FTC touts 3 technologies to counter illegal robocalls

How can you block illegal nuisance robocalls while permitting the legal ones to go through? Software that can filter calls through a combination of "whitelists," "blacklists," and "graylists" featured prominently in the results of the Federal Trade Commission's Robocall Challenge, a $50,000 contest whose winners were announced today.

The FTC has long known how much robocalls frustrate U.S. consumers - including the legal ones from charities, political organizations and others exempt from prohibitions against such calls. It receives about 200,000 complaints a month about robocalls - more than on any other topic, the FTC's Charles Harwood said as he announced the winners. A computer engineer and a software designer each won a $25,000 prize, and two Pittsburgh-based Google employees won an honorable mention for "technology achievement."

What now? "Now it’s the fun part of figuring out what to do," one of the winners, Aaron Foss, of Port Jefferson, N.Y., told me after the announcement. A freelance software developer, Foss hopes to use the $25,000 as seed money for developing a marketable version of his concept, which he calls "Nomorobo."

Though the FTC takes credit for combating illegal robocalls - Harwood says it has stopped "billions – yes, that’s billions – of illegal robocalls that are riddling our telecom system, including those ubiquitous calls from Rachel at Card Services" - it is  taking an arm's-length approach to the innovations spurred by its appeal for new technologies. "It’s going to be up to the individual winners now to get their products out to the market," says FTC spokeswoman Cheryl Hackley.

In keeping with that, the FTC released only limited information about how each proposal works. Here are its summaries of the proposals from Foss, computer engineer Serdar Danis, and Google:

Danis won for his proposal, "Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, GrayListing and Caller ID Spoof Detection." The FTC said:

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. In addition to authenticating caller ID information, the system depends on white and black lists that can be populated manually or autonomously and then aggregated into global white and black lists. Calls with authentic caller IDs on private or global white lists can be put through to the customer and calls from spoofed caller IDs or authentic callers IDs on the private or global black lists can be dropped. Any number not on a white or black list, or not authenticated, can be handled based on customer preferences, such as forwarded to voice mail 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.

Here's how the FTC described Foss' Nomorobo:

Nomorobo uses an existing feature of the current phone system along with the power of cloud computing to fight back against illegal robocallers. By using simultaneous ringing – which is widely available through most phone carriers - the call is split and routed to the Nomorobo server as well as the user’s phone. Instantly, Nomorobo analyzes the call and determines the threat level by using machine learning to identify and adapt to new robocallers based on their calling patterns. Nomorobo inspects the CallerID header, analyzes the frequency of every call, and compares this data to its real-time black and white lists. Potential robocallers are presented with an audio CAPTCHA for final verification while legal robocallers have their phone numbers whitelisted to guarantee message delivery. If it’s an unknown robocall, Nomorobo answers and immediately hangs up. If no threat is detected, Nomorobo does nothing and the call goes through like normal. All of this happens instantly, before the consumer’s phone begins to ring. Nomorobo works with any kind of phone, no additional hardware is necessary, and no infrastructure changes are required by phone companies.

The FTC said Google's Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson won a nonmonetary prize, for their approach, "Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression":

Google’s robocall concept could give consumers the power to block robocalls -- and to allow that information to be used to shield all consumers from robocallers even before their phones ring. The concept could work across all phone platforms as deployed via a smartphone app, changes to VoIP telephone software, or hardware devices. In each case, consumers could easily indicate whether an unknown number should be blocked in the future, which could then be communicated to a centralized database. After a number of people marked a caller as needing to be blocked, that caller could be blocked for everyone else that chose to use the system. The system would include a specialized mechanism to combat CallerID spoofing. In addition, before adding a number to the centralized database, many factors could be considered such as call volume, frequency, and inbound/outbound ratio. These factors could be computed dynamically, adjusting the behavior of the system to match current calling patterns. Also, the system could use a whitelist to keep some numbers out of the database. By using aggregated data about the incoming phone numbers in this manner, this concept could quickly identify and block robocallers and the fraudsters that use these automated calls to swindle consumers.

What can consumers do meanwhile? Watch this FTC video for some ideas for self-help solutions - including recording the distinctive three-tone introduction to the familiar "you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service" message. Spoofing the spoofers, so to speak.

Or you can just hang up.