Let's have a show of hands: how many of you have had your dinners or favorite TV shows interrupted by annoying pre-recorded phone calls? Every single one of you, right? Heck, I literally got a phone call from some robotic-voiced saleswoman while writing the first sentence of this article. How annoying!
Luckily, we are not alone in our annoyance. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — which gets an amazing 200,000 complaints about robocalls every single month — has announced the winners of a contest to see who could develop technology to help weed out those unwanted phone calls. Out of hundreds and hundreds of submissions, the FTC has picked three top ideas, two of which tied for first place and will share a $50,000 prize.
The FTC set up its Robocall Challenge because the vast majority of the complaints it receives stem from illegally made robocalls. According to the FTC's consumer web page about robocalls, new technologies have made it extremely easy for companies to dial any and every number they want. In the process, they frequently circumvent the Do Not Call Registry, a violation of federal law. At the same time, many of these calls are selling fraudulent services and they fake the numbers that appear on recipients' caller ID screens, a process known as "spoofing."
The FTC, which already blocks billions of illegal robocalls, wants to get even better at weeding out these annoying and illegal messages. Their contest sought solutions "that will block illegal robocalls on landlines and/or mobile phones and can operate on a proprietary or non-proprietary device or platform."
One of the contest's two top entries came from software developer Aaron Foss, whose Nomorobo system would create a blacklist to block calls from threatening phone numbers. Nomorobo would use call forwarding, making it easy for all consumers to set it up on any phone number. Foss put together this video about the process:
Foss told Ars Technica he plans to use his half of the prize money to refine Nomorobo and bring it to market.
The other winning entry came from computer engineer Serdar Danis, whose system has a less catchy name: the Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, Graylisting and Caller ID Spoof Detection. This system would employ a filter device that would be able to detect spoofed numbers. Danis did not make himself available to the media.
The FTC also named a third winner, with no cash prize. That went to two Google engineers whose proposed system would employ crowd-sourcing to let users report unwanted calls to a central database.
The FTC says it hopes these winning ideas will make their way to the market soon to help consumers stay safe from unwanted and fraudulent calls. For many, it can't come soon enough.