Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Where Is The Spam Filter For Phones?

For the longest time, I thought the National Do Not Call Registry actually did something.  Calls I received were few and far between, and those that came through fell into the loopholes.  Prior business relationship, charities, etc.

Then I moved, and got a new phone number.

Despite this new number also being on the Do Not Call list, the amount of calls I received increased tremendously, and it is only getting worse.  At first, the calls were largely for the previous owner of the number.  Fine, there will be some of that.  That has mostly trailed off by now.  So these days it is calls about mortgages, housecleaning, and any number of other "services" that have no business calling a Do Not Call number.  I reported a few violators to the registry, but then I read the fine print and found out that they can't really enforce any penalties.  Now I don't even bother.

The Model Already Exists

Pesky, unwanted communications has largely been addressed in the world of email.  Though it isn't perfect, spam email is largely understood to be a problem, and there are many solutions.  I don't use Gmail that much, but my understanding is that it filters spam quite well.  Apple has offered server-side filtering for a while, though it is not really effective and they offer no control over it.  On the client side, I've only used Mail.app for a long time, and it has decent filtering capabilities that are trainable.  I'd assume that most email clients offer something, even if it is just in the form of rule-based actions.  Even if the client doesn't offer much, there are 3rd-party add-ons that do.  I personally have been experimenting with SpamSieve recently, after finding that Mail's spam filter wasn't catching as much as it used to.

But the bottom line is this: spam catching amounts to rules and lists.  There is a white list of allowed addresses, a black list of disallowed addresses, and then rules for handling anything that falls in between.  The rules can be trainable, so that the filter learns over time.  Even if it isn't a 100% solution, it is still an 80-90% solution, which is far better than 0%.  I get dozens of spam emails a day, and with these solutions in place, not more than a couple slip through.

Half-Assed Solutions

My previous phone provider did offer an option for blocking numbers.  But there was a key problem with it: it could only block local calls.  While I suppose that could be useful in the event of harassment, it sure isn't useful in warding off telemarketers.

My current phone provider offers a better solution.  In addition to blocking anonymous caller IDs, I can specify any 10 numbers that I want, and it will block the call from proceeding.  I believe it will even offer some kind of disconnected message to discourage the callers from calling back.  So this is better than nothing, but is still severely limited.  Only 10 numbers?  Really?  This same company provides a web interface that shows me a record of incoming and outgoing calls, numbering easily in the dozens.  Yet they can't keep track of more than 10 numbers to block?

I also purchased a phone system that offers its own call blocking, sort of.  It also rejects anonymous caller IDs, and can handle up to 30 manual numbers.  So this is even better, but it still has a weakness: for whatever reason, the phone still rings 1 time while it waits on the caller ID, then if it finds a match it silences the remaining rings.  There is no option to delay the ring until the filter has worked.

So between these two systems, I have up to 40 blockable numbers, plus theoretically any anonymous caller IDs.  Yet I still get up to several calls a day, and that's not counting the single-ring blocks.  I'd hate to think how bad it would be without these blocks.

The continued calls reveal (at least) 2 key flaws with the current system:

  1. I have to know the number in advance.  Somewhere there is a telemarketer that's going to call me this afternoon. I already know that I don't want that call.  There is nothing I can do about it until they actually call.
  2. I don't know which of my 40 numbers are used.  Maybe I blocked a number three months ago, and that person has never called back.  That's not a useful filter.  It would be a better use of my 40 slots to put in the people that call several times a week (or even day).  And since the phone company's filter stops the rings, I'd probably want the 10 worst offenders there.  Then I have to keep track of which numbers are in which filter service, etc.

And although I don't have much of this problem on my cell phone, it should be noted that I don't even have these options available.  The service provider doesn't offer blocking.  My cell phone is significantly more powerful than my home phone, but it doesn't offer any blocking either.

I'd be ok with this current system in general if my phone provider allowed for a realistic number of blocked IDs.  If I need to block 1000 phone numbers, so be it.  If that means that phone calls are delayed by 5 seconds while the filter works, that's just fine.  I can easily envision better scenarios, but this would actually be ok.

How About A Real Solution?

The core problem with these options is that they aren't smart enough, and aren't mean enough.

  • How about offering a white-list-only option?  You only want to store 10 of my numbers?  Fine, here are the only 10 numbers that are allowed to get through.  I'd like it to be a longer list, but I don't really receive that many calls.  Or, just like my email client, provide some integration with my address book, so that any numbers there are on the white list.
  • How about rules?  If the caller ID contains "Marketing" or "Research" or "Mortgage" or any number of other words, I don't want the call getting through.  So instead of storing 10 numbers, give me 10 rules.  And make sure that I can put "Unavailable" or "Out of Area" on the list.
  • How about some kind of stealth mode?  For certain numbers, you get the universal "that number has been disconnected" message.  For others, you go straight to voicemail without ringing the phone.  If I have doubt, fine, leave the voicemail and I might get back to you.  If I have no doubt, I want you to believe that the phone number is no longer valid.

The goal here is to make sure my phone doesn't ring unless someone that I actually want to talk to is making the call.  This hardly seems like an impossible task.  If I can weed through hundreds of spam emails to get the few that matter, seems like I should be able to weed through a few dozen phone calls, too.

Charge me money for it.  I bought the phone system specifically to get the additional call blocking, I'm willing to pay money for this.

The telemarketers have computers on their side.  I almost never pick up the phone and find an actual human waiting to sell me something.  Most of the time it is simply a recorded message with instructions to call back.  Yeah, that's going to happen.  And as a side note, these things used to know when they were talking to voice mail, and didn't bother proceeding.  Now they either don't know or don't care so I get 3 minute voicemail messages.  Nothing irritates quite like answering the phone to hear "please hold for this important message" while they try to find a human somewhere.  No, thanks, click.

Why can't we, the call receivers, have computers on our side?  Why isn't more advanced call blocking a sales feature anywhere?  Between cable providers offering phone services, and VOIP companies, I have more choice in home phone service today than probably ever in the history of phone service.  Ma Bell didn't offer it.  Verizon has the 10 numbers, sounds like Comcast might be 12.  One would assume that Vonage in particular is going after a more tech-savvy crowd, but they don't even offer it.  I'm savvy enough to access a web site for my voice mail, but not savvy enough to configure some rules for incoming calls?

The laws aren't working, so when laws fail, seems like technology should be able to provide a solution.  I really don't understand why good solutions don't seem to be out there.  If you know of something, please post in the comments.

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