The FTC Takes Aim At Robocallers

A challenge by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to any and all “innovators” (a nice way to say hackers) to come up with a way to block those annoying – and quite illegal – robocalls pitching everything from debt reduction to new credit cards (I guess to get you into more debt), or perhaps changes your electric provider, went live a few days ago (on Oct. 25, to be precise). The prize for anyone who comes up with a workable scheme is $50,000 for companies with less than 10 employees, or a ‘Federal Trade Commission Technology Achievement Award’ for larger companies.

The real prize, though, is “opportunities for promotion, exposure, and recognition by the FTC” of the winner. That could add up to real cash, since the winner gets to keep all rights to their solution. Factors in the judging, the FTC says on the web site it set up for submissions at http://robocall.challenge.gov/ , are 50% for “Does it work?” and 25 percent each for “Is it easy to use?” and “Can it be rolled out.”

The saddest part of the robocall plague is the fact that it is being made possible by VoIP technology. Con artists have always been with us, but in the olden days of plain old telephone service – olden as in five or ten years ago – it was fairly easy to track the callers down. But now they use layers of VoIP technology, jumping from server to server in the cloud, and spoofed caller IDs that mean the names and/or numbers that show up on caller IDs are meaningless. Setting your VoIP system to block calls from such a spoofed number is futile, because the con artists change the numbers regularly. And since many of the con schemes are launched from overseas, sadly involving American expats in many cases, it’s tough for the long arm of the U.S. law to reach them.

I’m not planning to enter the contest myself, but as I’ve written before about this issue, users of Phone.com and many other business-oriented VoIP providers do have an at least temporary solution. Instead of simply letting your phone ring when someone calls, use menus requiring callers to “press 1,” or whatever number you choose, to reach you. So far, the robocallers haven’t been programmed to respond to such requests. I’ve even gotten voicemail that consists of the last few seconds of such illegal pitches, since the robocallers just blithely keep playing their pitch even if they don’t reach a human.

This won’t, of course, stop live callers. But live calls by the millions would similarly cost the con artists many millions, making their schemes nonviable.

For those who do want to enter the contest, all rules and submission forms are at http://robocall.challenge.gov/ and the entry deadline is January 17 at 5 PM EST. Judging will then begin immediately and is scheduled to be complete on March 31. The winners will be names on April 15 at 2 PM EST.