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Feds salute plucky human ROBOT-FIGHTERS

Winners of DEFCON robocall-crushing competition showered in cash, praise

Winnie-the-Pooh honey

The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced over US$12,000 in prizes in its “Zapping Rachel” robocall contest, which was held at this year's DEFCON hacking conference in Las Vegas.

The FTC has been on something of a crusade against the curse of the robocall, both because they are illegal and also because it receives around 100,000 complaints about them each month. The competition was set up to bring the best hacking brains to bear on the problem and the FTC said it was well satisfied with the results.

“Congratulations to all the winners and honorable mentions of our Zapping Rachel contest,” said Jessica Rich, director, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“We were thrilled with the level of interest and participation, particularly from DEFCON attendees. We look forward to furthering our dialogue with this community on the development of robocall honeypots, and any other tools that can help win the fight against illegal robocalls.”

The contest was split into three levels. The first level, dubbed Creator, was to build a honeypot that can tell if a caller is using a spoofed ID, a common tactic of robocallers. Jon Olawski, cofounder of Ape Security won $3,133.70 from the FTC by building a system using an audio captcha filter, call detail analysis, and recording and transcription analysis to finger robotic callers.

The second phase, which the FTC called Attacker, "called on contestants to pretend to be robocallers and work out a way to avoid honeypots built to entrap them. Jan Volzke, CEO of anti-phone spam firm NUMBERCOP took the $3,133.70 with an Android robocall-dialer named "Droid Rachel," that was able to avoid honeypots.

"The phone channel has become the weakest link in protecting individuals and businesses from scams and fraud," Volzke said. "The FTC's appearance at DEF CON was very well received and I was happy to share my insights and ideas on how to eradicate robocalls."

The final Detective phase of the contest called on entrants to analyze two sets of data from an existing honeypot and build an algorithm that can split robocalls and those from flesh and blood humans.

The $3,133.70 prize was won by Yang Yang and Jens Fischer, but the judges also awarded two honorable mention awards of $1,337 to Sean Beck and DarkTyphoon for their entries. In all 60 teams and individuals entered the competition.

The FTC isn't going to use any of the idea to build its own system to pull the plug on robocallers. Instead it hopes private companies will use the techniques the contest produced to make products that will, hopefully, make such calls much easier to jam. ®

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