Coming Soon: The End of Robocalls (Maybe)

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Someday, the robot revolution will create a paradise on earth.1 Before that happens, though, we need to defeat the hordes of evil robots who tirelessly call our phones trying to sell us ripoff home security systems or Medigap plans.2 Obviously the only way to stop a bad robot with a phone is with a good robot with a phone, so last year the FTC offered a $50,000 prize for the best anti-robocall invention. I missed this months ago when it was announced—shame on me!—but in April the FTC announced a pair of winners.

The “Best Solution” award went to Nomorobo, and takes advantage of a widely available (but not commonly used) feature that allows you to route phone calls to all of your phones at the same time. But instead of telling your phone company to ring your landline number and your cell number at the same time, you tell it to ring your landline number and the Nomorobo number at the same time. Inventor Aaron Ross explained it to the LA Times this morning:3

Tell us how it works.

If you have Simultaneous Ring on your phone and someone calls your number, that call is being split and goes first to a Nomorobo number. In real time, it’s analyzing the caller ID and caller frequency across multiple phone lines. It’s a red flag, for example, when the same phone number has made 5,000 calls to different numbers in the past hour. It’s also a red flag when the same phone number is sequentially calling large blocks of phone numbers. Both scenarios indicate robocalling patterns.

If it detects a robocaller, the call is automatically disconnected before the consumer’s phone even rings. Those numbers go onto a blacklist. If an incoming number doesn’t appear on the blacklist, the software asks the caller to type in a number. If it’s a human telemarketer, they’d respond. If it’s a robocaller, they can’t respond and the call is terminated.

Good idea! This will spawn an arms race between robocallers and Nomorobo, of course, just like the arms race between spammers and spam filters, but it seems like it has a lot of potential to cut down on robocalls considerably. There are problems, of course. For starters, you have to enable Simultaneous Calling with the Nomorobo number, and it’s not clear how many people will actually do that. Nor is it clear who exactly is going to run this or how well it will scale if it becomes enormously popular. Nor do we know for sure how well the blacklist/whitelist concept will work in practice. What evidence do I have to provide that I’m a legitimate robocaller to get on the whitelist? And can it be scammed?

Ross says that Nomorobo will roll out this month, so I guess we’ll find out soon. I’m eager to give it a try.

1Maybe.

2If you’re a 20-something who would rather cut off your big toe than actually answer a phone call in the first place, you don’t care about this. You may go about your business.

3No link, sorry. We’re dealing with the LA Times here, the most frustrating news website in the nation. Stories in the print edition are often almost impossible to find online, and sometimes they simply aren’t online at all. That’s what happened to this one.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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