New robocall-killer technologies, designed to filter out unwanted automated calls, win FTC awards

Filed Under: Featured, Spam

Robot with telephone. Image from ShutterstockThe US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday crowned two winners in its Robocall Challenge contest.

The winners will split a $50,000 prize. They're Aaron Foss, a software developer from Long Island, New York, and Serdar Danis, a computer engineer who declined to reveal his hometown.

Foss cooked up Nomorobo: a cloud-based robocall killer that employs "simultaneous ringing."

This approach uses a second line to identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they can ring through to the target.

The following YouTube video demonstrates how Nomorobo would work:

Meanwhile, Serdar Danis created a system with a mouthful of a very literal name: it's called the Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, Graylisting and Caller ID Spoof Detection.

Danis's system analyzes and blocks robocalls with software that can be used as a mobile app, a device plugged in at home, or as a feature of a provider’s telephone service.

Two Google engineers, Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, also won the Robocall Challenge Technology Achievement Award, with no monetary prize, for their Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression solution.

Anti-robocall diagram

Both Foss's and Danis's robocall blockers intercept and filter out illegal prerecorded calls using blacklist and whitelist technology for screening incoming calls.

Both proposals also rely on CAPTCHA-style tests to prevent illegal calls from ringing through.

All of the award-winning solutions involve automated algorithms that identify spam callers to come up with a blacklist: e.g., a database of those who robo-annoy.

Robocalls are automated calls initiated by autodialers that can send out thousands of calls per minute at very low cost, and thanks/no thanks to technology advancements, their number is exploding.

They're notorious for ringing your line when you're eating dinner.

They're detested because they persist in spite of recipients being on the Do Not Call Registry.

In fact, if a robocall entails a sales message and the recipient hasn't given his or her written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is not only obnoxious; it's also illegal.

Beyond the call itself being illegal - robocalls from charities or political campaigns being exceptions (they're both legal) - the pitch itself is most likely a scam, the FTC says.

The FTC turned to the public for help in stamping out the billions of illegal robocalls it's dealt with over the past few years, many of which tout fraudulent credit card services and so-called auto warranty protection to home security systems and grant procurement programs.

The public responded enthusiastically: the challenge garnered nearly 800 eligible submissions, making the FTC hopeful that they might be able to stop consumers from drowning in robocallery.

Charles Harwood, Acting Director, FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement:

The solutions that our winners came up with have the potential to turn the tide on illegal robocalls, and they show the wisdom of tapping into the genius and technical expertise of the public. We’re hoping these winning proposals find their way to the marketplace soon, and will provide relief to millions of American consumers harassed by these calls.

This man is not happy. Image from Shutterstock

The question now is, will whitelisting/blacklisting/graylisting work?

Given that Caller ID numbers (CIDs) can be duped by spoofing (and are spoofed by most robocallers), Forbes's Jim Handy asked the FTC how the winning solutions manage to see through such trickery.

An FTC judge told Handy that spoofing was actually taken into consideration in the judging. The winning robocall killers do, in fact, detect robocalls that try to spoof a whitelisted number, though the judge couldn't disclose the means of doing so, it being proprietary to each solution.

Winner Aaron Foss told Handy that his Nomorobo system does, in fact, get snookered by spoofed CIDs in some cases, but most of the time it's only temporary.

"The system's dynamic nature allows it to adapt to changes in a way that circumvents such issues for the majority of robocalls," Handy writes.

Still, there are plenty of naysayers weighing in on, for one, the FTC's Nomorobo site.

The thumbs-downers have a long laundry list of reasons why the winning solutions won't work, so I'd be interested to hear what the telephony experts in our readership have to say about the winners and what's good or bad about their solutions.

The FTC has posted brief descriptions of all eligible entries at robocall.challenge.gov.

The FTC is hoping the conversation won't stop here, though. It's encouraging participants to keep hashing out solutions - some of which have included long-term policy, regulatory and technical ideas about how to stamp out illegal robocalls - on its website.

Smashing telephone with hammer. Image from Shutterstock

Is a technical solution as good as a legal approach?

It's true that every time new technical roadblocks appear, robocallers figure out how to hop over them.

But robocallers are already spurning existing laws. What difference would new or tougher rules make to those who already flout the law?

It will be interesting to see what develops vis-a-vis regulatory/policy solutions as an outcome of the FTC's challenge and the resulting conversation it's stimulated, but for now, kudos to all who are pushing into new technological territory in order to hunt down and swat these cursed, scammy dinner-interrupters.


Vintage toy robot, Extremely angry man on telephone and Telephone smashed with hammer images from Shutterstock.

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24 Responses to New robocall-killer technologies, designed to filter out unwanted automated calls, win FTC awards

  1. Mick A · 576 days ago

    This is fantastic! Just what the world was waiting for. It is such a shame that dumb people who buy what these spammers are selling and fall for the scams that they're scamming have made it necessary for such software in the first place.

  2. Stef · 576 days ago

    We had this technology in the UK for a couple of years already, it's called Truecall and it's brilliant, wouldn't be without it now.

  3. Robin Garr · 575 days ago

    Why doesn't the FTC simply get into stringent enforcement? A combination of aggressive prosecution, fines and jail time makes more sense than a policy of letting them operate without significant challenge.

    • fbmaxwell · 153 days ago

      You wrote: "Why doesn't the FTC simply get into stringent enforcement?"

      Because of the difficulty in tracking down these scammers. If you want enforcement, write to your senators and congressional representatives demanding that legislation be passed requiring true and accurate Caller ID on all commercial phone calls. What good does it do to report a falsified Caller ID that leads nowhere?

      • Chuck · 143 days ago

        What is needed is the call tracked with detailed information on the company, its location, who the principals are.
        Employees chose to work for these companies so they should be considered coconspirators and charged accordingly.

  4. brightfametexan · 575 days ago

    This is beautiful!

    What would be even more beautiful would be the FTC enforcing the laws and putting the people who break the laws in jail. That might cut back on the action once word starts getting around.

  5. Francesco · 575 days ago

    Uhm... And there are no concerns about privacy? Basically all the phone calls I receive are also received by the Nomorobo... So the private company managing it has *at least* all the phone numbers that call me at any point. I don't find it too good.

  6. Carl 3634 · 575 days ago

    I have my own solution. The purpose of the robo call is to make money for someone. To do thisthey need people that can sell the thing. If we frustrate the sales force thell quit. I answer the ro call and pla a game of how long can I keep the person on line then frustrate him/her bu telling them they just wasted 15 20 min without earing. so stop calling me
    they usually utter an obcenity and hang up. If we all did that and had a contest to see who could keep them on line longest it would be fun and cut the potential for profit making robo cals less desirable way to solicit

    • Keith F. · 574 days ago

      The new tactic is you'll never get to speak to a live person -- The recorded robocall asks you "Press 1 to speak to a sales associate" then you get dumped into a voice mail system that asks you to leave a message.

    • Anonymous · 249 days ago

      I agree with you and do the same thing. They seem to be able to tell pretty quickly that I am putting them on and often hang up without a word. I need to improve my technique. I do believe that this would be an effective tool against them if more people would do it. The down side of course is that it takes up your time also, it is easier to just hang up. I am amazed that there are still enough people that fall for this crap that it is worth while.

    • Roger Ramjet · 161 days ago

      You have become one of them. My time is more valuable than to take 20 minutes to play phone games. It is the computer initiated call itself that is invading and disrupting even if all i have to do is ignore it or do a quick answer and hang. Again we see the target (us) must incur the cost of a device that will not answer computer calls, caller id spoof calls, and calls not wanted identified by caller-id number - and all accomplished silently so there is no interruption. These devices do exist,

  7. John W. Luther · 575 days ago

    I've been "defeating" them for years. I use an answering machine that picks up on the first ring, instructs the caller to put my number on their no call list, then instructs them to leave a brief message if I don't pick up. Works like a charm.

  8. Vito · 575 days ago

    "But robocallers are already spurning existing laws. What difference would new or tougher rules make to those who already flout the law?"

    None. Exactly. It's precisely the reason why society's addiction to even more legislative non-solutions cannot solve the problems that the existing, ever-increasing, massive morass of legislative legerdemain has failed to solve. Laws against murder, robbery, rape, and fraud prevent none of those societal maladies. And they clearly don't stop illegal robocalls.

    In short, to answer the question...

    "Is a technical solution as good as a legal approach?"

    ...in most cases, a technical solution is the only approach that has any chance of working. Nomorobo is an example of a real government service, which doesn’t have to be provided by the state at gunpoint, jailpoint, or any other mandatory usage by threat of coercion. It provides protection without forcing anyone to use it.

  9. From what I can tell, the Nomorobo solution relies on simultaneous ringing at two destinations, which isn't possible outside a localised PABX.

  10. Deb · 575 days ago

    Can't become available soon enough! I detest these calls... and am about ready to give up the landline because of them.

  11. David Pottage · 575 days ago

    I am not sure that technical solutions such as Nomorobo will work. I predict that fairly soon, the robocallers will be adding voice recognition to their software to defeat the audio capatcha, and we will see an arms race where the capatcha asks the caller to solve increasingly difficult mathematical and logic problems that end up blocking less educated human callers who don't know what the cube root of 27 is.

    I also predict that some robocallers will try to get around the regulations by setting up bogus charities or polictical parties.

    I think the real solution is to shift the incentives of the phone companies. At the moment they make a small amount of revenue for every robcall they let through, so they have an incentive to help them. If instead we have legislation that obliges them to block robocalls, and make them pay the recipient a small amount (eg. $1) for each robocall that gets through, I am sure we would see the volume of robocalls disappear within weeks.

    The other thing we need to do is to get rid of the exceptions for political parties, charities and the like. If you want to receive an automated call to say that your child’s school is shut due to the weather, or to remind you of a dentist’s appointment, then you should be able to add the number to a personalized whitelist, but there should be no national whitelists, as that is too open to abuse.

    • cast elorea · 235 days ago

      I agree 100% especially the part where we should get rid of the exceptions for political parties and charities. 99% of the calls I get are from charities and my local mayor who refuses to take me off the robo call list she says is voluntary and one for which I never asked to be included.

  12. Lisa · 573 days ago

    What about the legitimate companies that employ robo callers? Don't they realize that it makes us consumers not want to ever buy their products? Same thing with politicians. Even though their robo calls are legal, when I get one, I do NOT vote for that candidate.

    • CurtX · 567 days ago

      There is no such thing as a legitimate robocaller. If it is a business that you really want to support, and it is not on your donotcall list, then you should want to have an actual person call you rather than a machine. A legitimate business obeys the FCC laws, does not rely on machines to do their dirty work.

  13. CTsOpinion · 571 days ago

    Public execution for all guilty robo-callers.

    • WSanDiego · 541 days ago

      Or at least make them receive as many of these calls as their machines place each day!

  14. Kae · 496 days ago

    "Why doesn't the FTC simply get into stringent enforcement? A combination of aggressive prosecution, fines and jail time makes more sense than a policy of letting them operate without significant challenge."

    Because they don't have the money. The Political Party that is currently in control of America's purse strings refuses to finance ANY regulatory agencies that might interfere with their sponsors' (read: the corporations) ability to do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of what laws are on the books.

    Indeed, the only sector they seem hell-bent on giving as much money to as possible is the Military--which has already said, repeatedly, that it doesn't really need it.

  15. NoMoreSpam · 491 days ago

    I used to try to mess with them as well, and I have received over 10 spam calls in a day! The problem is, when I start picking up the phone, they call me more. I think they must have some way of distinguishing which number is still in service if they get a person on the other end. I could be wrong, but I would like to know... otherwise I'll go back to messing with them. Right now, I've picked up but I just press a key on my phone to make a constant tone. Has anyone else noticed improvement with answering/not answering? So far today I've gotten 3 calls.

  16. My answering machine filters all my incoming calls. Those people I really wish to speak to, know the 'code' to use. Any other calls are either taken by the answer machine and a message gets left, or as is usual when it's a machine on the other end, 'they' ring off before the answer machine has even gone 'beep'.

    Simples.

    PS I am in UK, and yes we get them to.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.