Find A Way To Stop Robocalls To Grab This $50k Prize

Here’s a challenge tailored to our community if we’ve ever seen one. You know those delightful unsolicited prerecorded calls you get from time to time? They might be political, but they also come from companies trying to sell you vinyl siding, or promising improvements in your business. Well they’re against the law in many cases, and complaints to the Federal Trade Commission have been piling up. So now the FTC is offering a $50,000 bounty to anyone who can find a way to block the calls.

It’s called the Robocall Challenge and you’ve got until January 17th, 2013 to get your entry submitted. The great thing is, this doesn’t need to be a fully working solution. Your entry may be: “proposed technical solutions or functional solutions and proofs of concept “. Even better, you retain ownership of the solution even if you win. This type of recognition will surely have telco related companies beating a path to your door.

Of course if you do have a solution, we’d love to hear about it too!

[Thanks Filespace via WCPO]

111 thoughts on “Find A Way To Stop Robocalls To Grab This $50k Prize

  1. Dear telephone company: If a single line tries to call more than 10 numbers per hour, charge them $1 per call.

    Problem solved. Please split the $50K between me and Hackaday.

    (For the sarcasm-impared, the point is that if the telephone companies really wanted these calls to stop, it’s trivial. This “content” is retarded.)

    1. Grabs Popcorn

      There is no signal or pattern or protocol to differentiate, they’d have to accept the call and do heuristics.. I’d put up a million just cause all submissions will be fail..

  2. The solution is easy and requires little to no hardware improvements from the telco at all. Monitor accounts for large numbers of outgoing calls within a short or long timeframe. When “x” number of calls is reached a trace is placed on the account. Telcos may have to co operate with other telcos to successfully trace back to a real originating source, but should be able to locally block it either way.

    1. I actually completely disagree that this is an “easy” fix for the telephone industry. First there are many legitimate business reason for having a large volume of calls originate from a single terminal point(ex. a large company office where people actually use the phone). Also, there are apparently many cases where people tap into existing lines for other customers and steal access, so charging the real customer isn’t going to help. Finally, telemarketing is not illegal, just illegal to call the do-not-call list. So a telephone company would have to monitor all of the calls from every line and prevent certain lines from calling certain other lines. Except even that doesn’t work because what if a company runs a telemarketing service and a business that a do-not-call listed number actually wishes to receive a call from, from the same outbound number.

      My point is, this is not a trivial fix the telecos haven’t addressed because they want more money. This is a legitimate issue for which a solution that blocks 100% of the bad calls, which not interfering with any of the good calls is difficult to come across.

      1. No there is not. If you are doing HIGH VOLUME calls then you are required to get a HIGH VOLUME account that is easily traced for complaints.

        An account that is not that type making high volume? it get’s throttled and sets off red flags to a monitoring office.

        Very easy to do, 30 minutes of programming time

      2. I win…

        Asterisk on a embedded PC with a single POTS interface if you must deal with the out of date analog systems.

        Otherwise asterisk on the phone.

        Software for this has existed for a decade. Just set up whitelist rules and default blacklists and you are set.

        99.97% of all my phone calls from from 2 area codes. White list those and blacklist the rest of the world from calling me. Problem solved.

      3. @fartface… I’m with you. I work from home (and live in a swing state for the vote). I recently got fed up with the political calls (4-6 a day) automated and human-driven sales calls (3-4 a day), etc.

        On Tuesday I got an old lightweight PC that was gathering dust in the garage up and running w/CentOS. On Wednesday I’ve got a new Digium card in with POTS in/out ports. By Monday I’ll have it tied into our phone line with rules like you mentioned… all my known callers whitelisted, all others blacklisted.

        What I’m hoping for, but haven’t worked out yet, is that my non-whitelisted callers can be sent to a menu system… if they pass a couple of simple automated questions, THEN they get passed to my inside lines. That way if it’s not family or work-related, I don’t even hear it ring unless the caller is human and has ‘acknowledged’ that they are not a sales, political, survey, or similar service.

        For anyone else interested in doing the same… I’m using an old PC that was one step away from the dumpster… the AsteriskNow installer couldn’t have been simpler. The card I’m using is a TDM410P with one FXO and one FXS port. Total investment… about $72, and that’s just because I wanted to get a branded & current-release card to be sure I wouldn’t have any weird driver issues.

      4. @TwoShay: Try calling an invalid number, and recording the tones you hear. Put these tones at the start of your recorded greeting. Robocallers will detect the tones and flag your number as invalid/disconnected, while people will just ignore the tones and listen to the rest of your message.

    2. @malvineous:
      thanks for the hint. Have to figure out, which way it’s done here in germany.
      (I’m currently scribling a flowchart down, how my future asterisk setup will be. Including a VERY short whiltlist, whenn I’m wachting movies (aka my VDR is running) or sleeping)

    1. When I had a land line I did that too. My out going message went like “Hello Hello Please leave a message after the beep.” I did this to screw with the automated dialers that connect you to a telemarketer after you say something. I had lots of recordings of them saying hello and the sound of the boiler room they where in. I only allowed a short message to be left.

      I had one answering machine that there was a pause between the outgoing message and the beep. During that pause it set the detection levels. So if someone spoke before the beep they would actually have to speak much louder after the beep otherwise the machine would hang up on them. I loved that machine. It also got rid of people who could not follow directions. lol

    1. Funny, that trick was exactly the first one that came to mind.
      Ask all non-white listed callers to press:

      1: if you want to sell something (terminates on voicemail or /dev/null )
      2: if you have other reasons to contact me.

      Easy peasy to achieve on a sip line, little harder but doable on a pstn.

  3. This contest is so poorly worded. Are we supposed to submit ideas for blocking incoming calls or detecting outgoing calls? Is this for the individual or for the telco?

    As already stated, the only solution that needs to take place is some more coordination between the FTC and telcos(fat freaking chance). The telephone companies give the FTC lists of “high volume” customers and their out dial phone numbers. The FTC cross references this against phone numbers receiving consumer complaints. Potential robo-callers identified, now follow up FTC(LOLLERSKATES). The power companies and the DEA already do something similar to identify grow houses, it’s not even new.

  4. You guys are all missing the key flaw.

    most of these “robocalls” are coming from VoIP systems. The originator can be anywhere in the world. There is a “termination provider” that connects the voip call to the POTS (Plain old telephone system) somewhere, and that’s the first spot that’s really traceable by the phone company. These providers have leased circuits directly into the system — these connections are now also often VOIP based.

    Regulations are going to have to be made that make it more difficult to provide termination to voip calls onto the POTS without the provider obtaining verifiable identification from the purchaser’s account. Right now, a credit card will do.

    For me to make 10,000 robo calls that are very hard or impossible to trace, here’s all I’d have to do:

    1. obtain a stolen credit card or fund a pre-paid credit card through some anonymous source of funds (e.g. bitcoins).

    2. obtain a linux server at a hosting center. virtual is fine. (almost instant, these days, and very low cost)

    3. install Asterisk or another voip pbx and configure it to dial from a pool of numbers, play a recording, and if the caller presses a specific key, reconnect the call back to me at some other location. (1 hour)

    4. use my anonymous or stolid credit card to sign up for voip termination services. This is nearly instant, and calls cost less than half a cent per minute to make (and get much cheaper at volume)

    A low-end linux based asterisk pbx could handle 10,000 calls in an hour without a problem. The bandwidth use is very low (about 13k/sec/call using the gsm codec)

    So… where do you stop that? You have to put a verification delay timer in the process of signing up to terminate calls, and you need to put a positive identification on the people signing up.

    That’s not going to be as easy as it sounds, as this is a multinational problem.

    1. Temination providers would fall under the same category as telco, as far as reporting high volume use. In an all digital setup, such as VOIP, it should be even easier to track down who it is, since the receiving number, POTS number and approximate time are all known. Given accurate logging at least.

      It’s simply a coordination problem that nobody, not the FTC, not the telcos, not the termination providers, really want to do.

  5. I track the number to where it came from, then I just call the company itself and threaten legal action. most times you can press 3 and it will take you off their lists. they dont tell you that you can do that but I worked for a company back in the 90’s that were doing this and thats what they told me if I ever got called….

    1. Doesn’t work any more – I’ve tried. I get untraceable calls from one of these bullshit lower your rates companies. They call themselves “card services”.

      1. The robo call calls from somewhere else altogether, and transfers “prospects” to an inbound call center.

      2. The inbound call center will not tell you who they are. The have said to me “look at the back of your cards. See that number there that says ‘card services’, well, that’s us!” (which is a stupid lie, of course). If you push it, they will hang up on you (often cursing first)

      3. If you try to play along to the point where you get real information, the next step requires you to give them credit card data — which they verify.

      I’ve never gotten past step 3, since there’s no way in hell I’m giving them valid credit card information.

      I would LOVE to know who these people are, because frankly I’d even consider paying them a PERSONAL visit to discuss the issue.

      1. Here’s how to get past step 3:

        – get a one-time use credit card number aka “virtual number”
        – it verifies, once.
        – if you get a charge on it, dispute it
        – if you get a “test charge for $1”, you have the ID of the company trying to charge you
        – PROFIT

        They will of course, argue that you consented by pushing “1” or whatever, but your response is “Why did YOU call ME — I’m on the DNC list?”

    2. In the Netherlands, you can add your number to a no-call list. Companies that still call you after than can expect legal action. It works good I’ve never had any calls anymore.

  6. Oh, and did I mention — both the voip termination provider and the telco that provides the link from them to the POTS, makes money on all these calls; so they’re likely to resist legislation and changes quite heartily.

  7. I have an Asterisk server at home that answers all incoming calls. It requires the caller to press a number to ring through. This blocks at least 99% of unwanted calls. To make it easier for friends and family, I have a whitelist of numbers which bypasses the whole menu system.

  8. This is so stupid. Why are we putting the onus on the consumer to stop these calls? I mean, it’s not like the telemarketers are running around the city using clandestine phone booths to make the calls – they are doing it from call centers that are networked together. All I want is accurate information of where a call originated when I get called.

    There was a bill passed in 2010 called the Truth in Caller ID act of 2009 aimed to fix this problem, but it again puts the crosshairs on the perpetrators instead of the TelCos. It is technically feasible to be able to provide a consumer with what is effectively a traceroute of where a call came from. If I could take that information and then make a block rule based on that, I could effectively cut down, not on new calls unfortunately, but recalls (I’m looking at y*you* Rachel from Cardmember services) could be effectively dealt with. Add in a community website for automatic updates, and you’ve effectively shut down the problem.

    1. Often the robo calls are not anywhere near or even directly associated with the call centers. the robocalls are made with automated systems, often outside the US, and they blind transfer “prospects” to inbound call centers. There are even ways to anonymously pay for these services so that there is almost no definitive way to track your specific call to a specific person or company that paid to have it made.

      Presumably, these robo system operators get paid, but to get to them you have to first successfully sue the people who receive the end point calls (which means finding them).

        1. For the feds, maybe — maybe not. The voip termination provider may well not have any idea who is really supplying the credit card.

          For me at home – I’ve tried. Not as easy as you think unless you plan to give them your credit card data.

    2. To stop “Rachel” from “Cardmember Services” I’d be willing to temporarily give the FTC the fighting force of the Navy Seals, the Special Forces, the Green Berets and any other military force – and the authority to terminate the outfit making those calls – with the most extreme prejudice.

      Keep away from my cellphone you BITCH!

    1. they cant sue if they are calling Your number, its on your phone and thats that. they waived those rights once they called YOU. I had one calling me saying they were a credit company and I owed them money, they had my birthdate and all. so I managed to trackback their phone nummber and decided to call them every hour on the hour. they got fed up and said they were putting me on an autodialer which here in canada is totally illegal, i called again and left a message with threats of a mass lawsuit.. My phone has been nice and quiet all week.

    2. What I do with these card services jerks is keep a whistle ready in my kitchen since they call me about once a week now.

      Hi yes I would love to lower my credit card rate…I currently have two cards with a balance of about $10k each… APR is 16% on each card….oh yes you need my card number on the back, its 4366 1864 whsttttttTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Hell, I’ve got the easy solution. My friend from Florida has a service where when you call and you aren’t identifiable, you are asked for your name. The phone rings on his end and the name is spoken. He then presses a number to patch you through. It’s like an automated secretary.

    1. Google Voice does that…
      When properly set up, any caller that is not in your contact list will hit the firewall, get asked for their name. Once they give their name, you’re rung up and given the callers name and the option to direct to voicemail, take the call, disconnect, or record the call.

  10. i work for a company that builds designs and sells call center equipment. a lot of our clients primary use this stuff for inbound customer stuff, some of it for collections.

    From my understanding of the system, you could block via the caller id they are sending.

    but if these guys aren’t following the rules, then im not sure.

    see how you answer your phone is how these system determine if this is a person, machine or even business. Its all down to the first few seconds as your saying hello

    answer your home phone you say “hello”
    answer your business line yous say “xyz company”
    voice mails say “leave a message after”

    the system listens for when you stopped talking, depending on that length is when how it tells if your a business person or machine

    it has a valid purpose, transfer to agent on person, play recorded message on answer machine, and hang up on business (usually)

    i feel if a call center is not following the rules its up to the telco company to get involved as well. most carriers my clients use prevent them from dialing out unless there is a number in the caller id field.

    1. There is no legitimate reason for any telemarketing company to hide their phone number, name and address.

      That information should be required to be on Caller ID. If they don’t provide it or provide false CID data they’re up to no good.

      Phones need a way to instantly send data from any call with blocked or spoofed CID to law enforcement for back tracing. Should be fairly easy to implement with smartphones.

      Which brings up a continuing bit of stupid in current TV shows. It does not take minutes to locate cellphone calls or even to trace the location of a call placed from a landline where no “phreaking” has been done to obscure the location.

      Just once I’d like to see in some police procedural someone say “Got him! Idiot left the GPS on his cell turned on!” Even with location turned off, when ready for a call from a specific cell number a telco should be able to pretty much instantly triangulate the phone’s location from nearby towers.

      How long does it *really* take to trace a landline to landline call now?

      1. I wonder how hard it really is to triangulate a phone location from multiple towers? Seems like it would require dedicated equipment not normally used for handling calls. Makes me wonder whether you could do it with three SDR dongles spaced a little ways apart?

      2. Ages ago, I worked for a medical call centre. We would often place outbound calls in high volume to inform people of medical results. Sometimes it was Bad News.

        We were legally required to remain anonymous until we could confirm the identity of the person we were trying to reach, as the very fact they had visited our clinic for bloodwork was considered confidential. Why? Well, if you have cancer, you have a right to let people know or not on your terms, without your clinic telling your whole family.

        I can’t think of many other situations where it’s legitimate to have an anonymous outbound call centre though.

        Also, giving people bad news all day: a terrible job.

    2. That would fit with my experience that having a very short answering message (two seconds – the shortest my machine allows) leads to far fewer robo-messages, but a fair amount more recorded dialtone. The joyous message: “Botany’s Phone” (or equivalent with IRL names).


  11. I use google voice for my public number, I have it set up to ask unknown callers for their name. Nothing seems to get through, even the gas company wanting me to sign up for a 2 yr contract. On my cell phone I have a block list,a rather long block list.

    My fantasy solution for robo calls, MISSILE STRIKE….Ah doesn’t that feel good. Although missiles are kind of expensive. But a mulched robo caller will not make any more calls.

    1. Lawls everywhere, that’s the only one that ever gets me. They always call when I’m about to get up, so I just blindly answer the phone thinking it’s my alarm. The goddamned foghorn that someone thought would be a great opening sound byte scares me outta bed everytime

  12. Simple $5 device that a consumer can pick up at the dollar store for home phones (copper land-lines) that goes in between the box to screen calls. All it says is please press 1 to continue. Because the telco’s aren’t going to do anything, I will produce these devices, and for the millions of homeowners that will buy one or more, thank you in advance. Oh, and I know it’s only a partial solution, but it does solve some of the problems.

      1. Which should make it even easier to handle through software that allows you to setup calling rules. However, wireless carriers have never really seemed to want to offer customers better service without attaching another price tag to it.

      2. let’s say we can successfully rout the caller to another phonenumbre:
        I’d like to route them (with a very quick message) to a really expensive numbre owned by me, of course (0900, here in germany) and than running a robot (maybe a version of the emacs doctor part), which holds them in line as long as possible.
        Yeah, make me rich robocaller!

      3. You may have noticed that people who have landlines also have these services, as long as you are not using telcos (cable phone here.) I seldom get a telemarketer call (no robots get through). When I do (a human), easy to block at the landline service.

        I have a long whitelist for my cell (my address book). No one that is not in the list can call me. My default ringtone is 3 seconds of silence and everyone in my list has a custom ringtone, so undesirables don’t ring. EVER. Easy fix.

  13. Keep in mind not all robocalls are a problem. There are good services that make automated calls for positive reasons (sports schedule changes, church announcements, staffing, etc). CallMultiplier is an example of one that doesn’t seem to do negative robocalls. Weeding out good calls from bad is part of what makes this problem so difficult to solve.

  14. My approach to automated calls is to not hang up… I just put the phone down and let it talk to itself.
    This way the automated system can’t call as many people per hour – therefore it’s less efficient.

    I do a similar thing with cold calls and phishing/scam calls – I keep them on the line for as long as possible. This frustrates the caller and once again fewer people are called per hour

  15. This issue exists because of lack of personal responsibility more than anything else.

    Could technology help alleviate the problem temporarily? Yes, but it will be circumvented eventually. It won’t be because of a design flaw, but human nature.

    People eventually stop fishing when nothing bites for while. These are businesses we’re fighting against, not cartoon villains!

    In the long term people just need to stop picking up the damn phone when they don’t know who it is.

  16. Would it be as easy to just have a number to dial immediatly after such a call comes in. The previous call in goes into a national offender registry, which once a sufficient number of complaints comes in, that number never gets to go through again? How much control do phone companies have about knowing where these numbers come from? Could they block such companies at the source, and if there really is someone on the line, they get a message saying that in order to connect the call, they have to prove they are a human? If the offending callers are identified, would fines go out?

    1. Would have to be tied in some way to the account, physical location, or business name – not the specific number.

      But since the phone companies can’t even be bothered to make sure caller ID info is accurate, I’m sure they’ll get right on that…

  17. I haven’t received a single wrong number or telemarketer call in the last 3 years.
    I already have the prototype patented and working on finding a US manufacture.

    $50,000 is chump change

    Sorry it only works for land lines. and is really marketed to the people that have their phone service via a voip or cable provider.

  18. So how much to just get the Transoceanic cables ripped out again?
    when that happened a few years back, It stopped all the “nuisance calls”
    for a few days.

    you guys havent lived until some dickhead puts your phone number into a bougus credit application and the “Dot heads” get it in their data bases.
    9~12 calls a day, looking for that guy, regardles of the outgoing message on the machine.

  19. Maybe we could come up with a system where when the phone rings it shows the phone number. If I don’t recognize the # or no number shows up I could ignore it…oh wait…

  20. There’s a very simple trick that has worked for me. When your phone rings, pick it up but stay quiet. If the caller speaks first, you can answer or hang up depending on who it is.

    If the other end stays silent waiting for you to speak first, it’s a robocall. Hang up after a few moments of dead silence.

    I do this, and the amount of phone spam I get has gone way down. I’m guessing that the robo software flags your # to be avoided, since it’s just a waste of their time to try again.

    1. Actually no..

      Anyone who even remotely suggest a generic solution outside law enforced blacklisting is only showing lack of knowledge on many fronts..

      There is a 100% guarantee whatever wins this will immediately fail, probably by a system already being used..

  21. I called my state senator’s office and spoke to the person in charge. She said that that it isn’t illegal for telemarketers to call me while I’m on the “Do not call” list. The problem is jurisdiction. How can someone in one state sue someone for what happened in another state?

    The fact that you have to “opt out” and put your name on a “do not call list” beggs the question. If you have the right to not be called, why do you have to add your name to a list to get that right? You either have that right from the start or you don’t.

  22. Simple way to stop robocalls: “do da dee”
    Record the “number no longer in service ” tones on the outgoing message of your answering machine or cell phone OGM. The robo caller machine will read the tones as your number not being in service, disconnect and save your number as a disconnected number, never to call your number again. search Google for “telephone tones”. If you have no answering machine, you should get one.

  23. I don’t live in the US…. just wondering… are people who have their phones listed in the do-not-call list getting robocalls from Romney’s and Obama’s campaign? Why would they do that if it is against the law? Wouldn’t that backfire on them when it comes time for the voter to cast the ballot? Why would they vote for someone who is breaking the law?

  24. If it ONLY be done on user(client) side.
    The “box” need’s to:
    *Get a black(block ALL calls in the list) list from inet.
    *Get a gray(random list, can be soon be black) list from inet.
    *Get a hvite(can’t be black listed like 911) list from inet.

    When a “gray list” call is made, the and the user “piks up” the phone, just sende “fax macine” hello. (takses 2 sek) then the user can “talk”
    IF the line is “hang up” after 2sek (its a call senter) , then box need to sende it to a database on inet so if 10 other users have same ” problem” will flag it to “black list”

    All calls in the black list will be “auto respond” with a number(random) you need to press on phone to get the user phone to ring.

  25. Tax it. It’s simple. Ten cents per phone call. Low enough to not hurt a household’s budget, high enough to discourage robocalls.

    If you’re too reluctant because you think taxes are the work of the devil, have telecoms credit their customers ten cents for every incoming call.

  26. Telecoms providers could provide a anit-spam service. Hitting *spam# (*7726#) during a could let your telecom provider know that they may record your call. If they get a couple of recorded spam-marked calls from a number, they block it.

  27. How about polling people who have been called? Give people the option to hang up and hit *whatever code to report the last incoming call. Too high a percentage of calls get reported, all lines to company get throttled (or, better yet, all outgoing lines just get busy signal or ring signal, but aren’t actually calling anybody – so the robocaller doesn’t know it isn’t getting through).

    Require a large bond be posted for new companies that want multiple phone lines, (that will forfeit when robocallers get caught), restrict new lines to a small number of outgoing calls per hour.

    Of course, my solution to Nigerian scam emails (start cutting Nigeria’s backbone internet connections, and tell them they can have the internet back when they police themselves) didn’t get much attention, either.

  28. Solving this with technological means is silly.
    At best you get a spam filter.
    If somebody is selling siding, then they have to physically attend a property, at which point they can be thrown in jail.

    For scammers being scammers require physical attendance at a police station by a company representative every month for a high volume call permit. If your making that many calls having a minion drop round the station once a month isn’t that much of a hassle, when said minion is arrested you can be sure they will squeal with anything even remotely dodgy you and your company has done, so it pays to keep your nose clean.

    The telephone system unlike the internet has well defined choke points, use them.

  29. If your submission does not meet the criteria set forth in the guidelines it will not be allowed. That is what happened to me. Has to be a workable idea in order to be allowed. Criteria is pretty stringent for the layman.

  30. Change your voice mail or answering machine message to warn all callers:

    I pay attention to caller ID. If you have your number blocked I will not answer.

    If you do answer and it is a telemarketer just press and hold down any number button. The constant tone drives them nuts.

  31. Step 1: Record special information tones as part of your outgoing voicemail announcement, e.g.

    “Hi, this is Peter.” (SIT) “If you’re human, please ignore these tones.” (SIT) “Please leave me a message.” (SIT)

    Step 2: Let all unknown calls go to voicemail.

    I’ve done this for years and it kills 99% of auto-dialers.

  32. I’m not sure if the Robocalls will connect you to a real person or not, as I’m in the UK.
    But assuming this is a trawling technique for leads, and if you are able to be connected to a real person:
    If *everyone called* *always* connects to the real person and leads them on for five minutes, the noise to signal ratio should be increased for the business bothering you to the point its no longer profitable to run such services. Maybe.

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