By Jim Barnett, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) — We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of cooking a great meal or just sitting down to eat at a restaurant or in the last five minutes of a favorite TV show when your phone rings. You don’t recognize the number, but you answer it anyway.
“This is Rachel from Cardholder Services.” It’s a robocall.
More than 210,000 people complain to the Federal Trade Commission monthly about robocalls, those annoying and frustrating illegal automated messages.
In the words of CNN contributor Bob Greene, they are “like cockroaches: irritating, despised, always multiplying, seemingly indestructible and undefeatable.”
That was before the FTC announced last October it was launching a nationwide contest to get the public’s help in solving a difficult problem.
Nearly 800 eligible submissions were received and two winners were announced on Tuesday.
Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will each receive $25,000 for their “real breakthrough solutions” which focus on “intercepting and filtering out illegal prerecorded calls,” according to the FTC.
The prize money will come from last year’s agency funds.
They will use technology to “blacklist” robocaller phone numbers and “whitelist” numbers associated with acceptable incoming calls.
“We’re hoping these winning proposals find their way to the marketplace soon, and will provide relief to millions of American consumers harassed by these calls,” said Charles Harwood, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The agency doesn’t endorse either winner, but encourages the private sector to reach out to Danis and Foss to develop their proposals.
Foss’s idea is called Nomorobo.
It is a “cloud-based solution that would use ‘simultaneous ringing,’ which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. This second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user,” explained Harwood.
Danis’s proposal, if nothing else, probably deserved an award for the longest name.
His winning entry was titled, “Robocall Filtering System and Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, Graylisting and Caller ID Spoof Detection.”
It would “analyze and block robocalls using software that could be implemented as a mobile app, an electronic device in a user’s home or a feature of a provider’s telephone service.”
Additionally, the FTC handed out a non-monetary prize to Google for a robo challenge achievement award.
The judges considered whether an idea would work, was easy to use and could be rolled out for production.
More than 217 million Americans have joined the National Do-Not-Call Registry since June 2003. But that hasn’t guaranteed calls will stop.
Many companies are using autodial technology that’s capable of sending out thousands of calls a minute.
“Many calls get through the system,” Harwood said. “Even if someone is not on the Do-Not-Call Registry, it’s still illegal to place calls without expressed written authorization.”