The Federal Trade Commission is challenging the public to create an innovative solution that will block illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones, and is offering a $50,000 cash prize for the best technical solution.

The FTC Robocall Challenge is the agency’s first government contest hosted on Challenge.gov, an online challenge platform administered by the U.S. General Services Administration, in partnership with ChallengePost. Challenge.gov empowers the U.S. government and the public to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on the nation’s most pressing issues.

A commercial robocall is a telephone call that delivers a recorded sales message. These calls often are unwanted and frequently deceptive. Under the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, the vast majority of commercial robocalls are illegal unless the recipient has given the caller advance written permission to call them.

“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,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We think this will be an effective approach in the case of robocalls because the winner of our challenge will become a national hero.”

Challenge Details

The judges for the FTC Robocall Challenge are Steve Bellovin, FTC's chief technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission chief technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. A complete list of official rules and frequently asked questions are available immediately on Challenge.gov.

The challenge is free and open to the public. Entries will be accepted starting Oct. 25, at 5 p.m. ET, through Jan. 17, 2013, at 5 pm ET. Judges will evaluate the entries, and if a winning solution is identified, the FTC will announce the winner or winners next April.

The Best Overall Solution prize will be awarded to an individual, team or small corporation (an organization that employs fewer than 10 people) if a solution is developed based on the following criteria:

    •    Does it work? (50 percent)
    •    Is it easy to use? (25 percent)
    •    Can it be rolled out? (25 percent)

Organizations that employ more than 10 people may compete for the FTC’s Technology Achievement Award, which does not include a cash prize.

As part of the challenge, the FTC announced it will provide participants with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012. Those interested in the data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through Dec. 31. The complaint data will include: date of call; approximate time of call; reported caller name; first seven digits of reported caller phone number; and consumer area code.

The FTC also has been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still allows telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information.

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