National Consumers League

FTC announces winners for Robocall Challenge


Sandra Latouff

By Sandra Latouff, NCL Fraud and Policy Intern Last week, the FTC announced the winners of the Robocall Challenge. The winners, Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each be receiving $25,000 and a trip to Washington, DC for an opportunity to present their innovations. The Challenge asked innovators to create solutions that will block illegal robocalls for both landlines and mobile phones. A robocall is a term for a phone call that uses a computerized auto dialer to deliver a pre-recorded message. In 2012, the FTC received about 200,000 complaints per month from consumers about robocalls! In an effort to fend off robocalls, some consumers have turned to the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. Currently, 220 million consumers have registered their numbers on the Registry, but even with the Registry consumers nationwide are still being pestered by robocalls. In an effort to help the public fight against the creative methods robocalls are reaching consumers, the FTC created the Robocall Challenge to gather creative and efficient ideas from participants that could be successful. The hope of the FTC is that by hosting the Robocall Challenge a winning idea will catch the attention of private companies and eventually find its way to the marketplace for consumer protection. Danis’s proposal, titled “Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection”, would analyze and block robocalls using software that could be implemented as a mobile app, an electronic device in a user’s home, or a feature of a provider’s telephone service. Foss’s proposal, called Nomorobo, is a cloud-based solution that would use “simultaneous ringing,” which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user. A third proposal from Google engineers Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson won the Technology Achievement Award. Klen and Jackson’s solution would involve using automated algorithms that identify “spam” callers. As a result of the Robocall Challenge, the FTC created a video compiling submissions that focused on what consumers are doing right now to reduce illegal robocalls. Here are some of the tips:
  1. Ask you carrier what services they provide. Some service providers allow their customers to block off certain phone numbers. There may or may not be a charge for this service. Consumers may also be able to use VoIP hardware that allows them to tag any incoming number as unwanted which then plays a disconnected tone to the caller. After this, there is usually no second call.
  2. Check out devices for your landline. Search Internet shopping sites for “call blocker.” One consumer said that she uses a special phone that causes robocaller software to drop her number from their call list, which reduced and eventually stopped the number of calls she received.
  3. Experiment with “special information tones.” Some consumers placed the three note “non-working number” ringtone at the beginning of their voicemail or answering machine message which resulted in fewer robocalls.
  4. Investigate apps for your smart phone. Consumers are paying for apps that block robocalls. There are some free apps that, based on reviews, perform decently as well.
  5. Use a “virtual phone line” with call screening options. One consumer obtained a virtual phone line that forwarded the calls from that line to his actual phone. He gives his virtual number to everyone and keeps his other phone number to himself.
Consumers should also be sure to check the Terms of Service for any new program or offer when applying. An agreement to receive phone calls (i.e. robocalls) may be buried deep within the fine print. If you have any tips or suggestions on how you prevent or stop robocalls, the FTC invites consumers to share their knowledge on their Facebook page. Click here for more information about the Robocall Challenge and its winners.