FTC Targets Robocalls With $50,000 Bounty

Tired of having your dinner disturbed by robocolls. So is the FTC, and the agency is hoping a $50,000 reward brings these annoying calls to an end.

Making "robocalls" illegal hasn't been enough to stop them, so the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is appealing to the public to come up with a technical solution to put an end to the annoying, pre-recorded, unsolicited sales messages that are too often on the dialing end of a phone call.

If being hailed a hero for putting an end to such a nuisance isn't motivation enough, the FTC is also offering a $50,000 reward.

The first FTC-sponsored challenge ever, it's being called the FTC Robocall Challenge and will be hosted in partnership with ChallengePost at Challenge.gov, which the FTC described as bringing the "best ideas and top talent to bear on our nation's most pressing issues."

“The FTC is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts, and one of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public,” David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at the commission's Oct. 19 Robocall Summit, where he introduced the challenge.

“We think this will be an effective approach in the case of robocalls because the winner of our challenge will become a national hero.”

Judges for the contest will be Steve Bellovin, FTC chief technology officer; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission chief technology officer; and Kara Swisher of tech site All Things D.

Entries will be accepted Oct. 25 through Jan. 17 at 5 p.m. ET, and the winner or winners will be announced early in April 2013.

A Best Overall Solution—provided by an individual, team or business with fewer than 10 employees—will be judged on three criteria. Fifty percent of the judgment will be based on whether the solution works, while 25 percent will depend on whether it's easy to use and another 25 percent on whether it can be rolled out.

Organizations with more than 10 employees can compete for the FTC's Technology Achievement Award, though this doesn't carry a cash prize.

Those interested in participating in the contest—"solvers," the FTC calls them—can be supplied with data regarding robocalls, including dates calls were made, the approximate amount of time they lasted, the caller's name, the first seven digits of the reported caller's phone number and the consumer's area code.

"The FTC has also been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions," the FTC said in an Oct. 18 blog post. "However, current technology still allows shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information. Among these are the famously annoying calls from 'Rachel from Cardholder Services.'"

On Feb. 15, the FCC cracked down on robocalls, approving changes to its telemarketing rules. The new rules state that telemarketers must obtain prior express written consent before placing a call to a consumer; require telemarketers to offer an opt-out mechanism; limit the number of "dead air" calls that they can make within each campaign; and eliminate the "established business relationship" exemption in earlier legislation.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that the new rules "leave unchanged our rules for robocalls that are informational and that consumers may have come to rely on. Some of these informational robocalls include automated calls that update consumers on airline flights, provide school notifications, or even warn them about fraudulent activity in their bank accounts."