$50,000 Prize If You Can Find Way to Block Robocalls

By JENNIFER C. KERR

WASHINGTON (AP) - Those annoying prerecorded phone pitches known as robocalls aren't just getting on the nerves of millions of consumers: The government is fed up too, and it's turning to the public for help, offering a cash reward for the best way to stop the unwanted sales calls.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the government's do not call list, announced Thursday that it will offer a $50,000 prize for the best technical solution to block illegal commercial robocalls.

The head of the commission's consumer protection bureau, David Vladeck, says the FTC "is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts, and one of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public."

Besides the money, Vladeck predicted the winner of the challenge would become a "national hero," given the frustration consumers feel about bothersome calls at home or on their cellphones.

The FTC logs tens of thousands of robocall complaints each month. In the past year alone, there were more than 2 million complaints from people who didn't want to be bothered by automated calls. All those complaints raise questions about the effectiveness of the do not call list, which has been popular with consumers. They've put more than 217 million phone numbers on the registry since it was created in 2003.

The telemarketing industry says robocalls aren't the preferred method of reaching consumers. Such calls are illegal unless a consumer has given a company written permission to make them. But federal regulators have seen a proliferation in illegal calls, and they say the source is often people looking to scam consumers out of money.

With an autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a matter of hours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debt assistance and cheap loans. Even if a consumer does not have a phone number on the do not call list, robocalls are illegal. A 2009 rule specifically banned this type of phone sales pitch without written permission.

Political robocalls and automated calls from charities, or informational robocalls, such as an airline calling about a flight delay, are exempt from the ban. But those exemptions are being abused too, with consumers complaining of getting calls that begin as a legitimate call, say from a charity or survey, but then eventually switch to an illegal telemarketing pitch.

Not only are the calls cheap, they are hard to trace. Fraudsters use caller-ID spoofing so that when a person tries to call back the robocaller, they get a disconnected number or something other than the source of the original call.

The FTC's cash prize announcement came at the end of a daylong summit the FTC held in Washington on robocalls with industry leaders, top federal regulators and technology experts.

The "robocall challenge" opens to the public on Oct. 25 and will close Jan. 17, 2013. The winner will be announced in April. The money will be awarded to the person, team or small company (it must have fewer than 10 employees) that develops the best robocall-blocking technology. The FTC says a successful entry must work, be easy to use, and be easy to implement and operate in today's marketplace.

It's not the first time the government has looked for outside help with a thorny problem.

The Pentagon's research agency, known as DARPA, is offering a $2 million prize to anyone who can develop technologies that dramatically advance the state of the art in robotics. With the military increasingly called upon to support disaster-recovery missions, more sophisticated robots are needed to defuse explosives or clean up nuclear waste. The contest began this month and a winner will be selected at the end of 2014.

More information on the FTC's robocall challenge can be found on the commission's website at www.ftc.gov . Anyone submitting a solution would retain intellectual property rights to the idea.

The agency says it will have the right to feature the solution's name, text description and images on its website for the challenge.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Managing your Portfolio

Keeping your portfolio and financial life fit!

View Course »

Intro to different retirement accounts

What does it mean to have a 401(k)? IRA?

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

84 Comments

Filter by:
Merde Alor!

The political callers in my neighborhood have begun leaving the visual message: "Vote for whomever".
They at least get their message across.

October 31 2012 at 2:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
francisbros8

Use the old fashion method . Subdue the culprit ,then apply the fore finger and the thumb between the upper and lower jaw . The mouth will then open . Take a good pair of pliers and remove a tooth . Before you remove a second tooth the calls will stop .

October 20 2012 at 11:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tracy Wiswall

I lov eit when it says it didn't record my post...guess I am just lucky I didn't click the button four more times. (sorry everyone)

October 20 2012 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tracy Wiswall

Once again the mighty machine of federal government admits it needs us the public to get the job done. Anyone want to bet that there is already a technology out there, for sale, that they coul dhave bought but were too lazy to even research it. Instead some idiot was probably rewarded for speaking up and saying something stupid like "HEY I HAVE AN IDEA!!! LETS GIVE AWAY $50,000 SO SOMEONE ELSE CAN DO OUR RESEARCH FOR US!!!"

October 20 2012 at 9:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard Craft

Disconnect your phone. Problem solved. Where Do I collect my check?

October 20 2012 at 12:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ytrewqytrewqan

TRANSLATION: We have spent millions of your tax dollars passing policies we have no ability to enforce. We will continue to sit at our multi-billion dollar property in prime Wash DC (which is only rivaled by another brilliant organization's building, the EPA's), while you do our work. We look forward to another bountiful 4 years under the POTUS. Oh, and once in a while, we will grandstand in front of TV cameras to pass new, useless, small business destroying regulations to justify our enormous budget.

October 19 2012 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
blaze13290

where are they getting 50,000 dollars?

October 19 2012 at 12:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jkobuk

You go after the carrier (phone company) that is supplying the phone number and phone lines to these companies that do the robocalls. They know who they are. If not we the consumer would be happy to notify the carrier directly about these calls and if the carrier does not take care of the problem, then the carrier should be held liable and fined a large amount of money or sued.

October 19 2012 at 12:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jkobuk's comment
t_trevor1

There is no carrier supplying phone numbers to robocallers. Instead, robocallers create their own (spoofed) phone numbers.

Furthermore, there are no "phone lines" any more. This is done with a simple internet connection.

I simplified example that I use daily is an app on my mobile device called Sidecar. When I download it, I can access my wireless internet to make phone calls. But neither my cell phone carrier nor my home internet provider have any idea this traffic is a phone call. To them, it is just 1's and 0's traversing their IP network.

October 19 2012 at 3:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kentuck391

Simply enforce the present Do Not Call list with very heavy fines to those companies abusing or ignoring the list. Second - enforce the states Do Not Call list in the same way. Using the present laws, send a loud and clear message to those companies. If a call is still received, the American public SHOULD send that information to the DNCL and should as soon as possible, enforce the laws if the companies "slip through" the system! Very heeavy fines will take care of it!!!

October 19 2012 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kentuck391's comment
t_trevor1

That worked fine in the old days when the telephone system was a closed network, purpose built for voice communications.

Today, these are open IP networks that carry voice, video, data, etc. The "from" information (ie, callerid) is easily spoofed such that I can call you while readily inserting a callerid of my choosing. The carrrier who delivers that information to you has no way of knowing the accuracy of the information I populated.

October 19 2012 at 12:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kentuck391

First - enforce to the max the No Call List and companies that abuse it or ignor it. Make companies understand that any RoBo Calls recorded by the American citizens that are sent to the No Call List will also be enforced vigorusly by the government. That would send a message to any companies that try to RoBo call! Additionally, the states MUST also enforce the telephone numbers that are on that states list. The message should be very heavy fines as defined by the existing laws.

October 19 2012 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply