If you think you get a lot of unwelcome phone calls, try being Aaron Foss.
This year, Foss’ company, Nomorobo, passed a milestone and blocked its one-billionth robocall.
Dreamed up as a solution to a problem that Foss didn’t even know existed at the time, Nomorobo is now one of the top apps that helps to fight against criminals using computers to dial out millions of calls every year with the intent to scam people out of their money.
Back in 2013, the FCC was working on this problem. Highly organized spammers were making thousands of calls a day to unsuspecting victims.
And it was getting worse.
Chances are you’ve unwittingly answered one of these calls. A voice on the other end tells you that your computer has a virus and you need to fork over money so they can fix it.
Or, they say the police are on the way to arrest you for unpaid tax bills unless you can come up with the money and pay them over the phone.
These are not the legitimate companies and nonprofits who have to adhere to the do-not call lists. They are thieves who do not abide by the law.
The FCC sought to resolve the problem, but in the past they had limited tools at their disposal.
So they tapped into American ingenuity by putting forward a contest, with a $50,000 prize for anyone who could dream up a solution.
At the time, Foss, who lives in Port Jefferson, had just sold off a company he created to Groupon and was ready to kick up his heels. But when he heard about the contest he just couldn’t resist, even though he knew next to nothing about the problem.
“I didn’t know anything about robocalls before the competition,” he told GreaterPortJeff.
He couldn’t even recall if he’d ever received one before.
But the challenge intrigued him.
“I love trying to solve these big problems,” he said. “And if the government is putting up a $50,000 prize, I thought, it must be a big problem.”
He got to work, and his creation shared the winning prize with one other entrant.
“Sometimes you find the idea and other times the idea finds you,” he said of his solution. “It wouldn’t let me go.”
The idea he dreamed up is actually very simple.
Nomorobo monitors millions of calls and rates the incoming phone numbers based on a variety of factors, including the biggie: how many outgoing calls is that number making in a short amount of time.
Users of his app are providing him with data on incoming calls as well as about a quarter of a million defunct phone numbers his company owns that he uses as a honeypot to track the robocalls that go to them.
Then, his system uses that data to make an assessment to decide if the caller is a robocall or not. If the number meets their criteria, Nomorobo blocks the call.
His company stands out because of the way it collects and analyzes a massive amount of call data.
“The difference between Nomorobo and others, is we were the first company to look at this and say we can see that pattern.”
Nomorobo was also the first app listed in any app store to block calls without your phone company’s cooperation.
“We were the first one that consumers can go through a quick setup process and directly stop calls without needing carriers’ help,” he said.
In the old days, before Nomorobo, carriers were manually trying to track and block calls using human workers who would record spam callers’ numbers, an impossible task considering the rate at which criminals can burn through phone numbers using computer automation.
Foss has a background in both telecom and technology. He is also a serial entrepreneur and an overall problem solver.
Solving this problem really hit his sweet spot.
“It’s the perfect manifestation of my personality,” he said.
Even in high school, Foss was at the cutting edge of technology. A 1995 Sachem graduate, he was part of a group of techie students who called themselves “The Webslingers.” In the early days of the internet, they secured Sachem school district their .edu domain.
Despite his telecom and mobile application-building background, Foss insists his company is really neither of those things.
“I don’t even look at this company as a telecom company or an app company,” he said. “It’s a data company. We are building a database of telephone calls.”
That data is going to be a huge part of the next phase of Nomorobo’s future: building a reputation-scoring system for callers. He likens it to a credit score for your phone number.
Right now, Nomorobo is simply blocking phone numbers that it deems unsafe. It’s a switch that is either on or off. You are either a robocaller or you are not. There’s no system in place to grade the quality of the caller.
His data is eventually going to offer a service to rate your incoming caller’s trustworthiness.
“Anybody can call anyone else,” Foss said.
But, he proposed, what if there was a reputation score attached to your phone number that told the person on the other line how trustworthy you are based on a scale.
You could chose to block people below of a certain level of trust or distrust.
“That is where we are going,” he said.
Although officially based in Mount Sinai, Nomorobo employs eight people who are distributed around the country. Foss calls them his “band of merry men.”
The company essentially exists in the cloud, using Amazon Web Services to run his data from servers located on both coasts.
Despite having created an industry-disrupting app, the 40-year-old Foss considers himself “the most boring guy in the world.” During the interview, he spoke excitedly about a patio he had just put on his house that he’d been planning to do for years.
He also loves to give back and get involved in his communities.
Foss is on the board of the Port Jefferson Explorium museum located on East Broadway. And he mentors other entrepreneurs, giving back to the Long Island startup community that supported him when he was launching his own businesses.
He’s also an entrepreneur-in-residence at Hofstra University.
Recently, Foss was selected as one of the 2019 Innovators of the Year by Innovate Long Island, a website that covers the region’s research labs, universities, startups, incubators, accelerators and other businesses.
Ha has also been written about in major business and technology journals, including Wired Magazine.
According to Nomorobo’s data, 43 percent of all calls in the U.S. are illegal or unwanted.
That’s out of billions of calls each day.
The company has over 2.5 million subscribers and growing. In 2018 alone, Nomorobo reported that it blocked over 430,000,000 robocalls for its customers with 97 percent accuracy. That’s almost double the number of calls it blocked the year before.
Unfortunately, the company can’t rest on its laurels. Robocallers constantly change tactics and the phone numbers they use, by the minute.
Foss says that his company is constantly putting out fires.
“You can’t just sit back, create software, burn it on a CD ROM and send it out,” he said. “Our blacklist from yesterday is virtually worthless today. Last week’s is worth nothing.”
Only the data his company has right this minute is valuable, and it gets pushed out automatically to the app users on a regular basis so they always have the best defense in play.
“I think it’s the worst it has even been right now,” Foss said on the state of affairs of robocalling. “The spammers are getting better. They know fear drives people.”
He said that millions of dollars are lost every day to these spammers, especially the most vulnerable among us: the elderly. But even savvy people sometimes get caught in the spammer’s traps.
“There is some shame people feel in that,” Foss said. He has heard stories of people who lost thousands of dollars to these criminals, even their life’s savings.
“They ask if there’s anyway I can get that money back,” he said. Unfortunately, he has to tell them no. That money is gone.
Then there’s the time wasted from business owners and employees who field incessant robocalls each day, which can also distract them from a task for work.
It made Foss thoughtful about what his company does.
“It’s our job as technologists, lawmakers, and phone companies to protect people,” he said. And for people to be more vigilant.
But, he is hopeful too. As rampant as the problem seems, when asked if it’s going to get better his answer is an unequivocal yes.
Right now, Foss considers his service as a blunt instrument to use against a bad guys.
“People are just like ‘stop the phone from ringing,’” he said.
It’s hard to believe but at first, phone carriers did not see the vision of Foss’ plan.
“Six years ago, when I went to the carriers they were completely against this,” he said. “They said it would stop all the good calls.”
That has changed. Nearly every single major Voice Over IP (VOIP) carrier in the U.S. is using his system. And it’s being offered by mobile phone companies as an option to customers as added protection within their plans.
Now, they come to him to harness his technology in their fight against robocalls.
“Last year, five years after the robocall blocking world changed, they’re asking ‘what are we doing next? Do we need more laws?’”
heading to Washington
Foss is scheduled to speak before Congress for the third time about robocalling.
He is planning to report not only about the current state of affairs in the industry he helped to create but the future of robocall blocking, something he hopes his company will continue to be at the forefront of.
According to Foss, this is probably the only thing in the country right now that has true bipartisan support.
Believe it or not, Foss is actually not a big fan of more laws to fight the problem.
“These are not telemarketers,” he said. “These are criminals. Do email spammers care about the laws?”
He said that he hears all kinds of legal solutions to stopping callers some of them in the extreme.
“People have suggested the death penalty for robocallers,” he said, only half-jokingly. “Even if that was case, it will not stop the problem.”
When asked if this something that can be eliminated completely, Foss is very certain.
“It’s never going to go away,” he said. “Too many criminals out there are making too much money. Our job is to make it more difficult and stop the bleeding.
But, Foss is very sure about what will help.
“We can stand in front and shield it,” he said. “Our best defense is technology.”