Robocall Blocking Ideas Rewarded by FTC

Dennis Faas's picture

Two techies have each won $25,000 after coming up with plans to block automated "robocalls." The men came up with ideas based around the way some websites check a human rather than a machine in completing a form.

The contest is run by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regularly deals with complaints that companies have violated rules that restrict robocalls, or automated marketing calls where you pick up the phone only to hear a recorded message.

Although the FTC is continuing to pursue offenders through its regulatory and legal powers, it wanted to find technical measures that could combat those who continue to ignore the rules.

It invited submissions and judged them on three criteria. Half of the scoring was based solely on how well the proposed solution actually worked. The rest of the marks were split evenly between how easy the technology was to use and how easy it would be to roll out the solution nationwide.

Two Entries Share Robocall Fighting Prize

Software developer Aaron Foss and computer engineer Serdar Danis were named joint winners of the main competition, which was restricted to individuals and companies with fewer than 10 employees. They split a $50,000 prize. (Source:

Both men came up with technologies partially inspired by Captcha, which stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." This system involves typing a word or completing a visual challenge when filling out a website form.

The principle of Captcha is that it is based on tasks that humans can perform relatively easily but that cause problems for automated system on computers.

The FTC is keeping the precise details of the winning entries under wraps, a move likely designed to prevent robocall firms from getting advance warning.

Email Filter Tech Among Possible Solutions

Danis's entry is said to be based around blacklisting, whitelisting, and greylisting, as used by anti-spam tools by email services.

Greylisting means temporarily blocking a message and waiting to see if the sender attempts to resend it. In a phone context that could mean blocking unknown numbers at first, working on the basis that a genuine caller will try again after a short while, but a robocaller will simply carry on working down a list of numbers to call.

Foss's technique involves routing calls to an online filtering service that would ask the caller a simple question before redirecting it to the intended recipient. If the call was a recorded message, this question wouldn't get answered, so the system would automatically hang up. (Source:

The contest had a separate category, with no cash prize, for entries by large companies. It was won by two Google engineers who suggested a way to find out when robocallers are using a trick to disguise their caller ID.

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