On Your Side Investigation: Robokiller app

Updated: Oct. 16, 2017 at 5:08 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - What's the best way to fight robocalling automated bots on your phone? How about with more bots designed to tie spamming callers (human or machine) up in knots for minutes, if not hours.

That's the emerging new technological approach to stopping or cutting down on the 3 million monthly robocalls or spam calls Americans are getting, and we found an app that won the Federal Trade Commission's "Humanity Strikes Back" competition.

"Not only does it block, at any given time, about 130,000 robocalls from reaching your phone, but it also answers those calls with an army of our own answer bots designed to waste spammer's time right back," explains Ethan Garr, one of Robokiller's designers.

When you download the app, it begins using its algorithm to match incoming calls with known spoofers or scammers, and blocks those calls from even getting through to you.

"If an IRS phone scammer calls one number, we audio fingerprint that call," Garr explains. "We listen to it on our servers, and turn it into data. If that same scammer uses a different phone number 10 minutes later, because we know what that audio fingerprint looks like, we'll be able to say 'hey that's the same person, they're just using a different number' and we'll be able to block that number for everybody else."

The app doesn't just hang up on those scammers or telemarketers, it uses artificial intelligence to talk to the computer or live caller on the other end, taking up their time and preventing them from reaching someone else.

"It's like an arms race that goes back and forth," explains UAB Cybersecurity researcher Dr. Ragib Hasan.

University policy prohibits Hasan from reviewing any specific product, but he says the voice fingerprinting technique used by apps like Robokiller is promising.

"These are going to be much better at detecting and preventing robocalls than the previous techniques, so I hope just like we have conquered email spam and reduced email spam, we're going to reduce the amount of robocalls as well," Hasan says.

"Last month we stole more than 10,000 hours of time from telemarketers," says Garr. "And we believe we're going to only get better at this, and continue to win the war."

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