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How technology will eradicate the pesky robocall
The FTC dishes out $50,000 to reward a couple of tinkerers who have plans to eliminate (illegal) automated telemarketing
No one likes getting stuck with an automated telemarketer.
No one likes getting stuck with an automated telemarketer. Mika/Corbis
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obody likes getting robocalls. People with cellphones, who usually pay for a finite amount of call time each month, really don't like wasting those precious minutes listening to an automated marketing call. Politicians understand this, and the government has stepped in, first with the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act and, more famously, with the Federal Trade Commission's 2004 National Do Not Call List.

Unfortunately for everybody with a phone, "technology has made it easier for those pesky pre-recorded messages to work around your caller ID and even get to you on your cellphone," says Hayley Tsukayama at The Washington Post. The FTC still gets about 200,000 complaints each month about robocalls — more than on any other topic — and so last October, the agency decided to fight fire with fire, offering a prize to the people and businesses who came up with the best technologies for stopping robocalls for good.

The Robocall Challenge winners were announced on Tuesday. Two men, freelance software developer Aaron Foss and computer engineer Serdar Danis, will each get $25,000 for their contributions to quashing robocalls, and two Google engineers in Philadelphia, Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, got honorable mentions. Here's how the three innovations will hopefully save us all from the dreaded dinner-hour monologue from "Rachel at Card Services."

1. Nomorobo
One of the big challenges facing robocall fighters is that, under federal law, not all robocalls are illegal. "The well-known 'Rachel at cardholder services' and other such scams clearly are illegal," says Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, "but robocalls are legal for groups such as charities, government and political organizations, and pharmacies notifying customers that their prescriptions are ready."

Aaron Foss' solution, like Danis', relies heavily on "whitelists" of the often-annoying-but-still-legal callers, "blacklists" of known illegal robocallers, and "graylists" of possible phone spammers. Nomorobo is supposed to work with almost any landline, cellphone, or VoIP (internet) phone service, using a common feature that routes your calls to two numbers, in this case your number and Nomorobo's servers.

Basically, "Nomorobo answers the calls first, passing legitimate calls (such as those from actual humans) through and hanging up on illegal robocalls," says Ars Technica's Brodkin. "Rest assured this is more complicated than it sounds, and there is still work to be done before it can be deployed at scale." But Foss plans to use his $25,000 as seed money to get his service up and running in six months. His video explains how it should work:

2. Robocall Filtering System
Danis' system has a far-less-catchy name — the entire title is the Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, Graylisting and Caller ID Spoof Detection — but it is designed to work with both software and hardware. Here's how the FTC describes the second winning entry:

This solution involves a software application that can authenticate caller ID information as either authentic or spoofed, and display this information to the customer. It can be implemented through a customer-installed software application on smartphones and certain telephone systems, through updates to smartphone operating systems or carriers' software, or through a hardware device at the customer premises.... Any number not on a white- or blacklist, or not authenticated, can be handled based on customer preferences, such as forwarded to voicemail or subjected to human verification without ringing the customer phone. Human verification would rely on continuously changing pre-recorded questions presented to the caller, which would be difficult for a computer to answer. The solution stops those who abuse the telephone system without inconveniencing regular callers. [FTC, via the Philadelphia Inquirer]

3. Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression
The Google engineers came up with a very Google solution, complete with tech-y buzzword "crowd-sourced." Their idea is actually similar to Danis' in many ways: It would work though a smartphone app, external device, or VoIP software, and consumers would have a large say in building the blacklist. But Google would add its Google touch, including data about call volume, frequency, and inbound/outbound ratio — and it would presumably make flagging illicit robocallers easy and intuitive.

"When complaining to the FTC, consumers often wondered why it wasn't possible to screen robocalls with the same effectiveness as Gmail screens spam," says Adrianne Jeffries at The Verge. That's exactly what Klein and Jackson say their system would do. 

Whether any of these three plans will actually fulfill the FTC's goal of "technology triumphing over illegal robocallers" — in the words of FTC official Charles Harwood — is unclear. It's up to the winners to commercialize and market their robocaller-killers. Google isn't going to integrate the Klein-Jackson solution into Google Voice, for example, but at least Foss is jumping into the market, and the 800+ submissions to the contest suggest that there's a market for stopping the scourge of the robocall.

All three of the winning technologies are workable, says Myra Per-Lee at InventorSpot, so the big question is "how long will it take them to set up the systems to get rid of the #*&%@^ calls?" For the first outfit that "really can stop robocalls in their tracks," the $25,000 prize will be chump change, says Brodkin at Ars Technica. "They could very well make a boatload of cash."

The other 800 or so submissions ranged "from practical tips from consumers who told us what they're doing today to reduce robocalls to interesting ideas about long-term changes that might discourage would-be robocallers," says Harwood. Instead of letting these not-award-winning tips and ideas go to waste, the FTC rounded up some of the best and put them in a video. Some are pretty clever, others probably more trouble than they're worth. Watch:

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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