The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced that enough is enough. The agency has had it with illegal prerecorded telemarketing calls and wants you to solve the problem. The free FTC Robocall Challenge is offering a $50,000 cash prize to whoever creates the best technical solution that blocks commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones.

For the uninitiated, a commercial robocall is a telephone call that delivers a recorded sales message that is often unwanted and frequently deceptive. So, why now? After all, robocalls have been illegal since 2009. Well, the agency today hosted a public summit to address the problem, which has resulted in a large numbers of consumer complaints over the past year. At the event, the agency revealed that more than 217 million phone numbers are now on the National Do Not Call Registry. Clearly the system isn’t working.

As such, the FTC has launched its first government contest hosted on Challenge.gov, which is administered by the US General Services Administration. If you want to participate, check out the complete list of official rules and frequently asked questions. The essential parts follow:

The judges for the FTC Robocall Challenge are Steve Bellovin, FTC Chief Technologist; Henning Schulzrinne, Federal Communications Commission Chief Technologist; and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. Entries will be accepted beginning on October 25, 2012, at 5:00pm ET, until January 17, 2013, at 5:00 pm ET. Judges will evaluate the entries, and if a winning solution is identified, the FTC will announce the winner(s) early 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).

Additionally, 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, or “solvers,” with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012. Solvers interested in this data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through December 31, 2012. 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 says it has already tried to find solutions thanks to help from industry insiders and other experts but has concluded that current technology “still allows shady telemarketers to cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information.” As such, the agency is reaching out to the public for help.

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

If you want more information, the FTC will host two 60-minute live chats (one on Twitter and one on Facebook) to answer questions about the challenge on October 25, 2012. Twitter users can follow @FTC and ask questions beginning at 1:00PM EST using the hashtag #FTCrobo. If you prefer Facebook, staff will be answering questions on the agency’s Facebook Page at 2:00PM EST.

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