Treasure Valley man tries to slay the robocall monster
Jan 16, 2013 (The Idaho Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Shawn Davis spends most of his life solving problems with technology. He works an early shift in the IT department at Supervalu, then goes home to his Meridian apartment to work on his Web-design business, Royal Blue Graphics. Lately, though, he's been dreaming up a way to stop scammers: a system that would thwart robocalls.
Davis, 27, is competing against hundreds of other inventors in a Federal Trade Commission contest aimed at blocking illegal robocalls on both cellphones and land lines.
More than 1 million Idaho phone numbers were on the national Do Not Call Registry in fiscal 2011, according to the FTC. The state ranked third in the nation for robocall complaints that year. The FTC received more than 16,000 complaints from Idahoans about unwanted or recorded phone calls -- about one complaint for every 100 residents. It's unclear whether Idahoans are targeted more than average or just more likely to report abuse.
Davis' idea is to mesh a popular Internet security feature with a variation on the longstanding phone feature that lets you know who called and who hung up by punching *69. The system would be offered through your phone-service provider.
"I showed it to people and they liked the concept," he said.
His concept, named Roboblock *12, goes like this:
-- You're at home eating dinner with the family and the phone rings. You pick it up, realize it's a robocall and hang up. You immediately dial *12, which adds the last inbound phone number to a database of blocked numbers. You could select among options such as blocking it for 120 days or blocking it permanently.
-- If a caller wants to be unblocked, the system will try to verify that he is not a robot by asking him to identify himself and press a few random numbers. This is similar to a web-based "CAPTCHA" feature that requires a person to type in jumbled letters.
-- The system would be adaptable. It could be programmed, for example, to know that a call from Idaho's area code, 208, is probably OK; if it turns out to be a robocall or just an unwelcome call, the user could block the number by pressing *12. The system also could learn to block repeat offenders -- callers who get the *12 treatment from too many subscribers in a 30-day period -- by adding their phone numbers to a universal blocked list.
Davis' idea is still just that. He hasn't built a system. He's tweaking the idea as he uncovers possible problems and finds additional ways to make life easier for the consumer and harder for the robocaller.
Idaho's anti-robocall law launched in 2001. The Idaho Attorney General's Office has enforced it since then.
"It's a challenge we've faced for a long time," said Brett DeLange, deputy attorney general for consumer protection. "People are understandably displeased. They take the time to sign up on the Do Not Call list and think that should be honored."
Getting a phone number or name of the caller can help investigators trace where the call originated, though that's often a losing game, since many illegal robocallers use aliases and "spoof" their phone numbers to show fake ones.
DeLange has one way to deal with robocalls until a better solution is developed. "When the DeLange household gets one of these, we just hang up," he said. "Unfortunately we've probably gotten enough where we know if it's a taped message."
He noted that political robocalls -- which, along with calls from charities and health care providers, are legal -- are just as annoying to Idahoans.
"They get blizzarded by calls about this issue or that candidate," DeLange said.
The FTC launched the contest in October and is taking entries until Thursday night. It had received nearly 300 in its submission gallery as of Monday. The winner, to be announced April 15, will receive $50,000 in cash, keep ownership of the idea and have the idea promoted by the FTC.
Davis hopes his idea will gain traction whether it wins the contest or not.
"Everybody is used to this system," he said. "It's been out there. It's nothing new. We're just transforming it from the computer to the phone. They should've had this a long time ago."
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448 Twitter: @IDS_Audrey
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