Government's contest to thwart unwanted robocalls is excellent idea

The FTC is offering a $50,000 prize for the best technical solution to block illegal commercial robocalls.

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Combating unwanted phone calls from telemarketers has proven to be difficult for the federal government. Its do-not-call-list is being ignored and circumvented with those ultra-annoying robocalls.

Earlier this month we urged government officials to take strong action to curb the unwanted sales calls. Still, we understood the options were limited.

But government officials have gotten creative. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the government's do-not-call list, got creative. It is trying to fight fire with fire -- or, to be precise, technology with technology.

The agency announced last week it will offer a $50,000 prize for the best technical solution to block illegal commercial robocalls.

The FTC's David Vladeck said the agency 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."

Beyond that, Vladeck predicted the winner would become a "national hero."

And deservedly so.

More than 217 million phone numbers were put on the do-not-call registry since it was created in 2003. That means people made the effort to have sales calls blocked. Even if people don't have a phone number on the do-not-call list, robocalls are illegal under a 2009 rule that specifically banned automated sales pitches without written permission.

So when the sales calls persist, as they do on a daily basis, it is frustrating.

No, the calls don't hurt anybody and can be ignored, but they do waste valuable time. They force people to screen calls or simply stop answering their phones.

People are so angered by all these calls that they have actually taken the time to complain to the FTC. In the past year alone, there were more than 2 million complaints from people who didn't want to be bothered by automated calls.

Despite being annoying, these calls apparently work. With an autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a matter of hours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debt assistance and cheap loans, according to The Associated Press.

New technology won't stop these auto-dailing vermin, but it should slow them down. The FTC's build-a-better-telemarketer trap is an excellent idea.

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