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Feds offer new hope for avoiding pesky ‘robocalls’

WASHINGTON — There may one day soon be another way to fight those annoying prerecorded phone pitches known as robocalls.

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday announced winners for its national contest to develop a blocking technology for illegal sales calls.

The winners are Aaron Foss, a freelance software developer based in Long Island, N.Y., and Serdar Danis, a computer engineer who did not wish to disclose his hometown. Each winner will receive $25,000.

The different technologies developed by Foss and Danis involve software that could analyze and filter calls to screen out those being placed from a computer or from someone who has been identified as an unwanted caller.

The judges also selected two Google computer engineers as the winners of a separate category, which did not include a cash prize, for organizations that employ 10 or more people. Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, from the Pittsburgh office of Google, were cited for their technology which helps identify caller-ID spoofing. ID spoofing masks the original number of the call so that when a person tries to call back the robocaller, they get a disconnected number or something other than the source of the original call.

Charles Harwood, the acting director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, says all three of the technologies highlighted in the contest could work with any phone and offer ideas that have not been seen before. The commission received nearly 800 submissions in the contest.

The FTC logs about 200,000 complaints each month from consumers who are fed up with robocalls. The agency’s do-not-call list has decreased the number of unwanted calls for many consumers, but commission officials acknowledge that new technology has allowed plenty of unwanted calls to slip through to consumers who don’t want to receive them. Pre-recorded commercial robocalls are illegal even if a consumer is not on the do-not-call list. Those calls may only be placed if someone has given their consent.

The FTC is not endorsing any of the winning technologies, but hopes the contest will lead to private industry embracing these new ideas and eventually offering consumers another way to combat robocalls and other unwanted phone solicitations.