 AM , Rating: 2
But remember, they can run your life.

RE: Give me a break
By superstition on 10/25/2012 6:55:22 PM , Rating: 2
#1. If the government truly wanted them stopped, they would have been stopped.

#2. Because the government doesn't actually want them to be stopped, why this PR game?

Interesting questions afoot, but the response that gets a 6 rating here is something an 8 year old boy would come up with.

RE: Give me a break
By superstition on 10/25/2012 6:58:03 PM , Rating: 2
The third possibility, and probably the most likely one, is that the government doesn't care all that much either way about the calls themselves aside from whatever solution that is rolled out increasing the grip of the security state.

My Suggestion
By mherlund on 10/19/2012 3:17:32 PM , Rating: 4
My suggestion is a 2 part one.

As others may have stated, a mechanism needs to be in place (probably at the telcos) where caller ID numbers cannot be spoofed and must exist for a call to go through. Carriers then need offer the ability to block all unknown calls (shouldn't be a concern if the previous method works).

Once the call receiver knows the number is there and accurate, a Spam filter can be applied. This would be a global spam filter where multiple users need to mark the message as spam before it is actually blocked. Users could create their own spam group and/or sign up for the "community" one.

This spam filter concept is not that new and there are phone apps to do it. For a govt solution to work, telcos need to be forced to offer this option.

Side note, IMO, govt should not force telcos to do this, they should be able to offer this service as they choose.

RE: My Suggestion
By Schmide on 10/19/2012 3:19:36 PM , Rating: 2
You took my 50k by 20seconds. (see time on my post)

RE: My Suggestion
By nedsand on 10/23/2012 1:11:23 PM , Rating: 2
Good idea but it won't work in the real world. Look at how well spam filtering works (actually it's not bad anymore - but far from perfect). Plus you wouldn't want to have the telcos host the filter as it's a liability for them and any business using it. I manage the spam filters/black lists at work and it's a part time job trying to keep up with updates, configurations, retrieving good mail that was blocked and keeping one step ahead of the spammers. Also you can not have everyone use caller id. At my work and my wife's work when we call out from our desk phones all you see is "unknown number" displayed. We do not want direct extensions available to the public. If an outside person needs to get a hold of us they have to go through the automated or live operator.

Audio Capcha
By Newspapercrane on 10/19/2012 2:27:31 PM , Rating: 3
Set up a system where in order for your phone to ring the caller must correctly input an alphanumeric audio capcha. Make sure you start off the call with a personalized greeting, just to make it more difficult for the robots to recognize your capcha system.

Simpler solution: Outlaw robo calling.

RE: Audio Capcha
By futrtrubl on 10/19/2012 7:32:07 PM , Rating: 2
Simpler solution: Outlaw robo calling.

Already done, read the article. The legality is not the issue, enforcement is.

RE: Audio Capcha
By RedemptionAD on 10/20/2012 10:03:51 AM , Rating: 2
Political Robocalling isn't illegal thereby making robocalling not completely illegal.

On a side note I used to be a telemarketer and made 12k+ calls every month some times calling the same number over 100 times in the same day, The same number showed up on peoples caller ID even though I was calling on behalf of a different fake charity. The same office I worked for used to do Political Campaign calls.

By Concillian on 10/19/2012 1:31:30 PM , Rating: 4
Tax 10 cents per dialed call, with an exemption up to the TOTAL cost of that phone line, including other taxes, long distance, optional services, etc...

You make 200 calls a month? No problem, I'm sure your phone bill is more than $20 a month.

You make 200 million calls a month? I hope you have $20 million to pay your tax bill!

RE: Tax
By kattanna on 10/19/2012 1:54:56 PM , Rating: 2
we ported our long time phone number over to an IP phone that we have turned off the ringer. People who we want to talk to have our cell numbers.. but we sign up for EVERYTHING using the old number so all the calls go there and have our banking info tied to it.

its funny how fast the voice mailbox gets filled up and then stops taking new ones. but we dont care.

The Telcos know who is calling....
By rdhood on 10/19/2012 3:33:53 PM , Rating: 4
Look , the telephone companies already KNOW who is calling.

Get a robocall? Fine the telephone company, with collected fines to be applied to the customer's (who received the robocall) account. The telephone companies will no longer collude with robocollers... that will fix he problem in a big damn hurry.

By Ringold on 10/20/2012 6:57:14 PM , Rating: 2
That's similar to what I'd like done to fight identity fraud; make companies and institutions more liable for damages. If every company that loses a million credit card numbers faced tens of millions or more in damages, they'd get serious, quick.

Only problem is schools and government agencies. They never face the consequences of their decisions, they just go hat in hand to tax payers.

Extended and Mandatory Caller ID
By EricMartello on 10/19/2012 4:49:26 PM , Rating: 3
Robo-callers are annoying and I despise anyone who uses them for any reason. They DEFEAT the purpose of making a phone call.

What I would do is impose a mandate that requires all telcos, both wired, cellular and IP-based, to expand caller ID and make it into a type of validation meta tag.

You would have fields of data that are transmitted to receiving phone PRIOR to the phone ringing. This would allow the person receiving the call to auto-ignore robo-calls, sales calls, bill collectors and ex's who can't accept that it's over.

You could ignore calls based on caller category, individual ID, caller reputation (based on unique complaint:call) ratio or a combination of these (and potentially more). The meta tag would contain a unique ID for each caller so that reporting violations becomes easier and much more accurate.

Go ahead and make that $50K check out to cash.

RE: Extended and Mandatory Caller ID
By Flunk on 10/19/2012 4:58:23 PM , Rating: 2
I wholeheartedly agree, in the last election I vowed not to vote for any candidate that annoyed me with robocalls (I live in Canada). I suggest that everyone else follows suit. If they find out that robocalls negatively effect the poll numbers of candidates they'll be gone tomorrow.

Sometimes, because it's not illegal, I find out the office numbers for the companies that robocall me and set up my computer to call them 3 times every 24 hours at random intervals for the next 2 or 3 months.

Gee, robocalling really should be illegal, shouldn't it?

Some misconceptions about Robocalls
By Etsp on 10/19/2012 5:01:06 PM , Rating: 3
Many of those who use robocalls know what they are doing is illegal, so they take steps to mitigate their risk. One of those methods is hacking into privately owned VoIP systems, granting themselves access to make calls through it.

It's through that illegal access that a LOT of robocalls are made.

It would be nice if an orbital nuclear strike was feasible, but unfortunately, there often isn't a centralized location for their operations, and the owners of much of the equipment being used are victims themselves.

Sounds great...
By Johnmcl7 on 10/19/2012 1:09:08 PM , Rating: 2
Hope they do the same over here as it's a very annoying practice.


By mackx on 10/19/2012 2:40:36 PM , Rating: 2
i mean if caller ID is lost for one reason or another then the call is dropped and doesn't get routed. i don't mean when you choose to hide your caller ID from the person your calling (i assume that's not totally anonymous as far as the telco is concerned).

if there's no caller ID/easy way to identify the caller then don't allow them to call. if they are IDable then let it through and it it's a robo caller then the person being called can complain, the telco can ID them based on time of call and then fine the company a million per call - or seize all assets in case it's a shell company of a larger one etc.

we need that in the UK for all the indian people that feel like calling me asking about my cell phone bill. can't be blocked apparently. funny that i can block anonymous calls on my cell phone though, just not the land line

By Schmide on 10/19/2012 3:17:52 PM , Rating: 2
Step two prosecute.

50k please

Very simple...
By Beenthere on 10/19/2012 3:26:24 PM , Rating: 2
Terminate your phone service.

Fitting punishment
By zlandar on 10/19/2012 4:11:11 PM , Rating: 2
They should be locked up in jail and forced to listen to robocalls 24/7 for a year.

mumbo jumbo
By Trisped on 10/19/2012 7:27:14 PM , Rating: 2
The competition focuses on block "illegal" calls, so it won't exactly offer relief from the [political] advertising.
Wait, so this will have absolutely no effect on the automated political calls? Seriously Jason, stick to the tech facts and stop trying to push your political agenda.

Audio information
By vailr on 10/20/2012 1:55:23 AM , Rating: 2
Robocalls mostly seem to have a distinctive difference in audio characteristic. If the audio spectrum of every incoming call could be instantly analyzed, that may be a way to detect robocalls.
Caller ID could also be mandated to correlate to precise GPS co-ordinates of the caller. And: any incoming phone call could be instantly reported as being "spam" (via pressing * + # on the keypad, or something like that) to a reporting agency. Then enough similar reports would signal an investigation to drive over and physically confront the offending spammer by a badge carrying FTC official.

Robo Calls
By bad larry on 10/20/2012 12:08:00 PM , Rating: 2
If any one see's that it's me who is going to stop this they know that I will get the job done. I have time on my side. You hurt my friends, now I'm mad. SEVEN DAYS IS ALL I NEED!

Did it.
By StormyKnight on 10/23/2012 1:13:40 AM , Rating: 2
Unplugged my phone.

Where's my $50K?

By Reclaimer77 on 10/19/12, Rating: -1
"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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