Calling all techies: Thwart robocalls, win $50,000 from the FTC

<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below.</i>

The government’s latest line of defense against robocalls? You.

The Federal Trade Commission is offering what’s essentially a $50,000 bounty to slay telephonic spam once and for all.

The contest is the FTC’s latest attempt to stem a skyrocketing number of robocalls, which too often ring through when dinner’s on the table. In July, the agency announced that complaints about automated calls had soared to 212,000 last April, compared with 65,000 in October 2010.

[For the record, 5:23 p.m. Oct. 19: An earlier version of this post said the FTC announced that complaints about automated calls more than tripled from 65,000 in 2010 to 212,000 in 2012. In fact, the tallies were for single months: October 2010 and April 2012.]


The FTC has shut down companies responsible for 2.6 billion telemarketing calls since such calls were outlawed in 2009, but that’s a drop in the bucket. The agency says it can’t trace or block about 59% of phone spam because the calls route through a tangle of automatic dialers, caller ID spoofing and voice-over-Internet protocols.

Some automated calls are still legal, including those from charities, polling organizations, political groups, debt collectors and businesses seeking customer service feedback.

The FTC Robocall Challenge asks for a way to block the calls on land lines and cellphones. Groups of up to 10 people can enter to win the $50,000 prize and a free trip to Washington, D.C. Groups of more than 10 can win an award but no prize money or trip.

Each entry will be judged on three criteria: Whether it works, whether it can be rolled out, and whether it’s easy to use.

The winner will keep intellectual property rights to the idea, the FTC said. But the agency will have the right to promote the solution and feature it on the website for up to three years after the contest ends.

Submissions should include a name, a description, an image and a short video uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo that demonstrates how the solution would work.

The contest is open to all adult U.S. citizens, and there is no limit to the number of entries per person. The FTC is accepting applications Oct. 25 to Jan. 17. Winners will be announced in April.

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

Hear that? A national hero. This is your chance.


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