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FTC Awards $50,000 in 'Robocall Challenge'

Don Bayley | E+ | Getty Images

They're annoying and distracting — and in most cases, prohibited by law. For years, federal prosecutors have tried to shut down the con artists and shady telemarketers who invade our privacy with illegal robocalls that almost always pitch some sort of fraudulent product or service.

And yet, we keep getting these unwanted prerecorded sales messages on both our landlines and mobile phones.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets 200,000 complaints each month about robocalls and it hopes technology can take a bite out of this crime. In October, the FTC launched The Robocall Challenge. It invited the public to suggest ways to stop this national nuisance.

The judges evaluated nearly 800 entries on three criteria: does it work, it is easy to use and can it be rolled out?

The commission announced the winners today — and there was a tie, so Serdar Danis and Aaron Foss will split the $50,000 cash prize. Both came up with ways to block the unwanted calls.

The Robocall Filtering Systemand Device with Autonomous Blacklisting, Whitelisting, Graylisting and Caller ID Spoof Detection submitted by Danis would use software to analyze and block robocalls. It could be offered as a mobile app, an electronic device for landlines or a feature provided by the phone company.

Foss's proposal, called Nomorobo (pronounced: "no more robo"), is a cloud-based solution that would involve "simultaneous ringing." Incoming calls would be routed to a second telephone line that would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user.

The judges also gave Daniel Klein and Dean Jackson, two Google employees, a separate technology achievement award (which does not have a cash prize) for their Crowd-Sourced Call Identification and Suppression solution. It would use algorithms to identify spam callers.

"We think there are some real and promising ideas," said Charles Harwood, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "They offer ideas we haven't seen before."

The FTC made it clear it cannot endorse the winning solutions, but Harwood said he believes they have the potential to turn the tide on illegal robocalls. You can read more about the winners on the FTC website.

Know the Law

The FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule, bans most commercial robocalls unless the recipient has given the caller advance written permission to call them. The rule does not prohibit non-commercial robocalls, such as surveys or messages for charities and political organizations.

The Federal Communications Commission also has robocall rules that ban most recorded calls to wireless phones and other mobile devices. They're only allowed for emergency purposes or if the person receiving the call has given prior permission.

If you've received what you believe to be an illegal robocall, file a complaint with the FTC. If the robocall came to a mobile device, you should also report it to the FCC.

—By Herb Weisbaum for NBCNews.com

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