Old St. Trick: Naughty Nomorobo traps telemarketers

Naughty, naughty: A "RoboSanta" is among the AI red herrings slipping telemarketers a lump of coal this season, thanks to call-blocker Nomorobo and the Jolly Roger Telephone Co.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

’Twas the month before Christmas, and all through the land, robocalls haunted every woman and man – until Santa stepped in, and exacted a little robo-revenge.

Welcome to A Very Nomorobo Christmas, a slightly offbeat holiday tale that spritzes pine-needle scent all over a somewhat brilliant marketing scheme that gives customers (and potential customers) an entertaining reason to come back and visit, while adding whole new dimensions to “jolly” St. Nick.

That’s thanks to a clever alliance between Port Jefferson-based parent company Telephone Science Corp. – owner of hugely successful robocall blocker Nomorobo – and the Jolly Roger Telephone Co., a California-based enterprise that’s also in the robocall-circumvention business, albeit from a slightly different angle.

Nomorobo, developer Aaron Foss’ crowning achievement (so far), has steadily climbed past 1 million users. As of Dec. 11, the autodialer-arresting, telemarketer-tackling tech was call-blocking for 1.4 million landlines and more than 80,000 mobile users – a decent split between iOS and Android, Foss noted, though the iOS version was out sooner and boasts a moderate lead (and an Apple “App of the Day” nod in November didn’t hurt, either).

The Jolly Roger folks, meanwhile, take a slightly different tact from Foss’ blacklist-based digital protector. Whereas Nomorobo is built to be an impenetrable – and, by design, emotionless – wall, its Left Coast counterparts lean more toward the retribution side of the call-blocking business.

“We just end the problem for you,” Foss told Innovate LI. “But some people want revenge.”

To that end, the Jolly Roger Telephone Co. fields an army of robot responders – artificially intelligent surrogate “bots” that accept rerouted robodials and lead telemarketers on preprogrammed goose chases.

Together with Nomorobo, the tele-tricksters have cooked up Do Not Call Christmas, featuring holiday-themed spins for the Jolly Roger robosquad – including “Sally,” a harried mom trying to care for a noisy family while interacting with the caller.

Aaron Foss: Ho-ho-ha-ha-haaa.

In Do Not Call Christmas’ case, the decepticons are lurking in Nomorobo’s “honeypot” – a sequestered collection of private phone numbers Nomorobo owns, and tracks, to sniff out new robodialers and other telemarketing numbers to add to its growing blacklist database.

The 250,000-number honeypot is his company’s No. 1 tool for detecting new robocalls, Foss noted, but for this holiday episode has become a regular source for hilarity (his personal favorite bot is a RoboSanta that “slowly escalates the insanity”).

The very best of the recorded interactions between the honeypot bots and the flummoxed telemarketers are being posted daily on the Do Not Call Christmas landing page – a see-you-again-tomorrow attraction that promotes the Jolly Roger Telephone Co.’s holiday-themed bots and, Foss hopes, also gets the straight man in this holiday production some play.

“But the whole idea is to do it in a lighthearted way,” he added. “We felt it was good-natured and everybody could get a kick out of it.”

The entrepreneur marveled about the bots, which have AI enough to follow the cadence of a conversation, interject an “mmm-hmm” or “tell me more” during an appropriate pause and even answer “yes” or “sure” when a telemarketer asks a question.

In Holiday Sally’s case, the frequently frazzled mom – Sally is a regular in the Jolly Roger ranks – is trying to trim her tree, but the kids are acting up and the dog has taken off with a Christmas stocking. Throw in some convincing background noises and a few “can you repeat that” frustrations, and telemarketers can be locked up for minutes or longer.

But they usually take it in stride, Foss noted, and “if you listen to most of them, the robocallers are laughing.”

“They laugh, or they realize it’s a robot and they have fun with it,” he said. “It’s a good way to get a little revenge without making life horrible for these people.”

Much more serious – and more likely to bring significant attention Nomorobo’s way – is the call blocker’s imminent debut across the entire Spectrum service, the cable-television brand of Connecticut-based Charter Communications.

Nomorobo was already available (via “one-click activation”) to all Tim Warner Cable Home Phone customers when Time Warner and cable provider Bright House Networks were acquired by Charter Communications in 2016 for $65 billion. As of Thursday, the call blocker will be available to millions of fresh Spectrum customers – a “great opportunity” for the Long Island-born tech, according to Foss.

“It’s great for Spectrum, to be able to give their customers one-click access,” he said. “And for us, it will be a lot easier to offer robocall protection to many more customers.”