Hold the phone: This app won the FTC’s $25,000 robocall challenge

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Robocalls are more than an annoyance: They result in people being defrauded out of hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The Federal Trade Commission says it handles approximately 170,000 complaints on robocalls every month.

But the winners of the FTC’s latest robocall challenge hope their app reduces both those numbers.

The agency announced Monday it awarded $25,000 to the minds behind RoboKiller, an app that separates human callers from robocalls without a person needing to connect to the call.

The app won the FTC’s Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back challenge, which called on contestants to create tools people could use to block and automatically forward robocalls to a honeypot — a data collection system that researchers and investigators use to study calls.

RoboKiller was created by Ethan Garr and Bryan Moyles, two employees of New Jersey-based TelTech, a startup that specializes in creating telecom apps.

Garr told FedScoop the idea to make the app after an uptick in TelTech’s products due to an phone scam where criminals were impersonating IRS officials, getting people to send money via pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer while threatening arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. Garr, TelTech’s vice president of product, said he and Moyles work with call forwarding in their company’s other apps, so it was a natural fit for what the FTC was looking for.

“When you build an app that only relies on the user’s ability to forward their calls, we thought ‘hey, we could be onto something,’” Garr said. “If the only thing a user needed was call forwarding, then we could solve the problem, because call forwarding is essentially universally available. If you’re going to solve the problem, you either solve it for everyone or it doesn’t work. You have to find a solution that works for everyone.”

Garr and his partner created the Robo Analysis Engine, an algorithm that serves as the app’s backbone that measures 16 different points to figure out everything from the legitimacy of a number to whether the voice on the other end is human.

After submitting source code to the FTC, Garr and Moyles participated in the challenge final at the recent DEF CON convention, where the app won on its ability to send calls to a commission-constructed honeypot.

Garr hopes to use the prize money, in combination with the $75,000 he and Moyles hope to raise through a recently launched Kickstarter campaign, to fund the upkeep needed to keep the app operational for the next year. In the meantime, Garr says the app is in beta for iOS, with an Android version coming shortly.

Garr told FedScoop he supports the FTC for continually trying to solve this problem, launching a number of challenges dedicated to ending robocalls over the past few years.

“You have to give the FTC credit, they are not sitting down and saying, ‘We can’t solve this problem,’ Garr said. “Going to DEF CON is pretty innovative on their part. They are saying, ‘Look, we’re not hackers,’ in the sense of black hat hackers where they are trying to trying to do bad things to people. They are looking for people that have creative solutions to problems based on technology.”

Find out more about RoboKiller via the app’s website.

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Agencies, Federal Trade Commission, mobile and wireless, mobility, robocalls, Tech
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