SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Robocalls: They're a plague upon us.
If you've ever jumped off the couch or interrupted your dinner hour to pick up the phone, you know what we're talking about: those unwanted calls pitching a product, asking for a donation or trying to sell you something.
Some are legal and legitimate. Most are not.
Every month, the Federal Trade Commission fields about 178,500 consumer complaints about robocalls and telemarketers. The FTC has pounced on some of the worst perpetrators of illegal calls, filing more than 100 lawsuits in the last 10 years. And for a decade, consumers can register their phone numbers on the National Do Not Call registry (Donotcall.gov), which bans telemarketers from dialing your cell or landline.
The FTC is listening. In April, it announced the co-winners of a $50,000 "Robocall Challenge" contest, seeking solutions to kill off illegal robocalls. The solutions had to be inexpensive, work with existing telephone equipment and easy to implement.
One of the winners, Aaron Foss, is a Long Island, N.Y., computer programmer and entrepreneur, who calls his software solution "Nomorobo." (The other winner created similar call-filtering software.)
Last week, we talked with Foss, 35, from his home office, where he's testing his robocall-blocker, which will be offered — free — to consumers in September. Here's an excerpt:
Question: You've designed a dipping bowl for buffalo wings and a children's cancer treatment tool. Aside from the $50,000 prize, what attracted you to this competition?
Answer: I like solving interesting problems. I work with a lot of clients, but some of these projects are on my own, like the wing dipper. ... All those things come from the same line of thinking: There are problems out there that nobody has taken time to solve. The answer becomes obvious.
Q: The FTC says your product may be the first to market coming out of the Robocall Challenge. What kind of interest are you getting?
A: Since April, there have been 11,000 emails (to Nomorobo.com) that either said, "Put me on your list," or were people sending me (illegal) robocall numbers. It blew me away. I didn't realize how big a problem these robocalls were. To get 11,000 emails before a product is even launched is amazing.
Q: How does your solution work?
A: It uses a feature that's called "Simultaneous Ring," or some companies call it "Find Me" or "Follow Me." If you have a bunch of different phones, it can ring all of them at the same time so you can pick up all your calls from anywhere: your office line, your cellphone, your spouse's phone. It was built into all phone systems in the 1980s, but most people don't know about it. It's usually free. You have to call your landline or wireless company to turn it on. I'm using that technology in a unique way to block these robocalls.
Q: Tell us how it works.
A: If you have Simultaneous Ring on your phone and someone calls your number, that call is being split and goes first to a NoMoRobo number. In real time, it's analyzing the caller ID and caller frequency across multiple phone lines.
It's a red flag, for example, when the same phone number has made 5,000 calls to different numbers in the past hour. It's also a red flag when the same phone number is sequentially calling large blocks of phone numbers. Both scenarios indicate robocalling patterns.
If it detects a robocaller, the call is automatically disconnected ... before the consumer's phone even rings.
Those numbers go onto a "blacklist." If an incoming number doesn't appear on the blacklist, the software asks the caller to type in a number. If it's a human telemarketer, they'd respond. If it's a robocaller, they can't respond, and the call is terminated.
Q: What about legitimate robocalls, such as your kid's school or an emergency alert? How do those calls go through?
A: The legal robocallers want a solution just as much as the average consumer. We'll have a "white list" of legal robocall service companies. Just before their voiceblast goes out, they'd send a message to Nomorobo so the system would know: Don't block that number.
Q: If you're giving this service away free to consumers, how are you covering your costs and your investors?
A: I have some investors — a venture capital firm and angel investors — who've put up $100,000 (plus his $25,000 prize as an FTC contest co-winner.)
There's a big market on the business side in protecting businesses from these calls. For consumers, it's an annoyance. But for businesses, it's a real waste of time and resources answering robocalls. It costs them in real dollars.
My strategy is to get this basic version out free to consumers, then the (paid) pieces come on top of that.
Later, I'll make value-added services available, like blocking political calls. They're technically legal but bug the hell out of people. Or you could block a customized blacklist of people — robocallers or ex-girlfriends — that you don't want to hear from.
Q: In testimony last month before a U.S. Senate committee, you said the federal Do Not Call registry is almost completely ineffective against illegal, mass-dialed robocallers. How so?
A: The DNC is great for legal robocallers, the legitimate companies trying to call you up. They respect that list. But the technology has changed so much that the new robocallers are akin to spammers. They don't care if you're on the list.
It's so cheap ... less than a penny a call and they're calling large blocks of numbers. They're selling scams, dubious credit card offers, life-alert pendants to seniors. They're scamming people and don't care if your number is on the DNC or not. That list worked in the past. Now we need new products to push the fight forward.
Q: Your company name sounds Japanese, but it's really a play on "No More Robo." How'd you come up with it?
A: For the competition, I was writing code and got to a point one day where I said, "No more of this." And then I realized, that's it. That's the name: "No More Robo." Two or three other people entered the competition with the same name. But I grabbed the dot-com domain before I even entered. It's resonated.
Q: You plan to roll out the first service in September. How's the testing phase?
A: We have a few dozen beta-testers using Nomorobo on their phones. Just off the bat, the system is identifying and disconnecting 80 percent of illegal robocalls.
Putting a dent in these robocallers: I would love to put that business out of business. It'd be a huge win on so many levels.
For more details, go to: Nomorobo.com.
When the Federal Trade Commission announced its $50,000 "Robocall Challenge" contest to find ways to thwart illegal robocalls, it heard from dozens of everyday consumers, who shared what works for them. Here are some practical suggestions that consumers say have helped them reduce robocalls at home:
■ Ask your phone carrier about blocking services. Some landline providers let you block calls from specific phone numbers. There may be a fee.
■ Internet-based phone services — offered by major carriers like AT&T or numerous smaller companies — may have more sophisticated blocking tools. One consumer uses an Internet service that will tag unwanted incoming numbers. When a call from a tagged number comes in, the robocaller gets a "disconnected number" tone.
■ Check online for "call blocker" devices sold for landlines. Some can be pricey, so do your research. Read reviews and compare options. Same with call-blocking apps for your smartphone. Many are free but check technology sites for user reviews.
■ Try using "special information tones." They're a three-note sound that typically indicates a failed call or a disconnected number. Consumers can find free audio files online or buy a product like TeleZapper, which sells the tones. The three-note tone is added at the beginning of your voicemail or answering machine message. Some consumers say it reduces robocalls, presumably because auto-dialing software sees your number as non-working.
■ Use a virtual phone line, like GoogleVoice, which has built-in call-screening features. When asked for your phone number, even by friends, give out the virtual number. Set it up with call forwarding so that incoming calls are screened first, then sent to your mobile or landline. One Portland, Ore., user said it's a "totally free" solution to block illegal calls.