New Services Take Aim at Illegal Robocalls

(The Sacramento Bee/MCT) —

Memo to robocallers: They’re out to stop you.

Whether pitching a product or trying to foist a scam, illegal telemarketing and robocalls are a persistent problem. But efforts to cut off the irritating calls are on the rise, from lawsuits to landline tools to cellphone applications.

Last week, one of the newest entrants in the battle launched nationwide. Called, it’s the brainchild of a Long Island software developer who shared a $50,000 prize from the Federal Trade Commission for the best tech solution to thwart telephone spam.

The FTC, which has been deluged by a growing mountain of complaints from U.S. consumers, is only too happy to welcome the new weapons in the war on robocalls.

“We’re aware of, and extremely pleased, that potential technological solutions to help consumers block unwanted, illegal robocalls are making their way to the marketplace,” said FTC spokeswoman Kati Daffan. “This is exactly why we launched our Robocall Challenge last year.”

Other tech tools are focused on smartphones with applications – many of which are free – that let you block known spam callers and do reverse lookups of suspect numbers. Among the free versions are Mr. Number, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, for Android phones; and CallControl in Bellevue, Wash., for Android and Blackberry phones. Like other smartphone apps, they rely on “crowd-sourced” lists of spam phone numbers, which are reported and shared by fellow users.

And for the first time, Apple’s recently issued operating system, iOS 7, lets iPhone users block unwanted calls.

Clearly, there’s a demand for solutions. Every month, the FTC fields about 178,500 consumer complaints about telemarketing and automated robocalls.

The National Do Not Call Registry, which lets consumers sign up their home phones and cellphones, helps block most – but not all – telemarketing calls. As of June 2013, the DNC’s 10th anniversary, there were more than 221 million numbers registered.

“DNC has been extremely successful when it comes to legitimate telemarketers,” said FTC’s Daffan, whose agency oversees the registry. “Legitimate companies scrub their lists against the DNC registry and do refrain from calling.”

It’s the bad guys who are the real problem. The Do Not Call Registry has been swamped by growing complaints about calls that still sneak through.

In the past decade, the FTC has filed more than 100 lawsuits, and slapped millions in fines, against companies accused of targeting consumers with billions of illegal robocalls. Last year, in one of its biggest cases, it slapped a $3 million fine against a global robocalling operation that bombarded consumer landlines and cellphones with 2.6 billion “urgent” messages that were nothing more than pitches for worthless extended auto warranties and bogus reductions on credit card rates.

On a single day in April 2009, according to the FTC’s case, one of the defendants, Los Angeles-based SBN Peripherals Inc., allegedly sent 2.4 million calls to consumers – more than 27 calls per second. SBN’s parent company, Asia Pacific Telecom Inc., operated overseas with addresses in the Netherlands, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Deluged by millions of consumer complaints, the FTC last year turned to the private sector, announcing its Robocall Challenge contest, seeking entrepreneurs such as Foss to come up with solutions. More than 800 entrants sent in submissions.

Since Nomorobo was announced in April as a co-winner of the FTC’s contest, nearly 23,500 consumers signed up to be included in its launch, Foss said. (The FTC’s other co-winner, Serdar Danis, who offered a similar solution, was unable to be reached for comment.)

Foss’s technology relies on consumers enabling a specialty feature in their phone system that’s called “Simultaneous Ring,” “Locate Me” or other names. Basically, it allows customers to have incoming calls ring on all their phones at the same time, allowing them to pick up wherever it’s convenient. Foss piggybacks on that phone feature, using Nomorobo to screen incoming calls.

Nomorobo can work with phone customers of AT&T U-Verse, SureWest, Vonage, Verizon FiOS and East Coast carrier Optimum.

According to Foss, not all phone carriers offer a “simultaneous ring” type of tool to consumers. Unlike voicemail, call waiting or other features, it’s apparently not a well-known or much-used consumer option.

“Carriers haven’t wanted to invest in a feature that too few people use,” Foss said. But, he said, “I would hope that (phone) carriers see this as a solution to the robocall problem. They don’t have to do anything but make something they already have in their hardware available to the consumer.”

When linked to the user’s phone, Nomorobo “answers” the call first, screening it instantly against databases of numbers known to make illegal robocalls, as well as using algorithms that detect whether it’s a number dialing at an unusually high volume. For instance, when the same number has made 5,000 calls to different numbers in the past hour, it’s a red flag. If a robocall is detected, the call is automatically disconnected, before the consumer’s phone even rings. Those numbers go onto a “black list.”

Foss said his technology does not detect the content of incoming calls, only patterns of excessive dialing. Nor does it block legitimate automated calls, such as from your kid’s school, an airline with flight schedule changes or an emergency services call. Nomorobo maintains a “white list” of legitimate robocall service companies.

Certainly, none of the available tools will completely stop all the robocallers who disrupt dinner hours and clog voicemail machines with annoying messages or fraudulent pitches.

Ultimately, consumers have to be their own watchdogs. No matter how urgent the message or caller sounds, the FTC advises never responding to a robocall, not even to press a number the caller claims will remove you from future calls. Doing so simply brands you a “live” prospect.

Perhaps the No. 1 best response: Simply ignore calls and let them go to voicemail, or just hang up.

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