WASHINGTON — Those annoying prerecorded phone pitches known as robocalls aren’t just getting on the nerves of millions of consumers: The government is fed up too, and it’s turning to the public for help, offering a cash reward for the best way to stop the unwanted sales calls.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the government’s do-not-call list, announced Thursday that it will offer a $50,000 prize for the best technical solution to block illegal commercial robocalls.

The head of the commission’s consumer protection bureau, David Vladeck, predicted the winner of the challenge would become a “national hero.”

With an autodialer, millions of calls can be blasted out in a few hours, bombarding people in a struggling economy with promises of debt assistance and cheap loans. Even if a consumer does not have a phone number on the do-not-call list, robocalls are illegal. A 2009 rule banned this type of phone sales pitch without written permission.

Political robocalls and automated calls from charities, or informational robocalls, such as an airline calling about a flight delay, are exempt from the ban. But those exemptions are being abused too, with consumers complaining of calls that begin as legitimate but switch to an illegal pitch.

The “robocall challenge” opens to the public on Oct. 25 and will close Jan. 17, 2013. The winner will be announced in April. The money will be awarded to the person, team or small company (it must have fewer than 10 employees) that develops the best robocall-blocking technology. The successful entry must be easy to implement and operate.

 

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