Most prerecorded sales calls known as robocalls have been illegal since 2009. But new technology that lets scofflaws mask their identity has helped make the calls a growing annoyance for consumers and left the Federal Trade Commission increasingly flummoxed about how to stop them.
Now the agency is turning to the public for help. It's offering a $50,000 cash reward for the best technical solution for blocking the calls and restoring peace to the dinner hour.
"The FTC is attacking illegal robocalls on all fronts," said David Vladeck, director of the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "One of the things that we can do as a government agency is to tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public."
Mr. Vladeck predicted that anyone with a successful idea would become "a national hero."
Robocalls are becoming harder for regulators and law enforcement to trace because of "spoofing" technology that allows the originator to transmit a fictitious caller ID.
The FTC contest is open to an individual, team or small company employing fewer than 10 people. Organizations with more than 10 people may compete for a "technology achievement award" that does not include a cash prize.
Entries are being accepted through Jan. 17. If a solution is identified, the winner will be notified in April.
The FTC said it will provide participants with data on consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012, including date and time of call, reported caller name and phone number, plus the consumer's area code.
FTC statistics show complaints about robocalls have surged from about 65,000 a month in October 2010 to an average of just over 200,000 per month this year.
Laws prohibit robocalls unless consumers give their written permission to receive them. Marketers are not allowed to trick people into signing a robocall waiver by burying it in the fine print.
The robocall ban does not cover prerecorded calls from politicians, survey takers, debt collectors and most charities, nor does it include automated informational messages such as those notifying people about flight cancellations or school delays.
Although automated sales calls are illegal, live telemarketing calls are not. People who want to block those types of calls should put their phone numbers on the federal Do Not Call registry at www.donotcall.gov or 1-888-382-1222.
For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, there were 217.6 million active phone numbers on the no-call list, up from 209.7 million at the end of the previous fiscal year.
The FTC was planning a one-hour Twitter chat at 1 p.m. today to answer questions about the robocall contest (follow the @FTC Twitter handle and ask questions using the hashtag, #FTCrobo). At 2 p.m., FTC staffers were scheduled to answer robocall questions on the agency's Facebook page.
Rules for the robocall contest are available at www.challenge.gov.
Hanging up isn't hard to do
The Federal Trade Commission says there are right ways and wrong ways of handling unwanted robocalls.
• Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator or any other number, even if you are told it will get you off the call list. Doing so likely will trigger more robocalls because it confirms the phone number is working.
• Consider contacting your phone provider and asking to have the offending phone number blocked. But keep in mind that it might not be worth paying a fee for the service because robocallers may frequently change their fake caller ID numbers.
• Report the call to the FTC. This can be done online at www.ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-382-4357. Helpful information includes the nature of the call and the caller ID, even if it is fake.
• Hang up before you're tempted to bite. It's not worth paying attention to a pitch made by an illegal robocaller since the caller already is flouting the law, the FTC says.
To learn more about robocalls visit www.ftc.gov/robocalls.businessnews - yourbiz
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.